A television critic answers her critics

Across the years, there have been two primary questions prompted by my criticism here at Daily Review. One, “Why are you paying for a menopausal conceit which should surely have been force-fed to rats by now?” The other, “Why won’t she shut up about politics when all I want to read about is art?” The first problem is answered easily: I regularly remind the publisher that I retain a secret cache of agriculturally-themed photographs in which he is centrally depicted. The second is just a little more complex: culture is jolly political. Always, but particularly in the present.

Take, for example, the celebrity cooking television program Silvia’s Italian Table. I do not believe that it is a “stretch” to view the project of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in this case as political.  When the state broadcaster depicts a desirable “lifestyle” of which only a few might partake, it has made the choice to do so. The absolute beachfront real estate, rustic high-fashion holidays and anodyne conversation of high-profile guests do not simply form part of taxpayer funded entertainment ex nihilo. Someone has to ask at some point “Why are we doing this?” and to believe, as so many are wont to, that media and cultural items just appear is wantonly deluded. Tell me again that I am a jealous, bitter hag who has “swallowed a thesaurus” and is “looking for meaning that’s not there. Why don’t you just relax and enjoy it?” if you like. Then, go back and watch that piece of shit and let me know if you’re not actually angrier with the ABC for normalising asset wealth, luxury vacations and tedious talk than you are at me, the person who pointed the mise-en-scene out.

When you are ready, you will see that the work of the critic is not so different from that of any other worker.

It is not particularly “clever” to see the aspiration and idiocy so common on TV. I do not think it is special of me to make this old case. I do, however, feel frequently obliged to explain the “politics” of such-and-such a production in an era where “politics” are otherwise given short shrift. Of course, the politics of identity—not a bad thing, not a dirty phrase—are often explored and many, many cultural “texts” are critiqued for their erasure of particular identities and consciousnesses, those of women and feminists especially. If I had a dollar for every publication of a “leggings are a feminist issue” piece, I would be able to purchase a pair of those fashionable leggings used to illustrate these.

If you want to bemoan the lack of “real woman” sizes at H&M or wherever, do it. You might even be paid to do it and hailed as a girl’s girl etc. But, just as there is nothing objectionable about a popular move toward feminist cultural criticism, there is nothing “wrong” with critique, per the Silvia sort, which assesses a work in the terms of its relationship to wealth.

A purely feminist critic may look at something in the culture, like fashion, and assess it in terms of the thing sometimes referred to as “patriarchy”, a term for which I find little practical use but one that describes to some a system of social organisation in which men retain “privilege”.  Such critics may say that clothing sizes available in stores do not accommodate the “average” female body and they may explain this failure as one of the patriarchy, whose keenest expression is misogyny (I think. I actually can’t get my head around the way these terms are now used.) 

Now, a critic of unequal wealth might look at these same fashions and assess them in the terms of profit. She might seek, just as the purely feminist critic does, to place the production and marketing of these items within a broader context. She might conclude that it is profit and not misogyny that drives what the feminist sees as “discriminatory” sizing in fashions. She might even propose, if she is in an particularly foul mood, that her feminist audience can take their leggings and their “dissatisfaction with…their lack of pocket options” and cram these up their falsely conscious clackers. Because FOR FUCK’S SAKE IF YOU CAN BANG ON AND INTERMINABLY ON ABOUT FUCKING POCKETS BEING A FEMINIST ISSUE WITHOUT GIVING ONE THOUGHT TO THE FUCKING (PROBABLY FEMALE) SLAVE WHO MADE THEM, surely, the critic of global capital can have their critical shot.

To place cultural goods within the context of a political economy is not a new thing to do. But, it’s a rare thing to do and it’s an unpopular thing to do, particularly if this critique is perceived to edge out the currently popular and purely feminist sort. While a criticism which takes identity and resistance by different identity groups into account is, in my view, essential, it is also a bit toothless and mystified if it continues to ignore all backgrounds save for that of misogyny, rape culture or whatever we have agreed to call this (frankly undefinable) thing.

