"That Wasn't Written For You." So...?

If you're reading this in early 2020,
"New Version" is probably this show.
Adjust fan outrage appropriately if you
are reading this significantly later.
If you've been involved with online fandom of just about anything for any significant amount of time, you've seen something like the following exchange at least once, probably many times:

Person A: "New Version of Property sucks!  I loved Previous Version, why couldn't they have made more of Previous Version instead of this New Version?"

Very Clever Person B: "New Version isn't written for you."  (often followed by implication that Person A is clearly mentally defective for even caring about New Version)

"That wasn't written for you," is one of those arguments that does have some validity in certain circumstances, but which las lately come to be used as an all-purpose "You are not allowed to have a valid opinion, shut up," style of retort.  And that's bad, because not only does it devalue the very idea of discussion of quality, it segregates entertainment.  You must be part of the highly specific demographic targeted by a work to be allowed to have an opinion, is the attitude carried by "That wasn't written for you."

The thing is, it should be possible to recognize good craft or bad craft even if you're not in the target audience, as long as you can comprehend the work.  (I mean, I'm not qualified to have an opinion about an untranslated Chinese text, it was SO not written for me that I can't even read it.  But an untranslated Chinese movie I can at least tell if the actors seem to be engaging with the material, whether the blocking is good, etc.)

I don't have to be part of the target audience to tell if something was badly done, as long as I can comprehend enough of it to tell what it was trying to do.  Crap aimed at another audience is still crap.  Crap that people enjoy is still crap.  Crap that I enjoy is still crap.  I can enjoy it and still point out ways that it was bad...and I can not-enjoy it and point out ways that it was bad.

Now that I've pilloried the "That wasn't written for you" argument for its abuses, I should step back and discuss ways in which it really is valid, because complaints aren't always (or even usually) based on the quality of the work.

1) That was written for people with interests you do not share

I'm not really a fan of horror or terror movies.  While I have enjoyed a few here and there, it's not really an interest of mine (although I am familiar with the distinction between horror and terror, and know a lot from hanging out with people who are fans).  Therefore, I am inclined to dislike a horror or terror movie.  If I watch a slasher film and say that I didn't like it, it's reasonable to reply that it wasn't written for me.  And maybe that's why.  I'd like to think I can recognize competent work in a slasher film, so on reflection may well admit, "Yeah, it seemed decent for what it was, but you're right, I was very outside the target audience."

Apparently not Terror.
Sometimes, a new version of a property makes a significant change to the genre, such as taking an action/adventure series and making it into a goofy sitcom (the "Go" effect), using a utopian series as the basis for a "feet of clay" dystopian reboot, or a story loved for its tight continuity getting rebooted in monster of the week format.  They take the surface details of an old property and stretch them over a new framework.  Even if it's a good fit, a lot of old fans will dislike it because they have no interest in the new framework.  And that can be the basis for a valid claim of "That wasn't written for you."

Two big caveats there, however.  First, it might be a poor fit, so "it sucks" could still be a valid position.  Second, with most properties, new material is infrequent.  Sure, at any given time there's several interpretations of Spider-Man or the Transformers, if you don't like the latest one you can still get new content that you do like.  But lower-tier stuff like Thundercats or GIJoe might have zero new material for an entire year, and then maybe one new series after several years dry.  It is totally valid to feel betrayed if the property is brought back in a way that does not trigger the same interests as the old version.  (If you like GIJoe for action-adventure of patriotic heroes holding terrorists at bay with lots of high tech toys, the current IDW comic may not be to your liking, with Cobra ruling most of America and GIJoe being a resistance movement with minimal resources and training.)

2) That was written for people with a different knowledge base than yours.

In its most extreme form this gets back to the "I can't read Chinese," case.  And it certainly applies to a lot of the Literature Canon because of changes in language and culture.  A lot of students dismiss Shakespeare because they don't have the Elizabethan cultural knowledge base necessary to appreciate the work.  There's no such thing as universal themes, as famously pointed out by Laura Bohannon's "Shakespeare in the Bush."  Obviously, if the cultural differences are too big, it's hard to enjoy a work or even tell if it is competently done.  If the intended knowledge base includes stuff you don't know, it's harder to enjoy the work, and if the knowledge base is too restricted to basics you might find it boring.

