Today in Journalism: The Film Critic Who Wouldn’t

Pity Jeannette Catsoulis. This poor New York Times film critic recently faced quite a conundrum when she was sent out to review Me, Too, written and directed by Álvaro Pastor and Antonio Naharro. I’ll let her tell you about it:

Fiction films with disability as a central theme (especially those that feature disabled actors) are not only tricky to assemble but also minefields to critique. Praise can sound patronizing and criticism cruel, the disability casting a bulletproof cloak of political correctness around the entire project.

I always love it when people make sure to bring up ‘political correctness’ in this context, because it’s such a nice little codephrase. The art is suffering! It’s because of them! Those politically correct people over there. A poor critic can’t even talk honestly about something without fear of being harried by a horde of angry crips. I know, I’m sniffling too.

Now, criticism in the sense of art criticism is a bit different than the type of critique we tend to focus on here, which is specifically analysing the depiction of disability in art. My discussions about, for example, Covert Affairs focus not on the quality of the show (terrible) or whether I think it’s a successful piece of art (no), or even its place within a larger artistic context, but specifically on how disability is handled. And obviously, what we do  here is also aimed at a specific audience, people interested in talking about disability in art and pop culture, rather than the general community.

I say this because I don’t want to conflate what I do with what Catsoulis does; her job is to look at works of art and criticise them as creative wholes, considering their influences, the genre, similar works, the history, and a myriad of other topics. This is not a sour grapes ‘I could do this better than her’ post, because we do two different things. That said, I don’t have very much sympathy for her. I think that good criticism stands for itself. If she’s being attacked for being ‘patronising’ or ‘cruel,’ she’s doing something wrong. Like, maybe her reviews actually are patronising or cruel.

I’ve read a lot of art criticism in my day, including critiques of pieces featuring disability. Those have indeed included discussions that were clearly patronising along with evaluations that were needlessly cruel. But they’ve also included good, solid criticism that actually engages with the work and tells me something about it, coming from people who don’t fall into the trap of only thinking about the disability and the ability status of the actors or creators. It can be done, I know, because I’ve seen it, and I enjoy reading it, whether the critic is shredding the piece or praising it.

Her attitude suggests that critics shouldn’t engage with works involving disability, and that if they do, they should not be honest. This does a service to absolutely no one. People with disabilities are just as interested in good criticism as everyone else. We make decisions about the art we want to consume on the basis of a broad assortment of characteristics, including things like critical response, and we don’t regard works featuring disability as inherently unassailable and would like to know, for example, if a film is just bad and we shouldn’t bother going to see it. Disability is not a free pass to do whatever you want in a creative work and that’s an attitude we spend a lot of time pushing back against.

I’ve noticed this attitude popping up in a lot of areas of media and pop culture. People are acting like it’s not fun anymore because of ‘political correctness,’ implying that a bunch of humourless people with no appreciation for art and culture are running around destroying creativity as we know it. Apparently, asking creators to stop relying on tired tropes and poor depictions of, say, disability, is ‘ruining art.’ Engaging with common tropes and the history of those tropes in art and asking why they keep appearing is ‘politically correct.’ Now the critics are joining in to complain about how legitimate complaints from people who don’t like hackneyed ‘criticism’ of the way their lived experience is portrayed is ‘ruining things.’

The snide remarks Catsoulis added to the top of her review didn’t really add anything to the discussion, other than serving as a warning that I shouldn’t trust her as a reviewer when she’s discussing works where disability is involved.

3 Comments

  1. Catsoulis probably wouldn’t find it so difficult to do her job when the movie in question features (gasp!) a disabled actor, if she took some time to figure out how PWD talk about disability. She uses some really offensive language in her review (“damaged,” “high-functioning yet falling short”). I think the intention of her complaints about “political correctness” was probably to shield her from fallout related to her use of this kind of language. This way, people who critique her use of ableist terminology are just proving her point: we really are just too sensitive these days.

    Sigh.

  2. I see this “I don’t want to sound patronizing or cruel” trope come up a lot around issues of disability in particular, and difference in general, and it’s nearly always resolved by redirecting the discussion so that it’s about the inhibiting quality of “political correctness.”

    Whenever I write about difference, particularly difference with which I don’t have any direct experience (i.e. the experience of being a person of color), I notice the same worry inside my head. I don’t want to come off as though I know everything. I don’t want to sound patronizing. I don’t want to sound harsh. I don’t want to sound prescriptive. And on and on. This kind of worry can create either inertia or a truly annoying tendency to apologize for myself with every other breath.

    What I finally got after several (hundred?) go-rounds is that the whole issue isn’t about me. I am not in the center; the issues that affect people’s lives are in the center. It’s not about how I sound, or what people think of me. It’s about dealing with the assumptions and stereotypes I carry in my head, and it’s about dealing with them honestly. It’s about not being afraid to listen to people tell me that I’m being clueless and patronizing, despite my best efforts. It’s about letting my guard down long enough to actually become the person I want to be and move things forward.

    So when I read anything in which the person complains about how *hard* it is to deal with their ableism/racism/sexism/transphobia/etc. because of that mythical politically correct army of humorless drones ready to pounce on every word, I just think, “Oh, please, get over yourself and get to work.”

  3. that movie sounds really good, despite the annoying review.

    I disagree with your paraphrase that people like that are saying “A poor critic can’t even talk honestly about something without fear of being harried by a horde of angry crips.” Because they don’t think of disabled people as actually having opinions, in my experience. I think they just think a lot of other non-disabled people are going to be offended on behalf of their ~special needs~ family members. Like, if they actually thought that *we* were going to criticize them, that would be an improvement.