Critical privilege is the superpower we can't afford not to wield

One of my very first blog posts on this site was about literary privilege, which I defined as “committing to your favorite authors without regard for anything but your own enjoyment and edification.” In reflecting on my choice as a Ph.D. student to study, teach and write about one of Italy’s primary dead while male authors, I wondered whether I would have made such a choice had my own circumstances been different. More bluntly, as a white person, I was - and am - free to read, study and enjoy canonical literature on its own terms without worrying about representation, erasure, or exclusivity.

Critical privilege takes the idea of literary privilege one step further; beyond merely enjoying Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and appreciating it while brushing off its pesky issues of gendered or racial dynamics, you can also write about it, talk about it, teach it, build a curriculum around it, and generally promote its worth as A Thing To Be Studied (seven centuries after its appearance, in the Boccaccio example) without asking yourself about the larger cultural context in which you perform such criticism. Not only can you freely do this without your own conscience bothering you, but you can also rest assured that no one will demand that you interrogate its hegemony, because it is taken as a given.

I possess, to some degree, both literary privilege, as I discussed in that forever-ago post, and critical privilege. As an academic, I thought a lot about the role of critic, which I think is a crucial role of mediation and appreciation, one which in the best of cases enables readers to engage in a more fulfilling way with any given text - and I include movies and TV and visual art here in the notion of text. I wanted to posit that good criticism could be nimble enough to both appreciate a canonical text and at the very same time question its canonical nature rather than take it as a given. And in fact, as a critic whose primary area of expertise was the very sort of dominant white male literary figure that takes up so much of the critical space in literary studies, I felt strongly that anything less than a reckoning with that cultural dominance and a willingness to question it would be lazy. In one of my more daring sentences, I wrote, “Part of why white supremacy is so hard to address is because it survives on the fear that if we, the privileged class, give more (of anything: healthcare, representation, literary recognition) to people of color, there will be less for white people. In the case of literature, that’s bullshit.”

This realization was the beginning of the end of academia for me.

Much of what I have written on this site in the literary criticism category has been devoted to interrogating the things that I love, conscious of my literary privilege in loving them and anxious to use my critical privilege to be something other than lazy in considering them. It has not always been a joyful process. I wrote at one point about how I honestly can’t really watch another film by the Coen Brothers, whose work I used to rush to theaters to see as soon as it was released. I've been unable to prevent myself from the inclusion of a reference to Louis C.K. now and then, a fact which I hate almost as much as I used to love his comedy. 2018 has been a time of intense personal reflection and reckoning with what feminism means to me. Lindy West really got it right when she referred to it as “really just the long slow realization that the things you love hate you.” It’s sad, sometimes, to revisit something you used to revere and realize that it was never really for you; in fact, it was a white guy’s (lazy, uninteresting) joke at your expense.

It was interesting to discover, then, that despite knowing what we now know about Alfred Hitchcock as a person, particularly about how he treated the women who starred in his films, I still love his movies. I haven’t revisited them in quite some time, but my favorite podcast The Cine-Files is honoring Hitchcock this month with an episode each week devoted to one of his films, and listening to them go through his filmography year by year in the introductory episode and discuss each film in turn, in the context of Hitchcock’s larger body of work, gave me that feeling of weightlessness and excitement that good, insightful criticism always brings on. That weightlessness didn’t vanish - if anything, it soared - when they got into a latter-day appraisal of Hitchcock himself: the things we now know about horribly he treated Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds and Marnie and about the nature of his longing for and objectification of Grace Kelly, and the dark, disturbing nature of the path he drew for some of his female characters onscreen, most notably Kim Novak in Vertigo. In fact, I think with Hitchcock it’s possible to include in critical, laudatory discussions of his films a frank appraisal of the way both genders are portrayed. The guys behindThe Cine-Files definitely possess the kind of critical privilege I am talking about, but they are not critically lazy. Their awareness of male power both in the film industry and the films themselves doesn’t hold back their discussions of those films; it makes them better. Good criticism doesn’t absolve a filmmaker like Hitchcock of things he did in his life, but it asks audiences to look at the whole picture of where his films come from.

We come back over and over again to the whole art and artist question, especially in the post-#metoo cultural climate of the woke liberal millennial. Can I watch and enjoy The Deuce even though James Franco stars in it…as twins? The answer for me was yes, as it turned out (though I hesitated for a while) but it’s an understandable no for a lot of other people! Can I watch Kevin Spacey onscreen anymore? I don’t know, but I kind of doubt it. Louis C.K.? I love that season of Parks and Recreation, but I skip the episodes where he appears - it’s that bad for me. There is no logic to any of this, no rhyme or reason to why Hitchcock survives for me and others do not. It may not extend to every Hitchcock film, either - I doubt I’d enjoy watching The Birds or Marnie again because of the abuse of Tippi Hedren that enabled the creation of those movies. But if anything were to inspire me to reconsider them and their merits, it would be an in-depth discussion that didn’t ask me to forget about that abuse. Good criticism, in my view, is criticism that is aware of its privilege and doesn’t use it to look away from difficult and inconvenient issues present in widely beloved texts. No one can solve the art/artist question for anyone else, but if anything can help individual people define it for themselves, I think the answer is good criticism. We could always use more.