Wide Angle

In Defense of the New Moralizers

Wesley Morris’ broadside against representation-first criticism misses how vibrant that critical discourse is.

Awkwafina, Nico Santos, and Constance Wu wander the yard of a party in this still from Crazy Rich Asians
Photo © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Sanja Bucko - © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and RatPac-Dune Entertainment LLC

“We’re talking less about whether a work is good art but simply whether it’s good,” Wesley Morris writes in the New York Times Magazine this week—“good for us, good for the culture, good for the world.” In this broadside, “The Morality Wars,” critic-at-large Morris decries the “blindingly monolithic … thinking around representation and diversity” in pop culture, a familiar argument from Gamergaters and Russian-troll-allied Star Wars fans but perhaps a surprising one from a Pulitzer Prize–winning critic of color.

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But who is the “we” Morris is speaking of? It’s not quite clear. He begins the essay with a friend at a dinner party, a fellow black man who evidently didn’t appreciate a criticism that Morris had of the HBO series Insecure. Most of the piece lays the blame on a vague “we,” a nebulous “they,” “some readers,” and “certain corners of Twitter.” But the main perpetrators that Morris is made uneasy by are “young people,” whom he calls the new moralizers, as opposed to the “white people from politics and the church” who objected to boundary-pushing work in the 1980s and 1990s. Whoever they are—lefty tweeters, emerging critics, the thinkpiece industry, or millennials and Gen Z at large—I’m probably a member. But I don’t recognize the collapse of nuanced debate that Morris presents.

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In part that’s because the generational shift Morris posits feels simplistic, given its lack of generosity toward these rabble-rousers. Morris seems to feel that unlike critics of his generation, younger consumers of art involved in the cultural conversation can’t thoughtfully weigh their moral decisions against their entertainment choices—despite the inclusion of the “problematic fave” category in his piece. If Morris can enjoy and admire the FX series Pose, for example, while still wrestling with its occasional “clunkiness,” why can’t he give us credit for the same critical acumen?

But the heart of Morris’ argument is about the stature of criticism, and whether the work of the critic is being devalued by the current dominance of discourse about representation. There’s no doubt that the internet has in many respects coarsened conversations about movies and TV shows—but there’s also no doubt that it has enriched them immeasurably by allowing populations that previously had little access to those conversations to take part. As the line between criticism and conversation grows finer—I’d argue that it barely exists anymore—it’s imperative to acknowledge how discussions about representation have deepened criticism, not replaced it, as Morris alleges.

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Of course the conversation now includes the kind of census-like surveys of representation that Morris cites: “Are the casts diverse enough? Is this museum show inclusive of enough different kinds of artists? Does the race of the curators correspond with the subject of the show or collection?” But there are also myriad ways of making greater sense of an artwork through culturally based criticism that takes a representation-first approach. One of the most exhilarating experiences I had in a theater last year was during the early battle scenes in Wonder Woman, when the female warriors of Themyscira defended their homeland against the god Ares. I wasn’t sure why I cried through those combat scenes until an essay by Meredith Woerner explained my own reactions to me, which had a lot to do with the limited visions of female strength that studio filmmaking had offered until now. That’s a piece of (Twitter-originated) criticism that took a defiantly representation-forward angle, and it struck a chord for me and other readers—not only women—as one of the most resonant responses to the film.

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Similarly, the discourse around Crazy Rich Asians, one of this year’s biggest diversity-in-pop-culture events, quickly widened beyond its ready-made message about representational triumph. Indeed, the crazy rich conversation included precisely the kinds of nuanced, thoughtful, and complex critical responses that Morris worries are disappearing under a wave of “moral correctness” evaluation. Crazy Rich Asians’ box-office success and array of Asian faces are important, but so is the post-screening discussion I had with a pair of acquaintances about whether the film’s passing colorism was not only bad (yes) but marred a broadly comic scene (probably). Online, the debates expanded to encompass everything from the film’s wealth worship to co-star Awkwafina’s “blaccent.” For some people, these discussions had to do with whether the first Asian-American studio film in Hollywood passed a wokeness litmus test, sure. But they also had to do with the film’s pleasures: whether, say, the montages of material excess were too much or just right, and whether Awkwafina’s Peik Lin was meant to embody a type of Asian nouveau riche many Americans hadn’t seen before—or wasn’t actually that fresh at all.

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Good criticism is often based on a multitude of factors, with each set of criteria usually shifting from person to person and movie to movie (or show to show, or whatever medium). But criticism, I’d contend, is largely about a critic parsing their own responses to artwork, and the interplay between who and what the critic is, and why and how the artwork depicts a subject (including, sometimes, based on creator’s background and experiences), is inevitably going to color those responses. It goes without saying that Morris is one of the greatest and most respected practitioners of this type of culturally based criticism, from his influential takes on Quentin Tarantino’s use of blackness to his recent masterpiece on America’s “fear of the black penis.”

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Morris is correct that the current hierarchies of celebrity depend somewhat on moral valuations, elevating certain figures, such as Beyoncé, beyond criticism—at least among the professional chatterati. But his biggest fear—that the prevailing focus on representation will lead to “safer art and discourse”—seems bizarre. There’s little evidence of the latter in his essay, and the two shows he champions in his piece—FX’s Pose and Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up special Nanette—are precisely the kinds of work that benefit most from culturally specific criticism. Pose’s unabashed sugariness led to fascinating discussions among critics, fans, creator Ryan Murphy and writer Janet Mock about the ethics and delights of eschewing the kind of stylized grimness we tend to associate with “prestige” TV. Nanette, too, seemed to revitalize criticism, especially among female and queer critics, by interrogating the ideal of “good” comedy and the role of catharsis in stand-up.

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The countercultural art that emerged in the ’80s and ’90s might well have struck a more startling blow, as Morris implies. That was also a time when elite and mainstream gatekeepers had a far firmer grip on the culture and the discourse. But the network of niches that make up the silo-fied media landscape today are probably just as likely, if not more so, to make space for and support the kind of “daring” art and conversations that Morris wants. Joining Pose and Nanette in the cohort of shows that are hard to imagine existing 10 years earlier—let alone two or three decades ago—are Broad City, Atlanta, Big Mouth, I Love Dick, The Handmaid’s Tale, Transparent, and RuPaul’s Drag Race. And that’s just on TV. In just the past several years, films as disparate as Get Out, Moonlight, Mad Max: Fury Road, BPM, and The Handmaiden have not only sparked conversations about the urgency of greater representation, but also the roles that genre or costume or spectacle, in connection with diversity, can play in telling a better, more effective story. The clamor for representation comes out of the lived experience that life isn’t a monolith. The conversations about representation aren’t, either.

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