A few weeks ago, I was in line for food at a conference. I was eyeing up the line of baked potatoes ready to be devoured and turned to the woman behind me.
“You know I’m willing to fight you for one of these?” I told her. It was meant to be a cheeky opener and not an actual threat.
“Oh!” she replied. “Sorry, I don’t like potatoes.”
Now, unfortunately, women are often socialised to apologise for things that they don’t need to apologise for. But this didn’t feel like a ‘sorry for existing’, which has its own tone and body language and general air about it. This ‘sorry’ felt like something else.
“Sorry –” yes, I said it. I’m a part of the problem “– why are you apologising?”
“Well, you seem to like them, but I don’t. A lot of people like potatoes, actually. But I never have.”
“And you’re sorry about it?”
She nodded. Apparently, she was relieved that she hadn’t caused offence with her blasphemous desire to avoid starchy vegetables.
I’ve been thinking about that conversation ever since.
This was not the first time someone had apologised to me for not liking something. I’ve had people ask me not to hate them after admitting that they didn’t like Hamilton. I’ve had people cover their faces after telling me that they don’t enjoy reading. I can’t count the number of times someone has said, “Sorry, I only watched the movies.” or “I never got into it, sorry!” when talking about Harry Potter.
In fact, a couple of days before the Potato Incident, I met a couple of Americans at a bookshop in Oxford. Some of the workers were talking about Harry Potter trivia. I had to explain to the Americans who Grawp is. During the conversation, my PhD in YA – and specifically in Harry Potter – came up.
The American gentleman immediately grimaced. “Bet you must hate that we didn’t know who that character was.”
No, I don’t hate it. Hate is a powerful emotion to come out of something so relatively trivial. And yet, so many people are absolutely sure that not liking something will draw that reaction. Often, they’re right.
You are what you love
We tend to define ourselves by what we like. We include our likes in our bios on social media, we follow accounts with similar interests, and we want to surround ourselves with like-minded people. There’s a reason that fandom can be such a big part of peoples’ lives: it creates an opportunity for people who love the same thing to come together.
Some fandoms even have names of their own – like the Whovians, Bronies, Potterheads, Twihards, Furries, etc. They become labels to wear.
I’m not bashing this. I think it’s wonderful that people come together to support what they love. I think it’s infinitely more helpful than coming together to bash what you hate. Swimming in a cesspool of negativity will always leave a mark.
Communities of people who love the same things are important but, even if you can’t find a community, you can still gain so much from the things you love. Whether it’s media, food, or activities. Loving something makes people more interesting.
Loving things isn’t always good for you. Which is why we have labels that end in -holic; alcoholic, shopaholic, etc. These are people who love in excess. They’re something-addicts.
Love, even when it’s painful, defines us.
Why must we love certain things?
When you don’t like something that everyone else does, it’s isolating.
If you grew up in the Harry Potter era – between 1997 and 2011? – you were probably expected to have read the books. I remember my friends, and I used to pass them around at the lunch table. If you weren’t reading, then you were staring into the middle distance and waiting for someone to talk to you. Harry Potter was part of the fibre of our group.
If someone didn’t like Harry Potter, my friends and I (I’ll admit, I was part of the problem then as well) would begin a systematic conversion. We would saturate our conversations with everything Harry Potter-related. We would show the poor soul pictures of the actors who played Malfoy and Hermione to entice them to watch the films. We would literally hold people down and force them to read. I used to think that anyone who didn’t like Harry Potter had something wrong with them.
People also needed to know the Harry Potter stories to get the references that the rest of popular culture was making. My friends and I would send each other clips of the Potter Puppet Pals, Wizard Wrock and Saturday Night Live. Not liking Harry Potter was blasphemous. People who didn’t like the books needed help (the movies… well) and was considered deeply uncool.
Trust me, if you were considered uncool by my friends, something was terribly, terribly wrong.
