What if I told you no one is forcing you to partake in Discourse?
Last weekend, Disney+ saw a 79% spike in new downloads. It wasn’t because of the premiere of a new, direct-to-streaming Pixar movie or a tween-targeted series. It was, of course, because of Hamilton.
The 2016 filming of Hamilton was already planned for a theatrical release, but its broad release was naturally accelerated by the streaming surge of the COVID-19-induced lockdowns. And, just as Hamilton’s release was accelerated, so was the Hamilton Discourse.
The Hamilton Discourse was nothing new. Most of the criticism of the musical had been around since 2015 — that it sanitizes the legacy of slave owners, that it is a towering monument to colonialism that pretends not to be by engaging in representation politics, that it parades itself as a subversive piece of art while still ultimately portraying the Founding Fathers with Schoolhouse Rock levels of insight. Hamilton, despite being hailed as a social justice revolution by the Tumblr class, was never popular among some of the most prominent critics and creatives of colour. Poet Ishmael Reed penned the play The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda to portray his many problems with the play (including the casting and the whitewashing of Alexander Hamilton’s greatest sins), and Toni Morrison was his second-biggest contributor. NPR’s Gene Demby noted that Hamilton’s most loyal audience is largely and unignorably white. Historian Lyra Monteiro had a more comprehensive takedown of the musical; besides echoing the broad sentiment that casting performers of colour to play slave owners and downplaying the role of black people in the American Revolution is cognitively dissonant, her criticisms included the fact that the mere basis for Hamilton was in a white historian’s biography (Ron Chernow), that the casting of the show is not “race blind” as it purports but actually race-conscious and that the legend of Hamilton built in the show conforms to stereotypical “bootstraps” narratives.
Again, these complaints are not new; they did not materialize out of nowhere because Hamilton was trending (promoted) again. About the only argument against the musical that had cropped up between Hamilton’s sweeping of the 2016 Tony Awards and now has been an increased scrutiny of Lin-Manuel Miranda himself; he’s drawn criticism for numerous reasons, from his lobbying in favour of PROMESA to his poor handling of Hamilton’s run in Puerto Rico. Over the weekend of Hamilton’s streaming debut, Miranda — who has built himself a public persona as an affable goofball who just loves civic engagement and theatre — went from hosting a public “view-along” Twitter party to locking down his account. With 3.2 million followers, it’s the second time of note during the pandemic that a celebrity with a seven-figure following has set their account to “private” following a wave of criticism.
Perhaps he was just sick of the Hamilton discourse. Lord knows, enough people on my own Twitter timeline expressed the same thing. By 10 a.m. on the day of Hamilton’s streaming debut, it seemed to be an almost-even split of people engaging in in-depth Hamilton discourse and people irritated that the musical had become the subject of such in-depth discourse.
There were also fence-players; numerous variations of the “[statement] and [statement] are two ideas that can coexist” memes sprung up in relation to Miranda and Hamilton. It seems clear that many people were torn between wanting to enjoy their favourite musical while still feeling like they were on the “right side” of history.
I’ll admit I’m always shocked when the months tick by and one-by-one I witness my friends who, four years ago, would have jumped to be a part of a community unpacking the problematic elements of the latest episode of The 100 or the movie Split draw their ultimate line in the sand. On one hand, my primary instinct is to be less-than-sympathetic — I’m cynical enough to believe that there’s some element of “discourse is good and healthy until it destroys something I personally like.” But then, I do legitimately believe that some people experience discourse exhaustion. Pop culture discourse seems like it’s accelerated with the pandemic, which makes sense considering that for many of us, content is all we have right now. And it’s true that the reactionary nature of the internet means that when something comes out that you’re excited for, it’s almost always followed — sometimes even preceded — by mounting discourse on how problematic it is.
Before the Hamilton discourse, we endured discourse on Queer Eye (classism is still at play in Season 5, in case anyone was wondering), whether or not it’s okay to still like Harry Potter given that its author is a full-blown TERF, “lighthearted” cop shows like Brooklyn 99 and whether or not it’s possible to think Christy Tiegen can both be a victim of racism and perpetuate classism herself. So I don’t entirely believe that the backlash against “discourse” is entirely promoted by selfishness; there seems to be a genuine fear among media consumers that they can no longer enjoy film, TV and music the way they used to, that their thoughts become overcomplicated as their loyalties conflict. Especially as they come to realize that living in a capitalist society means essentially nothing we consume benefits the greater good.
Admittedly, it does occasionally feel like playing a game of Operation. Particularly in an age when people have aligned themselves personally and spiritually with the content that they consume, at its best it can feel exhausting (“Why do I have to over-analyze everything I watch?”) and at its worst it can feel like character assassination (“By calling this show pro-slavery, you’re saying I’m pro-slavery!”).
