What Game Of Thrones shows us about handling criticism
In our niche obsessed culture, few things reach the cultural zeitgeist quite like Game of Thrones. Its actors have become movie stars and suddenly dragons and magic are cool again. But as with most things that become popular in our social media era there’s an inevitable backlash.
A wave of negativity that surrounds any success. Tweets, snarky comments and long diatribes seem to be the norm for any success. And while looking at negative criticism can be overwhelming it's an interesting case study.
What should a creative do when faced with overwhelming criticism? How does one create in the social media era?
We all have the tendency to look at criticism in a similar way at this point, its a unfortunate necessity of success. Everything from Ted Talks to music points out “haters’ and the need to ignore our detractors. But that can't be the only solution at some point, one has to take in some type of feedback right?
In the case of Game of Thrones we saw an almost immediate backlash. Critics and fans jumped on the shows heavy violence particularly sexual violence against women. Its criticism has been frequent throughout the show but perhaps hit hardest in its most recent seasons.
If we look at the data of acts of violence over the course of the show, violence against women has seen a significant decline. Whereas in the past it was used every few episodes its become a defining moment or climax of any season. The data collected from this takes each scene of violence and counts it as one act1.
Game of Thrones is certainly in a unique position it has to tell a story depicting a time that was brutal, especially towards women, while being aware of the cultural backlash that comes with showing something perceived as unfair. Its a difficult tight rope act for anyone.
Before we can understand how the experts handle criticism, we should probably first look at the critic. Much of how we view the critic in contemporary culture is from a place of disdain. I can’t say that I haven’t held that opinion, it's easy to see criticism as merely a lazy practice for those that cannot create.
But there’s a problem in that mindset, how does a creative learn from the community or gain any feedback if all criticism is viewed as unnecessary. Something to discard without contemplating. AO Scott, the New York times critic, properly captures how critics perceive themselves in his book, Better Living Through Criticism. He proposes that criticism is in art onto itself.
Certainly not a unique idea but he takes it even further. He goes on to say that the critic is not merely a reviewer trying to advance some agenda in their criticism. But rather more importantly bringing voice to an internal viewpoint and allowing it to take form. Similarly to how the artist uses the brush or an instrument to vocalize an internal idea the critic takes the artist as part of their landscape.
Once the critic takes this position the artist and the critic inherently become at odds. A game ensues. There relationship even when aligned is adversarial as the artist becomes a piece of the critics work and vice versa.
The question remains though if criticism is valuable but also overwhelming how should one react to it?
Reflection vs Reaction
So we’re left with the idea it’s clear that critics are important, but that sheer volume of criticism is enough to overwhelm almost any creative effort. The devil lies in the details.
The first thing that really jumps out is that looking at the show on an episode basis, there’s a bit of variance in viewership number. Especially in the later seasons there’s significant jumps in hundreds of thousands of viewers and even millions in some cases.
If after every episode they’d taken in that feedback or the criticism of a single episode, the show would've been overwhelmed. Even two seasoned writers, like Benioff and Weiss would have changed the show negatively to comfort the critics.
Fortunately for the show runners, the show creates entire seasons at a time. The cast and crew are on set for nearly 6 months and only edits are done post production. This extends the cycle of feedback into a much longer one. Allowing the show runners to reflect on criticism instead of reacting to criticism. It’s a subtle difference but one that any smart creator should heed. When we take criticism from the perspective of slowly ingesting it we’re far more likely to use our rational mind than our intuitive or gut reaction, Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast, and Slow.
So we’re able to see the difference in how we take in criticism, its much more like baseball than Formula One. We’re looking for the long term view. But we’re left with what type of criticism? Should we just wade through twitter and take the barrage from every man in every basement.
That of course can't be the solution. Perhaps equally as important as how we process the criticism is who it comes from.
In reality we shouldn't be listening to our friends, they’re too nice to tell us the truth, random anonymous people online, far too negative, or our ardent supporters, too biased. We should be listening to critics with skin in the game.
What we mean by that is people who’s success is vested in giving an opinion and the overall community. They’re certainly imperfect there’s biases in every community but because they have skin in the game their own reputation is tied to their words. Just as A.O Scott pointed out that a critic is an artist onto themselves. Critics with skin in the game, can give judgement but they're judgement becomes a piece of art. If they senselessly attack your art it reflects onto them.
This doesn't have to be a New York Times columnist it can be a youtube chef with a sizable following or an online author with a readership he’s beholden too. The idea of skin in the game is universal and something that Game of Thrones has heeded.
-Director Jeremy Podeswa
So is there a verdict on how Game of Thrones has handled criticism? Its certainly shrouded but it appears they’re aware of the conversation and have even integrated much of the feedback. They don’t telegraph it to the audience. They realize the delicate balance of the artist and the critic and the tightrope anything in the zeitgeist must maintain.
1 Each individual act was recorded from watching and analyzing the entirety of the show. An act of violence was seen as a two minute scene or one scene without change in characters. Any scene that was implied or happened off screen was also not counted. Acts of violence that involve animals or dragons was discounted.