However, my goal here isn't to re-argue Shakespeare in the Bush.  Because the "different knowledge base" that is most often key in a "That wasn't written for you" argument is the knowledge base of a child.

"Aw, it's for kids, quitcherbitchin," goes the usual version of the argument.  And that usually brings with it at least some undertone or overtone of "Why are you consuming entertainment for little kids, you mental defective?"  Thing is, while kids may enjoy crap too, and may lack the context to tell if something is crap, it's still better to give them quality entertainment so that they may better learn what good stuff is.

The kind of story where "it's for kids" is most likely to be a valid counterargument is a mystery.  Kids are still learning what a mystery is, so criticizing a kidvid mystery for being too obvious deserves a retort of "That wasn't written for you."  Of course the mystery is obvious.  The idea of a mystery in the first place is still not obvious to a lot of the target audience.  Just like kiddie soccer (football) starts with limited position distinctions and open goals just to get kids used to the ideas of "the ball goes there" and "points are a thing you want," mysteries in kidvid are reallllly basic.  That doesn't mean the writer gets a pass if the solution is pulled out of thin air or there's other horrible logical inconsistencies.  That would be like giving kids in kiddie soccer points for own goals, it teaches them bad things.  If the mystery is obvious, but never cheats, then it's okay.

To reiterate: kids start off lacking the knowledge base to evaluate what kind of story they're seeing, let alone whether it's good.  That does not give a pass to crappy entertainment just because It's For Kids...quite the opposite.  It's our responsibility to promote the good stuff and pan the bad stuff, so as kids build their knowledge base, it contains higher quality material.  We might not enjoy it because it's too basic, but we should be able to step back from our visceral boredom and at least recognize whether the craft is there.

And now for some examples

I'll close with a couple of properties (one original, one New Version) that weren't written for me.

Steven Universe

I did not initially believe.
Okay, I am currently a huge fan of Steven Universe.  To the point that I won't even make a "gemsona" until such time as there's canon confirmation of male-identifying Gems other than Steven, since I feel that to do otherwise would be missing the point.  But I dismissed it initially as Not Written For Me.  I can remember telling people that it was "Someone else's nostalgia," because the ads made it look like it was riffing on the general field of "anime for little kids" that I never really got into (some of Miyazaki's work aside).  But I started to hear things about it, and after watching a clip of the "Stronger than You" song I decided to give it a chance, picking up the $10 DVD of the first 13 short episodes.  Took most of the way through the disk to really get into it, but get into it I did.

And it's still not written for me.

I mean, to the extent I have the cultural references and stuff down pat, sure.  But I'm not really the target audience.  It really is aimed at kids, if maybe more teenagers than toddlers.  In the sense it's aimed at people looking for a show where worrying over every last detail is rewarding (something Rebecca Sugar has said was a goal), I guess I'm on the periphery of the target audience.  But the core is people who are uncertain about their identity and looking for help in exploring the possibilities.  Not just LGBTQ identities, but things like, "To what extent am I responsible for the actions of my parents?" or "Am I even worth the sacrifices that my family has made for me?"  Those aren't really issues that were weighing heavily on me when as a middle-aged heterosexual cismale living on my own I started watching, y'know?  I'd even go so far as to say I'm quite metaphorically comfortable in my own skin (literally comfortable is another matter, between winter dryness and my recent surgery).  Steven Universe wasn't really written to engage with me and my problems.  To the extent it trades on nostalgia at all, it's a sort of generalized 80s/90s kid thing that's not quite my bag, but at least I'm not ignorant of it.

I did unfairly dismiss at first because it wasn't written for me, but now love it despite the fact it wasn't written for me.  Some issues with model control in Season 1 aside, it is very well done technically, and a good story even if it's not a story aimed in my particular direction.

