In April of 2008, Channel Awesome launched That Guy With The Glasses. One of the most prolific and popular vlogs on that site belonged to Doug Walker, who portrayed the Nostalgia Critic and made satirical reviews and recaps of various media for young audiences from the 80s and 90s. By August of the same year, Walker decided that he was tired of being asked to review media made primarily for a female audience, since he had no nostalgic ties to such media from his own childhood. To remedy this, he put out a casting call for a distaff counterpart, to be called the “Nostalgia Chick.”
After narrowing down countless entries, the position was given to Lindsay Ellis, who put her own spin on film criticism, focusing on historical accuracy, feminism, and other social issues in film in general. Since then, Lindsay has carved out her own presence on YouTube with several series critiquing film and television and made her own documentary, The A Word, about what life is like before and after terminating a pregnancy. Recently, she graciously sat down with me for a nearly three-hour long Skype interview to discuss the film industry and what it means for women and society in general. This is what she had to say.
Steph: Thanks for doing this, by the way–I geeked out so hard when I saw your reply email. 🙂
Lindsay: no prob! And you’re welcome 🙂
Steph: So, first question: How would you describe your channel, to someone who’s never watched any of your videos?
Lindsay: Ha, that is honestly the problem I have been having with my various YouTube networks and partner managers. At any given time I would say it’s in a state of flux, because if I don’t keep evolving I will get bored, but on the whole I would say that it is an informal edutainment-y application of academic concepts in media studies, such as story structure, film theory, film history, etc. Loose Canon isn’t even more informal run down where I look at different iterations of the same character, i.e. Queen Elizabeth the first, Starscream from Transformers, the Greek goddess Aphrodite, etc.
Steph: You’ve been doing film criticism online since 2008 (or earlier? Nostalgia Chick started in 2008, at least). What got you into media studies in the first place?
Lindsay: Well, the honest truth is that I studied in college. I kind of happened to fall in during a weird time at NYU where the cinema studies program, which was in the art school (Tisch) opened up their cinema studies major to students in the college of arts and sciences, which really is kind of where it belongs anyway. Film studies programs typically live in the film school, but really it’s a liberal arts major and belongs in the liberal arts school with the English majors and the philosophy majors. I went into NYU undecided, but once I fell into cinema studies, I stuck with it just because it seemed a natural fit. Anyway, I graduated in 2007 from NYU and at that time YouTube was really still basically a startup. Besides being in school, I had had a few jobs that taught me the basics of editing (at that time I was still using Final Cut Pro, I switched to Premiere a few years ago). In 2008 I lost my job, the economy crashed, and whenever the opportunity to apply for “nostalgia chick” came along, I felt like I was probably uniquely qualified among applicants, plus I really had nothing to lose.
Steph: And sometime during the Nostalgia Chick days, you went for a masters, if I recall correctly?
Lindsay: I actually sent in my application to USC the very same day I submitted my nostalgia chick video (Being Nostalgia chick predated my move to CA by about 3 months). That said, I honestly did not expect it to last more than a couple months, because like so many children of the recession, I decided that was a good time to go to grad school, and the school I went to really was like a Boot Camp, and keeping up with doing online video was extremely difficult (and they almost let me go a couple times because I wasn’t putting out enough content). But I kept with it throughout grad school, because it ended up being a much better source of income than anything else I could have done part time.
Steph: Yeah, I remember there being a period of your time as the Nostalgia Chick where you weren’t uploading a lot of videos. The fans seemed pretty understanding, though, from what I can recall. Or maybe just me. Speaking of your Nostalgia Chick days, one of my Facebook friends has asked, “What deal with dark forces did you strike for the inspiration for your video take on Anastasia?”