It is not true that the critic believes you to be stupid. This critic is one that renews her faith daily in the fact of mass genius.

So, no. I can’t watch, say, The Handmaid’s Tale and overlook the fact that it deifies the USA. There is a scene in which the “oppressed” are those singing America the Beautiful and another in which the billionaire Oprah Winfrey is the rebel champion for the stars and stripes. It is not implicit but explicit that the idea of the world’s militarised hegemon for whose existence millions perish is a jolly good one and a beautiful idea destroyed only by Donald Trump. 

Another response collected here at DR is, “Don’t you think we can walk and chew gum at the same time, Helen?” I may be misreading, but I believe the intention here is to “call out” the critic of political economy as one who is (a) insufficiently “nuanced” and too brutally simple in her reckoning and (b) condescending to an audience who are, apparently, already entirely aware of the critical framework she has employed.

It is true that this critic lacks nuance. But, some of us prefer grand narratives and our return to this tedious old modernist tradition of wondering about the working misery of the people who produce and consume culture is, however, inelegant, conscious. It is not true that the critic believes you to be stupid. This critic is one that renews her faith daily in the fact of mass genius. This critic is an optimist and believes not only that you can walk, chew gum and fill all your intellectual pockets with bombs. This critic believes that she is not half as fit for this “nuanced” work as you.

When you are ready, you will see that the work of the critic is not so different from that of any other worker. It’s unfortunate but true that some workers find themselves assigned to certain and specific tasks and that this separation results in our estrangement. It’s tragic but true that few workers have the chance to understand another worker’s specialty. It’s essential, in my view, that we use our mass intelligence to create the sort of world in which we might all be critical critics, enslaved neither to the production of profitably “sexist” clothing without pockets or the critique of same. But doing just a little of what we fancy.

Most people on the planet don’t achieve even a moment of fanciable life. All people and products on the planet are subject to the totalising force of global capital. Until such time as we can truly chew gum while walking and not simply claim that this is possible how dare you call me stupid, the explicitly political critique is, in my view, necessary.

I would like to thank all the photographed livestock for making this necessity possible here at Daily Review, one of a very few Australian publications that will give me money for such labour. I would like to agree that, yes, none of the criticism I have offered this publication, or others, could pass as especially sagacious or new. I would like to enjoin you to be the critical critic when you can. Upturn the dinner on the illusory floor of the sunny celebrity kitchen.

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26 responses to “A television critic answers her critics

  1. My only objection to Helen’s style is that in her rush to write, and shock us, she seems to be unclear in her meaning. I have often found her style opaque and confusing, at which point I close the article, muttering ” Why doesn’t she proof-read her stuff?” So I read because the gist appears to be hilariously contrarian, but the internal logic is askew, probably just for lack of editing. It would be much improved if she did take more care.

  2. Helen to run a Writer’s Festival. Anywhere. Superlative idea. Doesn’t have to be a capital city. Readers and listeners would flock. Will get on the blower. She might have to wait until 2025 but. We can wait. In the meantime can Helen please riff on the endless promos on ABCTV where personalities and seniors around the place talk of YOUR ABC. Upon which toadstool are they sitting? For F’s sake it is OURS. OURS. We’re all in it together. Hopefully the new MD will order the Promo Department to take them down. Happy New Year to all. ALL.

  3. Great piece Helen. I would like a cooking show where working-poor home chefs give Australia at large ways to feed your family on almost no money.

  4. Once Ours ABC has made so many watchable cooking shows by genuinely likeable people … ( sorry, forgotten his name) eg Gretel Killeen’s co star from their How Not To…etiquette-show. There was Poh. Maggie Beere & friend .. Peter Russell Clarke.. a long list. And now this one resting on very thin celebrity-lookalike bones. Is this nepotism? It’s a puzzle. Does she actually know her famous guests? Does she get paid for utensil product placement? Thought maybe it was just me that found it overly “aspirational”. Thanks Helen. Love your work

  5. Archie. Criticism of someone’s public expression is not the same thing as criticism of their circusmstances. Art can’t be conflated with success. Your comments are full of you, regaling everyone with the wonder of Archie. Me me me me me. You are a bore.

