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Are critics bigoted or bored?

Diversity scores don’t make up for mediocre art


The cast of Ghostbusters attend the Los Angeles premiere of the movie at TCL Chinese Theatre on on July 9, 2016. Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Sony/Associated Press Images

Are critics bigoted or bored?
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I always get some fascinating looks when I tell people that growing up in a very conservative evangelical church culture prepared me for adult life during the Great Awokening. But it’s true.

Take the example of music. I was prohibited as a teenager from listening to most “secular” rock music, as were thousands of my fellow homeschooled evangelical peers. We were tightly restricted to rock music that was produced by Christian artists, distributed by Christian record labels, and sold in Christian gift and book stores.

Inevitably, this led to a pattern in Christian music circles where certain artists and songs were recommended to us based on what secular act they most resembled. “If you like Matchbox 20, you’ll like Big Tent Revival,” or, “Replace Eminem with John Reuben.”

Now, some of these Christian artists were genuinely talented. But when an industry subsists on a mentality of replacement—when it exists primarily to give people a palatable substitute for what they really want—quality is bound to suffer.

Much of the contemporary pop culture landscape in the West has become a multi-billion dollar experiment in cooking up substitutes, aimed at meeting the market demands of a morally demanding culture. But even as the moral demands of 1990s evangelicalism focused on clean lyrics, the demands of twenty-first century Hollywood are for diversity, equality, and inclusion.

This explains the increasingly frequent spectacle of movies or television productions that generate debates, not over their artistic merit but over how inclusive they are. In a sense, the real issue is whether a person’s response to these programs demonstrates that they’re the Right Kind of Person.

Two recent examples capture this pattern perfectly. Amazon’s new miniseries, The Rings of Power, a prequel to the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy, has been met with mostly lukewarm reviews. But the series, even before its release, had already generated an enormous amount of media coverage centered in its efforts toward diversity. It turned out that some random people on the internet dislike black elves and hobbits.

More and more, it feels as if the diverse casting and empowering themes are being imported into pop culture as a substitute for genuine creativity.

Article after article has been published in defense of Rings of Power’s ethnically diverse cast, and Amazon took a proactive approach to combating online trolls by disabling customer reviews on the series for the first several days of the release (when the reviews were allowed, they were mostly mediocre).

Another case study is the announced live-action remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. In this new version, the formerly Caucasian mermaid Ariel is portrayed by the black actress Halle Bailey. Rolling Stone, apparently keeping tabs on Twitter hashtags, mocked critics of the movie’s trailer by declaring that “Racists are worried about the historical accuracy of mermaids.” Forbes likewise lamented the “toxic fandom” of the trolls, asking, “Of all the cultural battlegrounds to fight this war, why choose Disney’s damp, lifeless remakes?”

This is a good, perceptive question, and deserves a serious attempt at an answer.

From one perspective, the problem seems straightforward enough. Online anonymity and radicalization have unleashed a torrent of racist sentiment. The backlash, one may suppose, is proof that the right nerves are being struck, so the best thing any pop culture maker can do is continue to produce films and let the mean people be mean. After all, if you can’t just sit back and enjoy a nostalgic reboot or prequel because of its ethnic diversity, doesn’t that say more about you than it?

There’s some validity here. But this perspective glosses over a more fundamental quarrel that many audiences have with the current state of our storytelling. More and more, it feels as if the diverse casting and empowering themes are being imported into pop culture as a substitute for genuine creativity. Whether it’s an all-female Ghostbusters reboot whose jokes don’t land, or a ham-fisted subplot about systemic trauma in the latest, seemingly interminable Marvel spinoffs, the infusion of progressive values into pop culture artifacts has greatly outpaced the thoughtfulness and meaningfulness of the artifacts themselves.

There’s no excuse for racial resentment or slurs—period. Pop culture is culture, and there’s every reason to expect a diversifying American populace will produce more diverse art. But the increasing polarization of our society, the weaponization of identity categories into political bludgeons and the laziness of film studios (yet another remake?) combined to make many open-hearted people skeptical of the way today’s culture makers seem more interested in preaching to them than captivating their imaginations.

As those of us who were raised in the halcyon days of Christian music came to realize, art that exists solely for the purpose of making a point is often not good art. If the emerging generation of storytellers want to shut up the trolls, the best way to do that is not through sympathetic media coverage, but by wowing audiences with fresh, creative, and meaningful stories. Our fractured public square could badly use narratives that remind us of the things we share, not just the things that divide.


Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.


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