Lindsay: Well honestly that one also kind of sprung from my time in the cinema studies department at NYU, only I was taking the reading from Pocahontas and applying it to Anastasia. I only saw Anastasia as an adult, I believe I was a junior in college, and I found it absolutely horrifying in every respect. I mean the time period was basically in living memory when it was made (it had only been eighty years), this horrible thing that happened, and they made it into a whimsical musical! So I know a lot of people saw Anastasia as kids and totally have the nostalgia goggles on, but I was too old for that and had already imbibed the media studies kool aid. I think when you learn about the Russian revolution, and then you watch Anastasia the movie after it, it adds so many levels of horrifying.
Steph: Even back in 2008, you very clearly hated Pocahontas for the way it handled early American history. Want to talk about that one, too?
Lindsay: Well, truth is Pocahontas was the first Disney movie I ever saw where either because I was old enough or it just wasn’t very good, that after I saw it I was like “wait… I think that might have sucked.” So despite being a child of the Disney Renaissance, I never had much affection for Pocahontas. And the first cinema studies course I took at NYU actually focused on the Disney Canon, and the professor had a special hate Boner for Pocahontas in particular (even brought in a Native American studies professor to shit on the movie more knowledgeably). He actually likes to bring that up in his classes now, apparently, that my Pocahontas video was basically the notes from his class on Pocahontas. But I have to admit, that a very great deal of the content of that video was not my own observations, it is actually from my notes from that first Disney class.
Steph: On a related note, I get the sense from the current crop of Disney Princesses (Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Anna, and Elsa) that Disney has taken the criticism they’ve gotten about their Disney Renaissance and Classic Disney era princesses (including Ariel, who’s another one you’ve been vocal about for very good reasons) and are now deliberately trying to make their princesses be better role models for young girls. What are your thoughts on that, so far?
Lindsay: Well, I don’t think it’s really a moral stance, I think it’s just business. They were big into the more traditional female characters when that was what was in demand, and now the cool new thing is more dynamic female characters that aren’t motivated by romance. More than anything I think it’s just them being more in tune with what children actually want to see; young children don’t really care about romance, they care about adventure and character and fun. So I don’t think Disney is too terribly concerned with creating better female role models so much as they are just responding to market forces. But I don’t look at it in a cynical way like some people do; business is a part of life and if this is what the market wants to see, I don’t see why we should look at this as anything other than a good thing.
Steph: One of my favorite quotes from one of your videos is when you pointed out that to many filmmakers, “Life begins with man.”
The film industry in general seems to be catching on (slowly) to the fact that this is neither true nor a good standard to set, and as you just said, Disney’s definitely getting there. How soon do you think before films passing the Bechdel test become the norm rather than the exception?
Lindsay: I’m not sure, because the truth is behind the scenes it’s not getting better, it’s actually kind of getting worse. In sheer terms of percentages of female creators, it’s not much better than it was 20 years ago. So while it’s obvious that market forces are demanding more and better female characters, most higher ups and studios are still male and basically look at any female-led thing that isn’t a chick flick as a litmus test. I’d say that films passing the Bechdel test no longer being the exception will happen when female directors and creators are no longer the exception, and women working in the industry are no longer in the extreme minority. And I have no idea how long from now that will be, but I suspect it won’t be anytime soon.
Steph: Do you have any plans of going into mainstream filmmaking yourself? In addition to film critique, I mean.
Lindsay: No, right now I’ve pretty much set on focusing on entertainment writing.
Steph: That’s a shame, because while I haven’t seen The A Word (even though I REALLY want to–any chance of a wider release of that one at some point?), the point that I gather you were trying to make from it (judging only from the trailer and interviews, of course) was an extremely important one that to this day, half a decade later, still doesn’t get nearly enough of the attention it deserves–namely that women don’t get the therapeutic support they need after terminating a pregnancy. Are you comfortable talking about The A Word at all, by the way?
Lindsay: Not really, honestly. It didn’t get much attention from detractors until Gamergate came along, now that’s one of their favorite rallying cries. Plus the honest truth is I’m not too proud of it as a filmmaker, we had to do it in the course of one semester, so I think it is a lot weaker than it could have been if we had more time.