    Julie

  6. I enjoy your so called ranting Helen, I agree about the ABC cooking show ,the money spent on thast could be put to much better use and the show itself could sent to 9Life or one of those!

  7. You would need a skin as thick as an elephants these days to be a critic, especially with all the anonymous posting.

    Too many competing views, different experience, half truths and pure spite make the “Reply” button potentially toxic.

    A shame that most critiques are not as well thought through, whatever the nuance, as Helens. Sure, sometimes she has said things that I don’t like or agree with, but hey, that’s part of the job description, right?

  8. I have grappled with the search for meaning in Helen’s rants for some time and then it struck me that they are akin to Don McLean’s famously lengthy hit ‘American Pie’. Helen’s fans think her rants are deep and profound metaphors and insights into the world of politics, economics and contemporary culture, when in fact the subversively dark Don would comment that its only meaning was ‘he earned enough off it that he didn’t need to work again’. Her problem is that she hasn’t and isn’t likely to.

      1. Don’t worry about Archie, Gill. They are here every week telling me I am a thicko.
        As for the “you don’t do anything either” AKA “I know you are but what is she?” defence, let’s do without that. I don’t feel in a personal sense the charge “you couldn’t do any better” is very helpful :) and in a broader sense, it is not of much value.
        One can criticise something or make a statement about some work without having to be able to make that work oneself. Archie is entitled to their criticism without having the skill to replicate mine. As I am entitled to look at, say, TV without ever having produced a program. Or parilament without being a parliamentarian.
        Archie’s real problem in critique is just refusing to argue. in any terms other than those they have already set. Which is generally “I am opposed to this writer whatever she says”.
        I would like to thank Archie, however, for returning many times to the site each week to view my articles. Very helpful.

        1. It must be the ‘Stormy midnight’ which is attracting me to Helen’s site each week. Yeah it was a bit of a barbarous comment and I can only plead that I felt pretty crappy after eating a few Doritos with Hummus and I don’t know which was full of MSG.

          In my humble defence, I do engage in argument and enjoy giving and taking offence in equal measure. I have even gone on flights of fancy eg: comment on Helen’s piece re the “Handmaid’s Tale” viz:

          Quote: “Gee the blokes are really copping it in this world of females on top. The only saving thought is that Scientologists are both male and female, which does prove that imbecility is shared between the sexes (surely not equally).

          I was ready to forgive the Musk Rat anything when I watched his Falcon heavy rocket boosters back themselves down onto the launch pad and stand to attention…..BUT his latest effort in the Wild Boar Thai rescue with his 6 foot long Subway has me again deep in thought.

          Could the Musk devote himself to building a rocket vehicle which could transport all the Scientologists back into the tail of the Comet from which their great leader sprang?

          After all we have already visited a comet and got lost in the doggy bone shape and infinitesimal gravity.

          Just think of Cruise, Moss, Travolta and kindred others floating away into the tail after being spawned from a giant Musk rocket vehicle….rather like Slim Pickens riding the bomb out of the ’52 in that unforgettable scene from Dr Strangelove.

          Could be a mini-series in the idea…… yes??” Endquote

          Such imaginative thought did not even raise a comment despite the extraordinary tolerance extended to Scientologists many.

          Anyway, I promise to argue next time Helen writes anything worth arguing…..as long as it contains NO FFS’s.

    1. Archie, maybe consider grappling with what you write and why, before posting. What struck me about your comment is:

      You are arrogant enough to write that you believe you know what other people think.

      You chose to use Don McLean’s comment for your own obscure rant, ignoring other comments Don’s made about his songs, such as, “They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry.” and by doing so, have made yourself look kindof foolish within your own context.

      You spitefully gloat at what you perceive as someone else’s lack of fortune.

