Criticism is on the rise, but why have we really become so critical of one another?

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Hannah Keegan
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Flaw-finding has hit its peak. But is our nitpicking culture letting perfect be the enemy of good?

The artwork The Birth Of Venus has been critiqued to death. And who can blame us? It’s been on the cover of a Lady Gaga album; the New Yorker (twice); in a Bond film. “[It] doesn’t strike me as being superior to any number of fine Renaissance-era paintings,” said one art blogger, but to Guardian critic Jonathan Jones it’s “genuinely divine”. 

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Is it overrated? Heavenly? A narrow depiction of beauty? (Yes, obviously.) The debate and critique is part of the fun of visiting and revisiting her in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, where she has hung for nearly 100 years. She won’t be any different, but you might discover what’s changed is you. 

But while art sits static ready to be deconstructed and picked apart, people do not. We morph as our experiences, education and minds evolve. And yet these days, the level of critiquing we level at others is unprecedented – righteously holding each other to a standard of excellence that borders on the inhuman. It means avoiding criticism has become a common aim.

An example: you go vegan. Do you keep this quiet for fear of an inspection from friends or colleagues on your other environmental choices? “But don’t you wear leather?” they might ask, “and is that a plastic cup?” Gasp! This is your cue to get back in your box and never try doing anything worthwhile ever again. 

Criticism is amplified at its worst online. Take the body positivity influencer Michelle Elman, for example. She thinks very carefully about what she writes on the internet. She types. Deletes. Types. Deletes. The drafts pile up as she goes. “I wait until I’m in a good headspace in case it blows up,” she says. And by blows up, she means sparks debate, gets critical, and then inevitably, horribly, gets personal. It’s anxiety-inducing stuff. “By the time I post, I’ve put it through a filter of any possible hate it could get, so I’m ready,” says Elman. She wasn’t always like this. Initially, she shared her thoughts with the same nonchalance as if the world was her closest friend. 

Elman was mainly posting about her body. Why? Well, it had been through a lot. She’d had a brain tumour, a punctured intestine, an obstructed bowel – all resulting in 15 surgeries that left her with scars she loathed and then, eventually, loved. Sure, there were occasional “you’re ugly”, “you’re fat” comments, but they didn’t penetrate. When it came to her looks, she’d grown skin like a rhino. “Truly,” she says, “I am very body confident.”

Boyd positivity influencer Michelle Elman is a target for online trolls.

Then 2016 happened. In 2016, Elman did her first paid Instagram post for a clothing brand and unleashed a debate about whether she was the ‘right’ kind of activist. “Back then, no one was getting paid work in body positivity,” she says. “People were saying that I was selling out, that I was a bad person, that I didn’t care about the industry.” She became a talking point for whether activists should work with brands – and if she wasn’t the perfect activist, then what was the point of doing it at all? “I take criticism on board, I say thank you for alerting me,” Elman says, “but it’s also like, how am I supposed to know before I know? It seemed there was no room for me to grow and make mistakes.”

Critical condition

While no one is void of criticism, grimly, there’s evidence that it’s much worse for women online. In research carried out by the digital security firm Norton, nearly 50% of female respondents said they had experienced some form of abuse or harassment online

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For women under 30, it was 76%. The 16-year-old Nobel Peace Prize-nominated climate change activist Greta Thunberg could tell you about this. She’s been called a “mentally ill Swedish child”, an “actress”, “attention-seeking” and the “victim of pushy stage parents” online. And then there’s Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who is unable to breathe without being criticised: for modifying her engagement ring; for supporting her friend Serena Williams at the US Open when she “should” have been at home with her son; for closing her own car door – remember that?  

More recently, actor and activist Jameela Jamil was criticised for being “too beautiful” and “too slim” to be part of the body positivity movement, despite successfully lobbying Instagram to enforce age restrictions on content related to diet products and cosmetic surgery. “Jameela Jamil is so fucking annoying… look in the mirror, you’re conventionally attractive. Stop acting like you’re oppressed for your looks and body. She comes off really condescending,” one user wrote on Twitter. 

And then there are those whose missteps have been undeniable, like the time Lena Dunham claimed the woman accusing her friend of rape was lying, releasing this opinion in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter as though that was that; or when she said she wished she’d had an abortion – just for the experience. But rather than, “I think you’re wrong and here is why”, the response online is more often something along the lines of, “please die”. “Lena Dunham needs to leave the Earth”, “Lena Dunham is so gross, like the grossest person alive I think”, and “Lena Dunham should be tried at The Hague”, are just a few of the tweets that appeared when I typed her name into Twitter at the time of writing this. 

The picture that launched a thousand trolls: Meghan Markle closing a car door last year.

Cancel culture

In internet parlance, the sudden group decision that a person is over is known as ‘being cancelled’. You might have watched it happen to rapper Megan Thee Stallion this year when a homophobic tweet from 2011 resurfaced. “Took y’all long enough,” one person wrote on Twitter.

According to Dr Bernie Hogan of Oxford University’s Internet Institute, it means we’re now seeing people as brands, not humans. “With a brand, we expect it to stand for something, whereas people change over time. We have a notion of contrition or forgiveness or punishment, we can say, ‘OK, they’ve apologised, they’ve paid their due’. But with a brand, we see it as tainted.” 