Steph: Seriously? It has detractors? Ugh.
Lindsay: Not detractors – just this odd “you had an abortion on purpose to make a movie/make money” narrative. Which is so absurd you can’t even really respond to it, but at the same time it’s not really something you want to give any more attention to.
Steph: People can be such idiots sometimes. You don’t deserve to go through any of that.
Lindsay: (those lucrative, lucrative student films)
Steph: (Lucrative films you haven’t even released to the public, even)
Lindsay: Well the other thing is USC owns the copyright on that, so even if in the unlikely event that it did make some festival money or something, I wouldn’t see it.
Steph: I’m not entirely surprised that you’ve dealt with so much sexism, given how many of your videos deal with various feminist topics–I’ve been watching a lot of anti-feminists on YouTube lately, and it’s insane how many more likes their videos get than feminist vloggers, at least in the ratio of likes to dislikes sense. It’s still really disheartening, though.
Lindsay: Yeah, there is no other way to describe it. There are a lot of [disillusioned] young men out there, and this is where they decided that the outlet for their anger is going to go.
Steph: It’s a shame, because a sexist, patriarchal society hurts men, too. They don’t seem to get that.
Lindsay: It’s not too terribly different from, say, Trump supporters blaming their unemployment or under employment on immigrants and minorities. Scapegoating some completely irrelevant thing for their own unhappiness. And, let’s face it, there are a lot of feminists out there to dismiss men’s issues (the high suicide rate, for example) to the point of extreme callousness, so you can’t completely blame these young guys for being angry about that sort of thing. It is somewhat misguided as I think that attitude does not represent mainstream feminism as a whole, but I do understand where it comes from.
Steph: What’s interesting, though, is that with the exception of MRAs, the people I most often see drawing attention to men’s issues are feminists. It’s like there’s this divide among feminism and no one can agree about what mainstream feminists stand for. Also, on the subject of Trump–one of your recent videos was a Loose Canon take on fictional portrayals of Hillary over the years, mainly from SNL. Want to talk a bit about that one?
Lindsay: What about the hillary ep?
Steph: Well, for those who haven’t seen it yet, what made you decide to make it, and what message were you hoping to get across?
Lindsay: It’s funny, I had people praising it for its neutrality (hehehe, sneaky) – but my intent was to show some perspective, get people to think about how she has been portrayed over the years has been a part of a narrative. I think a lot of people who are living through this election are too young to remember the constant and wild fluctuations in how Hillary Clinton has been perceived and portrayed by the media over the last 30 years. So the best way to have people question the picture of Hillary Clinton they are receiving as a result of this election cycle would be to show how it has changed over time based on the role she is playing in the media’s narrative. Is she the nagging harpy wife? Is she the power-hungry and vicious monster? Is she the bad ass Secretary of State? And also, to give some non-negative attention to Hillary, because in all regards there is way too much attention being paid to Trump.
Steph: I wonder how many people back in the “Hillary as First Lady” days ever expected her to eventually run for president? I mean, the signs were there, but it was unprecedented.
Lindsay: Even when Bill Clinton was first elected, pretty much everything about Hillary even in the early 90s was unprecedented.
Steph: How so, for our younger readers?
Lindsay: It is honestly kind of fascinating, the way Hillary Clinton was received in the 90s versus how was received into thousand and eight, but they were pretty similar as far as birth ladies went. But before then, there had never been a first lady of the United States who existed as anything other then support or decoration for the president. The fact that she had a career, that she was so politically active, and was so active in her husband’s administration – we have never seen anything like that before. And it’s funny to think even as recently as the 90s the idea of a “career gal” first lady was so unusual, whereas when Obama was elected it was completely unremarkable, even expected.
Steph: And now people are already asking Michelle Obama if she plans on running someday.
