Book review

Dislike-minded: Media, audiences, and the dynamics of taste, by Jonathan Gray

Melissa A. Click

Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Antifans, Fandom

Click, Melissa A. 2023. Dislike-Minded: Media, Audiences, and the Dynamics of Taste, by Jonathan Gray [book review]. In "Trans Fandom," edited by Jennifer Duggan and Angie Fazekas, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 39.

Jonathan Gray. Dislike-Minded: Media, audiences, and the dynamics of taste. New York: New York University Press, 2021, paperback, $29.00 (259pp) ISBN 978-1479809981.

[1] Chances are you have already read something by Jonathan Gray, perhaps his conceptualization of antifans, exploration of parody and politics, treatise on paratexts, or analysis of The Simpsons. If you have, you likely know that Gray is deeply interested in the interplay of texts and audiences, an interest that is front and center in his new book, Dislike-Minded: Media, Audiences, and the Dynamics of Taste. If you are thinking through topics involving emotion and affect, marginalized audiences, and/or citizenship, I strongly recommend that you read this energizing, thought-provoking book. As an aside, the book's cover is fantastic, and its spine alone has sparked numerous conversations with students whose eyes are drawn toward its collection of side-eye emojis.

[2] Dislike-Minded, composed of five chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, is focused on "construct[ing] an account of what dislike is, what it means, how it works, what it tells us, how it matters, and thus how it should change and nuance our understanding of audiences and of their interactions with media" (4). Gray insists that media scholars do not fully understand dislike as a productive reading position. To demonstrate this, his book takes a luxuriously long look at the complexities of dislike, showing that listening carefully to dislike can help us better understand audiences' experiences with and expectations of media and representations—and their interpersonal relationships, too.

[3] It is quite a challenge to disentangle dislike from other emotional reading positions, and hate is one emotion that Gray faces head on in the introduction. He differentiates dislike and hate by suggesting that hate is psychologically grounded, typically targeted at groups, and rooted in an aggressive drive to incite violence, pain, anger, and/or elimination. Unlike hate, the goal of which Gray insists is ultimately harming people, dislike is focused on reactions to media texts; and thus, while the cancellation of a media text or character may be a goal of dislike, the trauma and pain fueled by hate just aren't possible to inflict on a media text. Gray (purposefully) makes the line between dislike and hate more blurred in the later chapters of the book, but he asserts that his primary focus throughout the book is what he ultimately calls "engaged dislike." The "engaged" part of dislike is present for Gray when he sees audience responses that move "beyond the figurative 'meh' or 'nah' to a declarative 'hell, no'" (5).

[4] Dislike-Minded is firmly rooted in the cultural studies tradition of audience studies and often speaks directly to fan studies scholars. The chapters invoke and grapple with questions raised by cultural studies scholars like Sarah Ahmed, Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, and more. Much of Gray's work calls attention to places where the study of audiences and fans has fallen short. As a result, each chapter offers scholars many new paths of exploration, and Gray directly calls readers to notice and fill the gaps in his work. I find it exciting that the book contains a number of new ideas and paths for scholars thinking about their next project. For instance, Gray's discussion of the book's methodology in the introduction invites us to think more carefully about how our own identities may shape who responds to our calls for participants and also about how our physical bodies may impact the information our participants share with us. When writing about his exploration of emotions with media audiences, Gray points out that the questions asked of the book's 216 interviewees were more focused on cognitive than affective reactions, and he expresses regret that he and his team didn't record "how respondents were speaking and about their bodily gestures" (24). Insert new project ideas here!

[5] The structure of Dislike-Minded contributes to what makes it such an interesting read; each chapter revolves around specific questions of dislike, and each new chapter builds on the previous one. Chapter 1 lays a solid foundation for the book, arguing that media scholars have only a limited understanding of textuality, and, as a result, "our record of audiences is sorely problematic and limited" (48). Gray insists that audiences have less choice over their media exposure than we are led to believe (or we argue) that they do. Further, he asserts that most of our exposure to media texts is partial, yet we researchers tend to study audience members who we believe have done "close readings" of the text. We have been looking, Gray suggests, too closely at things and are missing the bigger picture as a result. Shaking us out of the idea that the meaning of media (a book, a film, a TV series, etc.) is inside the text, Gray engages Barthes's distinction between "work" (the media text itself) and "text" (the work circulating in culture, interacting with audiences) to argue that our scholarship should be focused outside the work and that our true text is the circulation of the work. There's certainly a purpose for close reading of the work, but if we are interested in engagement with and by audiences, Gray argues we should be studying the text.