The Rocketeer

Okay, on the topic of my nostalgia, I saw the live-action Rocketeer movie when I was in college and really liked it, some rough patches here and there forgiven because it was definitely written for my general group (comics nerd, superhero fan, some affection for pulp and art deco from a childhood of the local UHF station showing Commander Cody and similar serials, smitten with Jennifer Connelly).  The comics, oddly, have rarely really grabbed me, and I've never really figured out exactly why.  But that's not a topic for today.
"Sloe Gin, girls like pink...."

No, for this example I refer to the Disney Jr. revival.  Kit Secord, elementary-school-aged great-granddaughter of Cliff Secord, gets the original jetpack and helmet from a mysterious (and as far as I know, never really explored so far) benefactor as a birthday gift.  Her grandfather and tech-savvy best friend help her modify it, and she becomes the newest Rocketeer.  In pink, of course. 

Watching this requires a lot of allowances for Not Being Written For Me.  This show is aimed at the 5-8 year old age group, roughly, maybe even skewing a little younger.  It is vastly simplified, and even when the mysteries aren't of the open variety (where the audience is always kept in the loop), they're really obvious...other than the core "who sent her the jetpack and thought it would be a good idea for a 7 year old to be flying?" mystery, at least.  It wallows in genre conventions of Little Kid Action Shows...no one calls for her to unmask and retire because she's obviously a kid, she has only minor difficulties keeping her identity secret from her parents (her father is voiced by Billy Campbell, who played Cliff in the movie), there's other grade schoolers in her rogues' gallery in addition to adult villains, no one is ever seriously hurt, etc.

So far, I've seen every episode shown on Disney Junior (9 episodes each with two 11 minute stories), I'm not sure if I'll stick with it when my DVR-watching time starts to get more restricted.  I certainly have criticisms about the airing order, which has put some "villain returns" episodes before the "villain is introduced" episodes...yeah, little kids don't really care about continuity, and a lot of this sort of show gets rerun in random order all week anyway (this one hasn't yet, it's only on once a week for the most part) or streamed in random order, but it's still sloppy.  But, while I'm not exactly a fan of it, and it's definitely Not Written For Me, I can see how the individual episodes are pretty well done within the restrictions of the target audience.  Yeah, a lot of simple plots, obvious solutions, non-sensical physics (Kit at one point manages to hurl a large part of a building several blocks by redirecting its path, and it lands in exactly the right spot with no damage to anything), and "pay no attention to that consequence behind the curtain" stuff.  I can see that getting me to stop watching after a while.  But in the "superheroes/magical girls for grade school kids" genre, it's reasonably solid craft, and if you have kids of the appropriate age range I'd recommend you show it to them.

Would I have preferred a CGI series directly picking up on the movie, with Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord, and as many creatives taken from the BTAS pool as possible?  You'd better believe it.  But I don't feel like Disney is giving me the middle finger for wanting that instead of this.  (I mean, I feel like Disney is giving me the middle finger in a general sense all the time, but I'm not getting the "screw the old fans, we're tossing some fresh meat to the hot demographic" feeling here that some other recent reboots have given me.)

In Summation:

If it wasn't written for you, you might not enjoy it, for whatever reason.  But that's no reason to turn off your critical faculties, and no excuse to do substandard work just because of the intended audience.  Never use "It wasn't written for you" to shut down discussion, though...if you use it, use it to redirect the discussion into more useful areas.

Dvandom, aka Dave Van Domelen, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Science at Amarillo College, maintainer of one of the two longest-running Transformers fansites in existence (neither he nor Ben Yee is entirely sure who was first), is down to one kidney, is an occasional science advisor in fiction, and part of the development team for the upcoming City of Titans MMO.
"That Wasn't Written For You." So...? "That Wasn't Written For You."  So...? Reviewed by Dvandom on Monday, January 27, 2020 Rating: 5
Powered by Blogger.