Lindsay: So in the 90s, despite the fact that the majority of women at the time were working women, the idea of a first lady fell into that niche was still pretty out there, and the fact that she was so unapologetic, even defensive about it, earned her a lot of pushback.
Steph: Why do you think people were so much slower to accept the idea of a first lady being a career woman when most other women in the country were already career women?
Lindsay: I honestly think it was political, but there was also a big feminist backlash at the time.
Steph: We’re almost out of time, so rapid fire: Which is your favorite series of videos you’ve put out so far, and why?
Lindsay: Generally I feel best about the long form video essay stuff I’ve done recently, and it’s also best-received. But there was some nostalgia chick stuff I did I liked, like Independence Day v. War of the Worlds, and Freddy got fingered, and Reality Bites. And my friends and I will always have a special fondness for the dark nella saga, clusterfuck though it was.
Steph: It was pretty funny, though. 🙂 Favorite movie of all time, and least favorite movie?
Lindsay: I don’t really have those. Like at any given time the movie I hate this most is something I saw recently and hated. But nothing is coming to mind atm. I suppose I have pretty strong negative feelings about Interstellar. And strong positive feelings about Mad Max: Fury Road. Kinda hated Man of Steel more than Batman v. Superman.
Steph: Interesting–why, if you have time?
Lindsay: It had a really bad structure. Basically three movies in one. And the whole thing was out of order for the audience to give a shit about the info they were being given at any given time. BvS was dumb as hell but at least it was… one story. You can go non-chronological at your own risk, I don’t think Snyder can pull it off.
Steph: More rapid fire–3D movies: Yes or no, and under what circumstances?
Lindsay: No because they give me a headache (as they do a solid 25% of the population). IMAX > 3D – if we must inflate prices, gimme IMAX with a 10.2 system.
Steph: Only two more, since neither is necessarily a fast answer: My all time favorite thing you’ve ever said in any of your videos was about how you can’t turn your brain off when watching movies, and even if you could, you wouldn’t want to. What would you say today to people who say that you should just enjoy movies without analyzing them?
Lindsay: I think it’s a defense mechanism, and there is something about their worldview that is threatened by the idea of questioning or analyzing the media they consume. Something about the way they are raised makes them feel personally attacked or judged, and that is something you can’t work out for other people – they have to work it out themselves. And to them I wouldn’t say anything, but simply present what I do in as an accessible and easy-to-swallow means as possible, and in that subtle way try to encourage people to detach their ego from the media they love. That first step is the most important – after that, critical analysis should be fun and engaging.
Steph: And final question–what do you wish we had talked about that we didn’t? If you could leave our readers with one final thought, what would it be?
Lindsay: Um… I’d ask why there are so few women in media criticism on YouTube when there are so many in academia. Not just feminists, but women in general. In the film crib community as a whole, really, not just on Youtube – strange dearth of women. And final thought… is that critical analysis and being skeptical is important, but there is a big difference between that and conspiracy theory. I think that sort of thing is really alluring to a lot of people who feel like they don’t have control of their lives, and that’s why a very large certain… sect of person (the rational skeptic anti-feminists, who for “rational skeptics” sure do get emotional…) who gets into this sort of thing and falls down a conspiracy hole, which ultimately serves only to make themselves feel better. Critical analysis should exist for the sake of exploring our own culture and bettering the medium, not for maximum pwnage. And in all studies – feminism, film crib, etc – we need dialogue, not maximum pwnage. But with all the defensiveness and rage brigades I see, that’s becoming more and more difficult. So that I think is what we as people in the film crit community should be working towards – how do we get our dialogue back, and scale back the need for maximum pwnage?
Steph: And as much as I would love to spend another three hours discussing those topics (seriously. I really, really would), I promised I’d let you go. 🙂 This interview has been fantastic–thank you so much for talking with me today.
Lindsay: No prob, thank you!
For more of Lindsay’s work, visit her channel here.