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Criticism Is Dead, Long Live Romance

Earlier I wrote a mini-vent on Facebook. That little diddy went like this.

Gotta say, it’s really disappointing to go on Letterboxd and see all the bad reviews that romcoms get. Even the better-starred reviews seem self-conscious for enjoying comedies.

There’s a lot of movie culture that thinks simply disliking things is criticism. Let me tell you: It is not.

You are allowed to dislike things of course, that’s fine, your reaction is your reaction and very valid.

But criticism involves looking at a piece of media in its time and place. It means looking at its intentions. It means looking at all the artists involved and seeing how they were managed, how they were allowed to perform. What is it saying? What are the themes?

Sometimes criticism involves *research* at some point or another, because only some of that information is visible within the movie. If you don’t know what the cinematic and cultural and political landscape was in 1995, or what 1992/3/4 comedies led into the comedies of 1995, your criticism isn’t going to be able to meet the media on its level, you know?

I often criticize movies for being bad, but I love them. And I often hate movies that I think are critically fine. There exists within me a two-axis formation of opinions allowing for nuance that I don’t see on Letterboxd much! Or frankly, anywhere.

Literacy is grim, y’all.

“Literacy is grim” is one of my favorite refrains, and sometimes I might say it like “literacy is grim THESE DAYS” as if there was a period of time where people were overwhelmingly literate.

That mythical time probably doesn’t exist, which means I’m exasperated with whole generations of humanity, and humanity didn’t really have a choice.

It’s really not like there used to be whole swaths of General Populace who were given the kind of language & literature education you need in order to be able to “read” things critically. People who had an abundance of books and the time to read them until the point where they Understand Things and can see the whole meta level.

I’ve got the time. I’ve got the abundance of books. And then I get annoyed that other people dare to Read Things Wrong.

So I do recognize that this is coming from a grumpy privileged place.


Years ago, Goodreads became a bane of many authors because it grew an outrage culture, which smothered any beginnings of an actual critical culture. (It might still be like that, but I disconnected.)

YouTube is very predatory with its outrage culture, too, especially in terms of misogyny, which means that romcoms aren’t likely to get a fair shake.

Letterboxd doesn’t have an algorithm, per se, and thus does not push any reviews in front of anyone. But the biggest users tend to bring their own followings in from elsewhere. If the big reviewers are coming in from YouTube…yeah.

Even the less-outragey reviews might say, “The script is so bad and predictable,” not realizing that in most commercial genres of movie, a predictable script is kinda like a foundation you build a house on. Nobody’s really looking at the foundation, you know?


Also, you would think people might be able to recognize a movie/tv show has a lot more than a screenwriter at work.

You have the writer who does the screenplay, of course. (Or many writers.)

The director writes things, too.

They do a lot of the big picture stuff, arm-in-arm with a cinematographer who sets up the shots to fulfill the director’s dream.

An actor is a character super-specialist who adds nuance to the story.

My favorite writer on movies is actually the editor. The pacing of a movie is one of those things that is hard to put a finger on, but a few frames cut off here and there can radically change tone. A generous editor can save a bad acting performance by cutting it right. An incompetent editor can ruin a movie that is otherwise excellent.

It takes a whole symphony of writers to pull off a good movie.

So if you don’t like the “predictable” writing you might find in romance, then why aren’t you looking at the work these other storytellers did? Is there really nothing there for you?


Sometimes the answer to that last question is actually yes. Or there’s the fact that someone dropped the ball so hard, you can’t enjoy anything else about it.

Now we’re getting into criticism because we know *why* we have bad feelings about something.

We have expectations for the movie. The movie has expectations for itself. A bar is set, somewhere, and you have to be able to see where the bar is to know when someone doesn’t step over it.


What’s funny is that if people actually learned to do criticism, they might realize the reason they disliked that romcom is because they aren’t getting anything out of commercial genres right now. Maybe they just aren’t in a place to enjoy something that involves predictable tropes. That’s going to rule out a lot of stuff, but I totally get it.

Maybe people would keep their blood pressure down and feel way less outraged if they understood things and could better navigate their media environment.

(But then where would the clicks come from?)


The frustrating thing is that any amount of criticism has become treated as hostile by people who wanna actually enjoy stuff.

Criticism now has the aroma of the negativity from outrage culture.

If you don’t like it, don’t talk about it.


That sounds like a really great way to kneecap culture to me. Critical response flexes muscles to maintain and further grow our literacy; critical response also shapes the culture that creates the art that comes next.