Today, real brands are at greater risk of being cancelled when they get it wrong, too. And how they respond is key. In 2017, Pepsi pulled their tone-deaf #BlackLivesMatter-inspired advert with Kendall Jenner, which depicted Jenner handing a can of Pepsi to police at a protest, and seemingly ending all the world’s injustices in doing so. Jenner tearfully apologised, while Pepsi released a statement saying they “missed the mark and apologise”.

Other brands and organisations have become so self-conscious of criticism that they’re doing it before anyone else has a chance to. In August, Channel 4 released an advert called ‘Complaints Welcome’ using real online criticism and featuring personalities from the network. “Channel 4 is incompetent on many levels,” says comedian Jamali Maddix. “This just confirms my suspicion that women aren’t funny,” says his colleague Sharon Horgan, smiling. “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” says the newsreader, wandering the snowy wastes north of the Wall. 

JP Hanson, CEO of marketing agency Rouser, says brands are more likely to bounce back when they respond with some humour. He mentions the time KFC went viral for running out of chicken, then launched a campaign off the back of the mishap where they changed the letters on their bucket from ‘KFC’ to ‘FCK’. “They basically said, in plain English, that they fucked up, and managed to uplift brand perception by doing so,’’ Hanson explains.

Greta Thunberg may have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, but people still love to criticise everything from her appearance to her mental health.

It’s also worth mentioning that our collective values as a society have changed – for the better – and when this happens, we represent them differently online. Could Pepsi have got away with that advert five years ago? The answer is, sadly, maybe. “Eventually, social corporate responsibility is going to become a sort of hygiene factor for companies,” says Hanson. “At the moment, in marketing land, there is this idea that consumers want brands to be aligned with social causes, which is why so many are putting their attention there – but it isn’t always believable in terms of what they really stand for.” But even when things get bad for a brand, it usually looks worse than it is. “We like to appear to be doing the right thing,” he adds, “but our outrage usually doesn’t translate to a significant loss of sales for brands… there is a big splash, but not a lot of rings on the water.”

Defy or delete

The real impact of cancel culture is on people, and the lengths we go to in order to avoid being on the receiving end of it. “On the internet, we tend to think about the lowest common denominator of our audience and then appeal to them,” says Hogan. “When people gain followers, we know the number of words they use and the number of different topics they talk about actually decreases. People become more of a brand. We become less risky.” In other words, fear of criticism edits us. 

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In 2015, at the height of Girls, Lena Dunham decided that Twitter was too risky altogether. She deleted the app, announcing that friends would post on her behalf. The actor Daisy Ridley deleted her Instagram account after being criticised for posting in support of gun control. “I’m just not equipped for it,” she said.

Mary Beard posted a photo of herself crying when she was criticised for defending Oxfam workers accused of sexually exploiting women in Haiti. Diane Abbott apologised when she was caught drinking alcohol on public transport, despite collective eye-rolling at the outrage. “Oh mate,” said writer Philippa Perry, “we’ve all done it. Anyway thanks for travelling on the Tube like most people have to do.” 

According to Bea Karol Burks of innovation foundation Nesta, platforms are already adapting to our reluctance to be vulnerable online. “We’re seeing platforms like Instagram, for example, creating the ability to have ‘close friends’ and different, select circles that we trust and share with,” she says. “In the future, we’ll be living in different layers of reality, where we behave differently depending on who we choose to share with.” 

Lena Dunham was a victim of our society's cancel culture.

But for those like Elman, shouting about their work is the whole point. She hopes – no, knows – that her posts help people, yet sometimes she still chickens out. “Last year, hardly any of my content was political. It’s safer to talk about clothes than the things I care about, because the answer isn’t black and white,” she says. “In this environment, a lot of people are too scared to say or do anything because of the risk. We need to let humans be humans. Make mistakes. Grow.”

But being genuinely authentic today – posting unselfconsciously, without an agenda of being applauded for saying the right thing at that right moment – also means being vulnerable, and it can feel more peaceful to opt out, like Ridley. Except where does that leave us? With platforms full of thoughts so unnuanced that they leave no room for debate or a conflicting point of view. Sure, criticism is often vital in making us question our ideas and improve, but to criticise good intentions for lack of perfect execution, or wording, or extending to every thought the person has, hampers any form of progress and dissuades us from speaking out on anything important in the process. 

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This isn’t a new idea. In Voltaire’s moral poem La Bégueule, published in 1772, he famously warned that “perfect is the enemy of good”, cementing his fate to appear on Pinterest boards forevermore. It’s also a sentiment that Jamil – certainly polarising right now – expressed in a recent interview on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.

Jamil was promoting her show The Good Place. She was feeling a little fidgety, swinging on her chair, shrugging at Noah’s mention of ‘skinny teas’ – “They’re laxatives,” she said, “you just shit fire.” But when he mentioned online criticism and cancel culture, her back straightened. She had something to say. “The thing we’re searching for in society is moral purity and you’re just never going to find that,” she said. “All you can find is progress.” It’s worth considering the next time you type and delete. 

Images: The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, 1484-85, via Getty Images, Getty Images


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Hannah Keegan

Hannah Keegan is the deputy features editor at Stylist magazine. You can find her on twitter at @hannahkeegan.

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