The weeks and days leading up to the debut of Liz & Dick, a Lifetime original movie about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, were heady ones for certain corners of the Internet. The movie was the first leading role for Lindsay Lohan since 2009′s Labor Pains, which premiered on ABC Family; Lohan hasn’t had a starring theatrical role since 2007′s I Know Who Killed Me, which was critically destroyed upon release and considered one of the worst films of the year. Lohan’s been tabloid fodder for years, too, with drug problems, poor work performance, and a stage mom contributing to her spiral. The general pop culture vibe surrounding the arrival of Liz & Dick was cruel and eager, waiting for a wreck to happen.
The few minutes I watched of the movie weren’t good: stilted line reads, erratic cutting, cheap-looking effects. Lohan’s always coasted on charm and looks, and it took a Tina Fey script to actually make her watchable. In other words, Liz & Dick looked pretty forgettable, the kind of c.v. padding that’s not uncommon for performers a few years out of the spotlight, regardless of age.
Yet Twitter almost exploded with reactions from people who live-tweeted the movie, calling out every moment for minor jokes. The minute-by-minute destruction of the film and Lohan’s presence in it became an event, and the movie ceased to exist on its own terms and became instead a catalyst for a communal execution. And all I could think was: why?
Liz & Dick isn’t a guilty pleasure for people. Forget for a moment any debates about such pleasures, or whether they even exist. They’re easy to define: guilty pleasures are those works of art (often pop art) that you enjoy while either (a) feeling that you shouldn’t or (b) acknowledging that they aren’t that good. For me, cheesy sci-fi/fantasy movies from the 1980s are a total guilty pleasure. I can make no argument to convince others or myself that Krull is a good movie, but I have a good time watching it. It’s a reminder of my childhood, and of a clunkier, more homegrown era of movie make-believe. More importantly: it’s a film I choose to watch because I have a positive experience when I do.
Hate-watching, though, is different. Hate-watching means sitting through a movie or a weekly TV series specifically because you dislike it. The point is to feel bad, to stir in yourself feelings of outrage and disappointment, and then (usually) to vent those feelings online. It’s the total tonal opposite of a guilty pleasure. And it’s something that can’t be ignored.
Why Do We Watch What We Hate?
I’m still trying to figure this out. I keep coming back to this every few days, or weeks, or months: the way we gleefully subject ourselves to things we dislike specifically to comment on how much we dislike them. Part of it has to be a sense of superiority, an ability to clearly say “I am better than this” to a certain type of entertainment that doesn’t demand the kind of engagement we usually bring. When we watch things we like — from easygoing comedies to pleasant procedurals, from subversive sitcoms to challenging film dramas — we put forth varying amounts of effort but always in the service of making ourselves happy. We come to the movie or TV show openly, as a partner. Hate-watching makes no such attempt at openness, and exists only to allow/encourage us to sharpen our knives and act out our worst habits.
I think that’s the other part of it: the flip side to superiority is comfort. Hate-watching means never having to ask why you don’t like something, or why it was made, or what its existence might mean from a critical/cultural/etc. viewpoint. It’s the simplest way to approach something, and when the work stars someone famous for being the focus of gossip and online venom, it’s even cheaper. (As a friend of mine said of Liz & Dick, “Is there an easier target than Lindsay Lohan? Did everybody run out of jokes about airplane food?”) Hate-watching something means you don’t have to think about it, or conceive of its makers as people. It’s a way to abstract the work in question and use it solely for target practice.
Its easiness is what makes it so tempting, too. I’ll feel my own trigger finger start to twitch when something as atrocious or flimsy or sad as Liz & Dick rears its head. I’ll want to fire away, to sound off, to give voice the scattershot type of humor I’ve been trying to shake since college. I spent my first year in Houston scrabbling for writing work, which meant writing takedowns of reality TV that were intentionally written to sound like the all-caps beatdown that defines so much of online culture. They were cheap and mean, but most of all, they were easy. My voice is nowhere in them. I didn’t take the time to think about “reality” as a genre, or any one show’s significance. I just fired away.
What Does It Mean to Revel in Displeasure?
It can’t be good. It just can’t. Yes, it can be rewarding and even cathartic to write a supremely negative review. Sometimes the pot just boils over. However: Such negative reviews are themselves isolated incidents within a larger nuanced body of critical work, and not indicative of a writer bent on destruction. Additionally, those reviews are composed after the fact, allowing the writer the benefit of time and distance to gather their thoughts instead of live-tweeting them in the moment, when the bigger picture can be harder to see.
But I think hate-watching is bad as a practice. Not just critically — though it does shut you off and encourage you to view some film/TV as nothing but targets — but emotionally, mentally, spiritually. To gear up for a movie just to destroy it, or to weekly tune into a series you dislike for no reason than to mock it, means training yourself to hate. It can blind you to the fact that almost no film or series is wholly bad, and that it’s those moments of brightness or power within faulty works that make them so captivating and frustrating. Watching something just to hate it means closing yourself off from the world. It’s one thing to work out and express why you don’t like something; it’s another thing entirely to skip the reasoning and go straight for the snarky hate.
I work on this all the time. I won’t begin to pretend I’m the one who figured out how to get right every chance I get; all I’m saying is I found a way, and it’s a daily process, but it’s worth it.