Right now, in left-leaning spaces, the criticism I see permitted is…outrage criticism! I came across a reviewer on Letterboxd earlier who uses movies as a platform to eviscerate the morality of capitalism, on a big scale that the movie really has nothing to do with. Does it sound like I’m talking about myself? Well, when I tell you this individual surprised me, maybe that should tell you what a breathtaking wall of text I saw taking out all their anarchist rage on warmly nothingburger Single All the Way.

It’s indeed okay to criticize things for being amoral, racist, fascist-supporting, etc. You can generally find plenty of things in the creator lens to reinforce your standpoint.

But let me tell you, if you get tripped up on that part of the analysis, you’re missing literally *everything else* about the art. Bad morals in the society that literally made the movie you’re watching doesn’t invalidate the fact some skilled artists are in there, and their work is deserving of recognition.

Leftists are certainly not immune to the allure of an algorithm boosting them for their outrage, though.

That kind of algorithm-fueling reaction both misses the point and deprives the community of quality criticism. Reading well-considered reviews of other work helps all artists get better.


It’s probably not going to change any time soon, tbh.

Public education in my country is being attacked, including broad book bans, which makes it harder for such necessary development to happen.

The internet is increasingly limited. It feels like a lot of net neutrality is a distant dream. All the big sites people go on have narrow algorithms that show you whatever pleases that algorithm, and as far as I know, outrage will be evergreen in algorithmic engagement.

This is a cyberpunk dystopia all right.

Thank the gods we’ve got romcoms in such a bleak world.


Romance in books and movies isn’t actually defined by the central couple falling in love and kissing. That’s why a lot of stuff that ends up listed as romance isn’t actually Romance, yet why it’s hard to explain the difference.

An HEA (like seeing the couple having a baby at the end of Four Christmases) or an HFN (like at the end of The Holiday) is required, but even the presence of an HEA/HFN may not make something feel like romance.

Romance is about the healing ability of love and hope. (I’m going to talk about mostly romantic stories here, not romance in contemporary fiction, because it’s really complicated and dark romance exists and I’m just not as literate in that area.)

In much the way horror is supposed to make you scared/sad/excited, and comedy should make you laugh at some point, romance usually makes you feel better. The story believes that love can make everything work out, somehow. There’s often a wish fulfillment element. You step into the fantasy that everything can be all right and truly believe it.

Something may also have a lot of the tropes of romcom (like My Best Friend’s Wedding) but lack in hope completely. There’s an HEA between one couple, but the heroine has to obliterate herself in a wildly unhealthy relationship to do it. You’ve Got Mail is truly a romcom, but it’s one that feels askew because the heroine loses so much and never gains it back.

Something like Last Holiday feels like a romcom even though the plot is almost exclusively about the heroine’s solo emotional journey because it is drenched in hope.


Why does that matter?

If you take a step back to look at the role storytelling plays in the whole existence of humanity, you gotta think it’s necessary to our survival in some way…right? We’ve been doing storytelling since the very beginning.

It’s a great way to communicate information with one another. Some of our oldest known fiction is just writing down parables passed down from generations through oral tradition. We’ve been teaching with stories for as long as we’ve been telling them. Our ability to network human knowledge in such a way is absolutely intrinsic to our survival.

That hasn’t really changed.

Stories now may be commodified up the wazoo, and we increasingly rely on information storage outside of ourselves, but we’re still communicating something important to our survival by telling stories.

Hope helps people survive.

If you don’t think there’s a chance things can get better, you won’t try to make it better.

And the only way it gets better is if you try.

Romance gives us something to feel hopeful about, and it gives us a mental playground where we believe things will improve. That alone is enough.

When you’re hurting, a story modeling hope can be like a bandaid and a kiss on the forehead.

We need to be reminded that life isn’t just the hurting parts.

Critical killjoys don’t want to engage with the role that romance plays in modeling that kind of happiness, but that doesn’t change the fact that romance is doing it anyway. The whole genre is just sitting there, waiting to embrace you on a bad day.

You can keep scoffing at it because it reminds you of your aunt sitting around watching Hallmark all Thanksgiving weekend, but maybe someday you’re going to want to remember your aunt, and Thanksgiving, and the times you were in the same place together, and those stories of hope will remind you that good things can indeed happen again.

Romance keeps us going until we reach the better tomorrow, which is waiting for us. I’m pretty sure we’ll get there if we drop everything to race across this bridge and confess our love to the woman we fell in love with in Paris.

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