      Julie

      1. Julie, as a big fan of Don’s music, I do have a misanthropic affection for the gent. I don’t have to write a thesis on the consistency of Don’s comments, having chosen to quote one which suited my critique of Helen’s latest rant.

        The lady does write some interesting stuff sometimes, but as I have said in previous comments, she can put you up on a wave of a strongly formed idea, and dump you the next second in a froth of psychobabble.

        At least my piece fired up some interest (the lady herself in a fairly sensible comment), and got some of the echo chamber of Razer luvvies using a small part of their brains (for some a big part).

        1. Archie, I can spend quite some time looking up the dictionary when reading about subjects, comments and words that are unfamiliar. With you, it rarely helps. You may well be very clever, but it’s lost on me.

          Your comment was mean. Not only to Helen, but to anyone in a similar position. Why don’t you just own it.

          “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” – W.C. Fields

          Julie

          1. Mean to Helen?….she called me a “News Corp sexist bore” in another thread when I expressed admiration for Aayan Hirsi Ali!!

            So Razer has a hard time making a living in diversity rich sunny Australia as a novice expert on economic and cultural Marxism; while AHA has experienced FGM, religious fanaticism, flight from her country of birth, murder of her close associate, secret flight to the USA under police protection from death threats by the people who murdered her associate, ongoing threats and finally international acclaim as a chronicler of these experiences; and the likes of Razer poo-poos AHA as yesterday’s thinker!! I have scraped nicer stuff off my boots than that!

            W.C. Fields also famously said “never work with animals or children”……in Helen’s case I will exclude the animal (and vegetable or mineral) but not so sure about the children.

  9. I have loved you for decades Helen, since the days of Triple J. Was that the 80s? You’re too clever by half and you give this old girl such a lift. Don’t ever stop talking and writing. Sometimes I listen to you at night and next day I wake up like a warrior.

  10. again helen has hit the nail on the head. I know she keeps doing it. It is a well worn hammer but if the ABC is going to present a target or other situations are going to present themselves in ways which are insubstantial, fancy clothes not typical of western women, without an analysis of how these clothes were made or the returns on labour of those that made them, then they are asking for it.
    Facile elitism and liberalism are masking the evils of this world and are in many ways, the cause of much of this evil.
    i think Helen should present writers festivals. It’d be a blast.

  11. Helen, what you write is important. Stuff those people who don’t yet get it because they haven’t quite worked out where the major problems are from the broad view. I’m grateful to TDR that you have the scope to write what you do. Shame how hard to come by these spaces are for working writers.

  12. Helen, I regard all your journalism to date as a resume for a full professorship in the humanities at, oh I don’t know, Harvard, Yale, Monash. Go teach. You would be received by the students as the second coming. But not sure about the others.

    And a question. Why do all your fans seem to be blokes?

    1. Got ‘humanities’ wrong. It should be the Business Schools, or Economics. After all if capitalism is so correct, perfect, then they should let a Marxist in, just for fun. As the exception that proves the rule, shouldn’t they? As the fabulous bastions of the free world, that we know in our hearts that they are. Don’t we?

      1. You know. The odd thing is that there are some very decent people lurking in the business schools. By decent, I mean opponents of capitalism!
        They’ve chucked them out of the humanities and economics, of course.

  13. Thank you for a wonderful article, Helen. I get it. Few can write like you. I am envious and admiring. We live in a world of agnotology: the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt. Your work goes some way to address this.

    1. Hear hear. I agree wholeheartedly with Warren. Your writing and style has resonated with me for decades so please do keep it up.

      I might add that I suspect many of your critics Helen, don’t actually read your work. This became evident on the twitters the other day when some moron RT the gnashings of mean girls who had not read your Nanette review but decided they didnt like it anyway. I think the really funny part was their attempt to use capital as part of their teasing but ended up demonstrating their own ignorance. It was, on reflection, exactly what girls did in high school when I was there (I know, I was one of them). Jealous, tedious and ultimately very insecure.

      So do f8ck the haters and keep up the good work please. Thank you for all the laughs, thoughts, discourse and education.

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