Memes have become a crucial component of online discourse, and this comic is one of the most poignant examples.
Sometime in the mid-2010’s, a two-frame excerpt from this Adam Ellis webcomic became one of the most popular reaction images used on social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr. Originally a commentary on the dismissal and condemnation of sports culture by those who view themselves as above it, the bottom two frames of the comic have since been appropriated as a one-size-fits-all response to a wide range of online criticisms. These criticisms range from tweets disparaging girls who wear too much makeup to legitimate critiques of popular movies to genuinely mean comments about things people are fans of.
In its initial wave of popularity, the comic became a motif for perceived underdogs of popular culture. It took on the world-weary tone of those who felt slighted by attacks on their fandom, their idol, or their enjoyment of any cultural phenomenon.
So as the comic got to be more and more overused in response to valid criticisms of media taken as direct attacks on fans’ taste or autonomy, critics began rising against the comic. They pointed out that fans increasingly level the comic at media critics out of a place of insecurity and “hivemindedness.” From critics’ point of view, most people who perpetuate the “let people enjoy things” narrative use it as an alternative to critical reflection and thought, allowing fans to avoid engaging with legitimate points of contention against whatever it is they’re a fan of. Misuse of the comic became so prevalent that Ellis tweeted out a follow-up comic, replacing the words “Let people enjoy things” with “Let people engage in constructive criticism.”
But critics of “letting people enjoy things” seem to be missing a large part of the argument — namely, the reason it became such a phenomenon in the first place. People connected to the comic so strongly because it renounced overly critical cynics who didn’t seem to want people to enjoy things.
Indeed, those who have spoken up against the misappropriation of Ellis’s original comic seem to never have personally encountered the obnoxious and very much snobbish contempt aimed at anything popular and anyone who dares to openly take pleasure in it:
Despite what the comic has evolved to represent, it didn’t start out as an annoying blanket response to negative reviews. In my experience, the main demographic of social media users who used the meme as a response to criticism, back when it was first gaining traction, was women and young (teen) fans. It was a rallying cry against a culture of cynicism and misogyny which actively discourages young girls and women from enjoying the things that they enjoy.
Think, for instance, of the unadulterated vitriol against fans of the book and movie series Twilight, the boy band One Direction, or even femininity in general. People have long judged and criticized cisgender women for such acts of femininity as wearing makeup and caring about fashion, reducing those who fit into this category into the caricature of a mindless bimbo.
And commentators have brought this point up in the discourse surrounding the “let people enjoy things” controversy, as evidenced by this Twitter thread:
While there’s absolutely a growing problem of people defensively employing Ellis’s comic to avoid internalizing negative reviews and levelheaded critiques, I think it’s important to remember that it goes both ways. As Twitter user Virtual Ruin articulated, some critics have also contributed to the meme’s widespread popularity by glorifying cynicism and contrarianism under the guise of critical thinking.
Yes, there’s a difference between “enjoying things” and refusing to let anyone find fault with the thing you’re enjoying. But there’s also a difference between criticism (constructive or otherwise) and attacking people for liking something simply because you think that thing is stupid. The polarizing mentality that things are inherently stupid, unimportant, or unworthy merits just as much examination as hiveminded fanship. Just because you believe that a movie, a TV show, or a trend reflects bad taste doesn’t mean that other people may not find joy, contemplation, or just plain amusement in it. For me, it isn’t negative reviews that threaten my enjoyment of a thing. It’s the condescension of those who not only dislike the thing, but think themselves superior to those who like the thing.
Do you agree with the thought that “letting people enjoy things” has gone too far? Or do you believe that there’s some nuance to be acknowledged in this controversy?