[6] If we do step back from a focus on the pleasurable, agentic audience to this broader idea of text, we must acknowledge that an "audience consists of all those who have interacted not just with the work but with any of the paratexts and/or the social trappings" (36, italics in original). When we look across texts at their circulation through culture, we see that media audiences regularly use media texts in ways that are "begrudging, coerced, and involuntary" (30), particularly with those experienced as invasive, ubiquitous, and inescapable. Gray supports these claims with poignant examples of interview participants enduring coerced, unpleasant exposure to media texts to maintain social ties with friends, family, and coworkers; this repeated exposure produces palpable dislike. Engaged dislike is particularly poignant when focusing on marginalized individuals and communities, and Gray's research demonstrates that these audience members are likely to experience "heightened levels of engaged dislike" because "they are required more regularly to do the hard work of grinning and bearing it" (45).

[7] Far from being boring or inconsequential, the accounts provided by these engaged dislikers (the folks we audience and fan studies scholars routinely ignore) demonstrate that audiences' dislikes can help us understand "what audiences perceive to be wrong with media, what is missing, what media could and should instead be and do" (67). Chapter 2 illustrates Gray's arguments in the previous chapter by showing us the big picture that dislike paints when we examine dislike with a focus on ideology, power, and meaning across many different media texts. Listening to what dislikers have to say about their failed expectations or hurt feelings caused by offending texts or "worst violators" helps us better understand audiences' values, ethics, and preferences, particularly around representation. Building on his assertions about marginalized audience members in the previous chapter, Gray explores the dashed hopes of historically under- and mis-represented audience members who experience dislike when disappointed by texts about which their hopes had been high: "Dislike is regularly born when a popular text lures us into thinking it will challenge the status quo, doing something better and different, going somewhere better, only to fail us" (99). The chapter also asks about who has the privilege to tolerate and dislike offending texts and explores instances where privileged audience members felt they should dislike (and not watch) something because of its limitations but didn't stop watching. If dislike is a regular component of marginalized viewers' experiences of media, and if engaged dislike helps scholars better understand what audiences want from media, then Gray's insistence that we listen more carefully to engaged dislike seems like an obvious path we should be taking in our research.

[8] The disappointment one feels when a beloved text or franchise is marred by an unsatisfying new chapter or version (adaptation, reboot, spin-off, etc.) is the engaged dislike at the center of chapter 3. In it, Gray argues that dislike of these "deal-breaker" texts helps "to tell us exactly what it was about 'the original' that was so valued and about the way love and fandom can quickly morph into dislike" (107). Again, Gray draws from interviews with audience members about several texts and also includes critics' reviews (critics are particular kinds of dislikers, after all). This chapter's focus on adaptations, series, and franchises raises important questions of generationality and changes in audience members' expectations and desires over time. In audience and fan studies, we tend to look at audiences' engagement with texts at particular moments instead of the full trajectory of the relationships built with texts over time. Likewise, adaptation studies rarely stop to thoroughly consider what the original meant to audiences in their exploration of the (in)fidelities of a new version of a story. Yet longitudinal audience studies are incredibly challenging to develop and sustain; as a workaround or accompaniment, Gray proposes "refractive audience analysis," a technique that explores audiences' reactions to an adaptation or remake to "tell us about responses to the original" (118). This analytical technique is a great tool for future exploration.