Love and Hate
Of course, it wasn’t enough to just like Harry Potter – everyone in our friendship group was also obliged to hate Twilight.
We created a little hivemind where we all liked the same things and hated the things that the world told us were different. Twilight and Harry Potter aren’t worth comparing – it’s like comparing apples and goats – but they were often held up in comparison because they were both massive, money-generating series back when YA was still becoming economically viable. Thanks to news outlets and other fans, my friends and I learned to hate the one and glorify the other.
One of my friends loved Twilight – and Harry Potter – and she had to defend her choice to the rest of us repeatedly. We thought she was nuts. To like Twilight when Harry Potter already existed? What possible need did she have to like anything else? Not to mention, in liking Twilight, she was perpetuating a toxic world because Bella was forced to do the things Edward did and like the things he liked.
(oh, the irony)
The ability to define yourself in opposition to what other people love used to be a big part of some fandoms, though I’m happy to see that a lot of this is fading away now. There’s still the odd feud – the Marvel vs. DC feud is notable – but overall, it seems to have died down.
Now, it’s more in the realm of politics that people tend to identify themselves through love and hate. If you love Obama, you must hate Trump. If you love your country, then you must hate immigrants*. Vegans have an unfortunate reputation for violent opposition of meat consumption – to the point of assaulting people who consume animal products and destroying private property.
It’s not just friendship groups and political parties that can create a culture of intolerance fuelled by an expectation of love. If you were raised in a religious household and you’ve had doubts about the faith, you’ll know how terrifying it can be to bring that up with your family. Religious differences can be enough to get you thrown into the gutter in some rare, horrific instances.
Even if your family is understanding and tolerant, there will probably still be a shift. A recognition that someone at the table doesn’t love what they others love – they don’t fit the label anymore.
Flaws and all
Sometimes, liking something means liking all of it, and that’s when things get really tough. When you’re not allowed to think critically about the media you consume, you’re begging for a culture of ignorance.
My friends and I loved Harry Potter. We used to defend its merits to the point of exhaustion. Imagine my horror when, after doing a little research, I realised that there were almost no POC in the books!
I told myself that it had been set in England and POC aren’t as common there.
(yeah, I know)
When I found out that the ONLY Asian character, Cho Chang, has two Korean last names instead of a full Chinese name, it got a little harder to defend the books.
It got harder still when JK Rowling retroactively added LGBTQ+ characters in lieu of actually giving them space and a voice in the books.
By the time I was an adult, I had given up on my knee-jerk instinct to defend at all costs. It wasn’t easy. But it’s part of growing up that you realise that nothing is perfect. Not people, and certainly not media.
I wish that I could say that people always grow out of this, though. Many do. Some don’t. Those are the people you need to apologise to when you don’t like something they like.
See, when you define yourself and your identity by the things you love, then you’ll be very sensitive to anyone saying they don’t like it. Because that’s akin to them saying that they don’t like you. They’re saying that there’s something wrong with your identity – even if that something is a tiny part of a much larger story.
Don’t say you’re sorry
The whole point of media is that it appeals to specific demographics and target audiences. That is why so much of media is split into genres – so that people can choose what appeals to them and avoid what doesn’t.
You’re not under any obligation to like something just because everyone else does. Even if it’s Harry Potter. That doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to bash it – by all means, avoid being a dick where possible – but don’t feel pressured or ashamed because you’re being told that something is wonderful when you really can’t see what the fuss is all about.
You’re also allowed to critically think about the things you love. You’re allowed to unpack a character’s motivations with the evidence from the text and conclude that something is lacking. You’re allowed to recognise the holes in a story world even if those holes make white people uncomfortable.
Yes, some people may insist that you enjoy the things that they do, but I promise you that it isn’t compulsory.
If someone is trying to shame you for not liking something, it’s not about the thing – it’s about them.
Especially if they’re getting upset over bloody potatoes!
*Obviously, people are more complicated than that. But the expectations, assumptions, and stereotypes that come with certain labels are hard to shake.