There’s the popular running joke that Tumblr has permeated Twitter since the platform outlawed pornography. It’s difficult to know how true (or useful) that criticism is, and if the alleged rise in pop culture discourse has stemmed more from the supposed Tumblr migration or as a reaction to the way we (the royal we) increasingly identify ourselves with the culture we consume. Would J.K. Rowling’s abhorrent anti-trans tyrades have drawn nearly as complex a reaction (maily about whether or not it was okay to still enjoy her work) if most 30-year-olds didn’t know at least one person who could tell you what their Hogwarts house was? Would accusations that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is police propaganda have put so many people on the defence if the show weren’t also firmly engaged in representation politics, with young queer people feeling like they could “see themselves” in the detectives onscreen? Would people have become so angry about Jonathan Van Ness and Karamo Brown mocking Bernie Sanders’ suits and hairstyles if Queer Eye hadn’t positioned itself as life-saving, activist infotainment?
And yet, analysis has always been a part of fandom. If that analysis of both the internal text and its context in relation to the outside world weren’t a thing, then people wouldn’t be able to know what their Hogwarts house was. In the case of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, viewers headcannoned Rosa Diaz as bisexual long before her character came out. As fans, we’ve never regarded escapist media as truly escapist, for we long to contextualize media within the world we occupy. It helps us understand ourselves better, an it helps us reframe situations through the eyes of a fictional character, one whom we’ve suddenly projected our fears, desires and neuroses onto.
We’re willing to contextualize our favourite media in the “real world” until that real world holds the media to harsher standards. While so-called nerd culture — encapsulating comic books, sci-fi movies, cartoons we’re all 10 years too old for, musical theatre and more — has been culturally dominant for most of this century, the “nerd culture” mentality around that media is still so reactionary and defensive. Nothing encapsulates it better than the periodic rise of Adam Ellis’s “Let people enjoy things” comic-turned-meme, which has been used as a way to silence any dissenting voice or criticism against a piece of media and portray it as hyper-negativity, over-analysis or even bullying.
There’s a good amount of overlap between the anti-discourse brigade and the “let people enjoy things” (LPET) brigade. In her 2019 essay in The Baffler, Kate Wagner identified four common reasons for the LPET reaction — from cultural nihilism to low-key authoritarianism — but also addressed an issue common to all LPET posters. “They think criticism means forbidding people from enjoying media in general.” In general, the phrase “let people enjoy things” seems to imply that criticism forbids one from enjoyment. While this is painted as authoritarianism, underneath it may lie insecurity; it’s not that they feel prohibited from enjoying their favourite movie/TV show/comic book, it’s that they feel guilty. This is perhaps a sign that they are indeed culturally conscious and sensitive, and don’t know how to reconcile those feelings with their own personal enjoyments. Which brings one naturally to Wagner’s second unifying point: “You can still enjoy things while being critical of them — it can even lead to a greater appreciation of societal and historical context.”
The same applies for discourse on a piece of media’s historical or political baggage. Even Monteiro has Tweeted that there’s not much use in judging others (or yourself) for liking Hamilton. “I do, however, think it’s essential to allow space for our understanding of cultural projects… to change,” she wrote.
But instead, the walls stay up. In the case of Hamilton, Vox argued that it’s “fanfic” and that its critics “are missing the point,” which is one of the most popular, socially acceptable ways of saying that someone is not permitted to engage in discourse or criticism of a piece of media — it’s not that they’re not allowed to criticize, it’s just that they don’t get it, therefore their criticism is invalid.
Increasingly, we are putting criticism into a box — critics are being asked to demand less of media, to blind themselves to cultural context, to “separate the art from the artist” (thanks for the insight, eighth grader), to have a complete and comprehensive understanding of the author’s experience and intent before issuing their critique. What these incessant demands demonstrate is a misunderstanding of culture. Culture is art plus context. To critique a piece of art or media in a contextual vacuum does not reflect or contribute to culture.
We must accept discourse, even if it makes us uncomfortable or even ashamed. No one is saying you have to dive into, abide by or even partake in the discourse. My own favourite show, Breaking Bad, is rife with material for discourse. The show is a glowing monument to the war on drugs. Although the officers are occasionally portrayed as boorish, the Drug Enforcement Administration is generally portrayed as the Good Guy in the series. And, for all of the strikingly complex characters it created, the show never really made any attempt to address the extremely disproportionate systemic effects that the war on drugs have on communities of colour.
But have I ever been asked to stop watching it? No, not personally. And even if I were asked to stop watching it, could that person asking me to stop watching it force me to stop watching? No, not at all. I have a choice to either weigh in on the discourse surrounding my favourite show — whether I agree or disagree with the author — or to bow out. What I don’t get to do is silence that discourse.
And, believe it or not, it is shockingly easy to ignore these conversations, if that’s the coping mechanism you need. You can mute keywords. You can unfollow certain accounts. You can — stay with me, here — log off.
But if you’re feeling brave, you can follow Wagner’s advice on absorbing criticism and discourse in a healthy manner and using it to better inform and enhance your love of something. Monteiro has also written a companion piece to her 2016 criticism of Hamilton specifically on how to make peace with the problematic media you enjoy, and how accepting that your “faves are problematic” is exactly the first step in meaningful cultural criticism and discourse.
In the meantime, no one is forcing you to partake in discourse.