[9] At times dislike may be mistaken for snobbery (assumedly rooted in class), but chapter 4 proposes that dislike may be rooted in different identity positions, or perhaps in an entangled multiplicity of identities: religion, generation, sexuality, gender, race, and so on. To lead us away from thinking of dislike as classed rejection, Gray makes a call to broaden Bourdieu's exclusive focus on class. This launch point enables Gray to explore the performativity of identities (drawing from Judith Butler) and argue that dislike too is performative and enables audiences to claim membership in or distance themselves from particular communities. To support this assertion, Gray draws from interview data from two trips to Malawi that illustrates the interplay of generation, gender, nationality, and cultural identity in Malawians' reaction to imported media. The chapter closes with a reminder that some cannot or will not be able to articulate their dislikes; "some audiences variously struggle to articulate their dislikes or refuse to articulate them for fear of the social prices of doing so" (174). This is an important methodological reminder that Gray revisits in the next chapter.

[10] Just when you feel like you have finally developed a grasp on audiences' relationships to dislike, chapter 5 shakes things up by exploring the complexities and multidimensionality of dislike. In the complexities category, Gray explores dislike that is pleasurable, calling it the "poetry of putrescence" (181) and arguing that it is fairly common in popular culture, particularly in critics' reviews. Such poetry makes dislike itself a text and demonstrates that some mirthful dislike may actually be a survival technique that also helps to ensure that dislike will spread and ultimately stay stuck to its target. In essence, the argument here is that ridiculing a media text gives audiences some power over it.

[11] Gray's emphasis on hate-watching and competition among rivals in chapter 5 allows hate to sneak back into the conversation. While Gray draws a compelling distinction between trolls and dislikers here, I would have liked to see more exploration in this area, particularly because the trolls tend to be the folks targeting media representations of marginalized people (or marginalized people themselves)—making the stakes in this area quite high. Focusing on the multidimensionality of dislike, Gray argues that dislikes are intersectional: dislikes can work in harmony or they can disrupt or work against each other. He stresses that it is hard for audience scholars to fully understand all of the ways these interact because we do not know the people we interview that well—there are depths and complexities to our participants we cannot easily access. Additionally, Gray focuses on dislikes that may be deceptions, positing that stated dislikes may be covers for other reasons (including discomfort sharing with a researcher), and/or self-deceptions, to uphold their ideas about who they are. This is an important reminder that we can only see what audiences share with us and that there is always more beneath the surface—we really should think and talk more about how unspoken motivations (like identities) shape what we hear from audiences. Gray makes some important methodological observations at the end of this chapter and ultimately frames the chapter as "a plea for interactive approaches that consider dislike as regularly working in many ways at the same time for the same person" (212). This could certainly be extrapolated to other emotions, too.

[12] Demonstrating yet again his focus on the ideology, power, and meaning of dislike across media texts, Gray ties media viewership to citizenship and electoral politics in his conclusion, asserting that "audience behavior is often a rich site both for feeling the tremors and after effects of the political realm…and in turn for feeling where various tremors that will in due course hit the political realm originate" (214). The turn here in the conclusion might feel abrupt, yet when you look back over the course of the book, much of what Gray examines in these five chapters is focused on audiences' political engagements with texts. Underscoring this, Gray acknowledges that the everyday selection of the media that audiences will use is ultimately a political activity; he insists that we could (and should) take his discussion of dislike and apply it to the ways citizens react to policies, platforms, candidates, and so on. In other words, listening to citizens' dislike can help us understand what people want and/or how they feel excluded. Reminding us that we scholars are "communities of listeners" (218), Gray urges us to do better and pay attention to the kinds of dislikes that often go unheard, particularly in our contemporary political climate. The reward for doing so could "set us on a path toward understanding better what is being said in protests and expressions of political dislike, even if they too are couched in profane, negative, emotional, and/or excessive terms" (220).

[13] As I finish writing this review in February 2022, semitrucks are blocking key Canadian roadways to protest vaccine mandates, the federal hate crimes trial of the convicted three murderers of Ahmaud Arbery is just beginning, and NATO allies are in a stand-off with Russia at the border of Ukraine. Imagining talking to folks about their dislikes on these topics feels both intimidating and also so appropriate. In Dislike-Minded, Gray has laid out a fascinating array of paths for scholars interested in media audiences. I am looking forward to incorporating Gray's work into my own and cannot wait to see what others do with it. Like Gray, I believe we constitute communities of listeners and I am hopeful that incorporating Gray's suggestions into our work can help to clarify and possibly rectify some of the dislike in our world.