When discussing taste, we often speak about good or bad taste as if they are passively present in a person. “You either have good taste, or you don’t.” But what we choose to experience, and either like or dislike, is part of the process of developing taste. What it means to dislike something has not received enough attention, which is the focus of a recent book by Jonathan Gray, Dislike-Minded: Media, Audiences, and the Dynamics of Taste. When it comes to a piece of media, the focus tends to be on how many people saw it, how many people gave it good reviews or stars, and how much money it made. In other words, the focus tends to be on the seeming agreement of the majority of watchers or listeners.
While these positive numbers are useful and reveal something, they don’t reveal the full picture. Take, for example, the most watched Super Bowl, which was the 2015 game between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, which landed 114.44 million viewers. The numbers of people that watched are certainly impressive when compared with other sporting events, but there’s more to these facts. First, that means that 65% of Americans did not watch this Super Bowl. Why did some people choose not to watch? Well, some people just didn’t want to, so they chose not to watch. It could also be that some people wanted to watch, but circumstances prevented them.
Second, the fact that a certain number of people watched it, does not mean they all liked it. In Jonathan Gray’s study, a common factor about media that people disliked was the fact that they couldn’t avoid (or at least they felt they couldn’t avoid) watching it. Why would someone watch something they dislike? It could be a power structure in a family; for instance, the dad calls the shots about what they watch. It could be a significant other that imposes a particular show or sporting event. Or it could be the desire to participate in a particular community, like with one’s coworkers. All three of these reasons were given to the different interviewers in Gray’s studies.
Some people claim to dislike something that they have not really seen for themselves. At first glance, this may appear to be narrow minded or wrongheaded. But Gray takes his cue from others on the meaning of a text and paratext (coined by Gérard Genette). What we might normally think is the text, Gray calls the ‘work.’ This is the book, film, or painting itself, apart from anything else. By ‘text,’ Gray includes the work itself, plus all the cultural trappings. For example, the text would include the movie itself, trailers, reviews, blog posts, and more. The text and the things that surround it (hence, paratext) can all influence our like or dislike of a work. So, dislike is not as simple as it might seem.
After distinguishing dislike from hate (namely, that hate involves wanting to cause harm), Gray discusses two bases for dislike: worst violators and unmet expectations. The worst violators are those pieces of media that the perceiver thinks are just awful. They’re viewed as sexist, racist, dumb, or so on. Gray says in his interviews media that was placed in this group illustrated what the interviewees thought was wrong with the media. The unmet expectations (or disappointments) were those times where someone expected it to be good, but the media disappointed the viewer in a key way. These disappointments revealed what the participants believed was missing from media.
Considering that dislike reveals details about people’s motivations, those studying taste should consider what people dislike and why. This leads Gray to discuss Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas about taste, which he admits is common in media studies. Bourdieu was indeed a pioneer in studying taste, but he based all distinctions concerning taste on class. There are two pitfalls that make this view incomplete. First, people might often dislike things based on sexism or racism, even if most in their class like it. Second, Bourdieu’s theory tells us why someone chooses classical music over jazz, but it does not explain why someone chooses Lee Morgan over Miles Davis. As aesthetics has often had a relationship with politics, Gray concludes his book by pointing out that more work needs to be done, but he thinks that what he discovered about engaged dislike about media can also be applied wider to include dislike in other areas, like politics. If dislike of media is more complicated than we thought, then he believes that would also be true about dislike in politics. Thus, as much as possible, we should look past the possible rudeness or anger to really “hear what is being said.”