It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate-Watching

With its live broadcast of "Peter Pan," NBC may have been bracing itself for a night of nasty tweets. But a rapt, snarky audience is a whole lot better than none at all.

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Well, it happened. Peter Pan Live. It came, it sang, it conquered—only half as many households as The Sound of Music Live Anschluss-ed over last year, true, but considering the state of network television these days, NBC can’t be too disappointed. Allison Williams flew, the Lost Boys danced with alarming muscularity, Christopher Walken gamely turned up in Adam Ant’s 1986-stagewear and makeup that made him look eerily like RuPaul’s permanent judge and girl Friday Michelle Visage on Drag Race.

But how was the show? It was … fine, I guess. Williams is not as gifted a singer as Carrie Underwood, excusably, but she is a much, much better actress, despite her blindingly white teeth (Neverland having becoming, apparently, a hot destination for those looking for a bargain on cosmetic dentistry) and the bizarre choice to have her affect a plummy, modulated British accent that made her sound like she was playing Kristin Scott Thomas in a community theater adaptation of The English Patient. As for Christopher Walken, the day I stop finding him a strange and fascinating creature to watch do pretty much anything is the day I hang up my keyboard and retreat to an underground hermitage in Yukon Territory (as long as my Canadian visa comes through, obviously), even though several of my viewing companions expressed that dancing around on a boat might be emotionally difficult for him “you know, after everything that happened with Natalie Wood.” I have, of course, my minor quibbles: the wasting of the notable talents of Kelli O’Hara, Christian Borle, Minnie Driver, etc. But look, Peter Pan is a musical traditionally performed by an androgynous middle-aged woman, a queeny old Englishman, and a bunch of children. There just isn’t a lot for them to do, which obviously has far more to do with the choice of material than the production itself.

Speaking of the source material, I can’t even quite get myself riled up about some of its more odious aspects. The conceit that a young girl’s adventure of a lifetime turns out to involve mostly cooking and cleaning up after a bunch of boys who refuse to take care of themselves, even though the youngest among them looked at least about 27? Women’s Studies 101 stuff, even if it does say something about the arrested state of the modern male traditional gender roles blah blah blah. (They bring Peter, the father, his slippers, but Wendy? She gets to relax by doing more fucking sewing for the ungrateful little shitheads.) I’m also unsure if the Tiger Lily stuff is less racist for being so much more … naked? Than the original? But you know, whatever. On the surface, Peter Pan seems like custom-chewed crocodile chum for the professionally outraged. There are simply so many groups to offend: feminists, Native Americans, transgendered people, pirates. 

(That Little Mermaid “Kiss the Girl” scene they added in of Peter and Wendy in the rowboat, like if Wendy just gets Peter to kiss her he’ll be able to keep his penis forever, will be the jumping off point for a hundred dissertations on gender theory 20 years from now, mark my words.)

And yet, for now, all seems quiet on the Twitter front. There has been no meaningful protest, no cries of outrage or demands for apologies. The aforementioned groups—and may I include musical theater purists among them—have for the most part been as silent about their offense as one imagines neo-Nazi groups were during last year’s Sound of Music. (Seriously, don’t they get sick of always being the bad guys? I mean, at the time, they thought they were doing the right thing! When will it be Herr Zeller’s turn?) Perhaps NBC genuinely managed to neutralize any nascent concerns ahead of time (changing all the lyrics to “Ugga-Wugg” certainly helped; I can’t imagine the lyric about the “brave, noble redskin” would have gone over very well)

Or maybe, NBC’s campaign to tell us, again and again, what assholes we would be if we decided to be mean about such a well-meaning effort. Again and again, in every promotional interview, Allison Williams and Christopher Walken and Craig Zadan and Neil Meron told us over and over again, Look, we know you think you’re going to hate this. We know you’re going to hate-watch it and look for stupid stuff to write mean tweets about to make yourself feel better about losing out the role of Nana in your grade-school production to an actual dog, like that actual dog had parents who wanted to go see it and be proud of it doing something positive one fucking time. But please, please don’t! Putting on this show is really hard! We’re trying really really hard here! And you don’t you love musicals? If you’re aren’t nice, maybe we’ll never get to do one again and then you’ll be sorry. Won’t you? Won’t you?

This special pleading, persuasive though it might be to those of us who are genuinely moved to see Kelli O’Hara on our television screens (and way to go Kelli, for getting four costume changes into a role that has roughly 10 minutes of stage time), betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the culture of what has come to be known as “hate-watching,” or in its slightly older form, “snark.” Musical theater is an exalted and deeply emotional art form, but it is also, even in its purest and noblest incarnations, an expression of high camp. The power of the American musical is its ability to simultaneously give into and poke fun at its own silliness. To point out flaws—particularly in a witty, knowledgeable way—doesn’t mean you hate something; in fact, the true connoisseur of camp mocks because she loves. Look at any drag queen playing Liza Minnelli—hell, look at Liza herself. Both seem to say: Yes, this is ridiculous. But isn’t it wonderful?

Yes, Allison Williams et al., it really sucks to work very hard on something and then have everyone say mean things about it. But you know what really, really sucks? To work very hard on something and have nobody say anything about it at all. I don’t, like, tweet funny, mean things about Castle or Monday Night Football because I don’t even know what those things are. The opposite of love isn’t hate—it’s indifference. And unfortunately, if you’re not willing to embrace the hate, indifference is sometimes all you get.

As Stephen Sondheim himself wrote, nice is different than good. It’s all very well to think lovely, wonderful thoughts. But lovely is not the same as loving. We can clap our hands all we want if we believe in fairies, but sometimes, the only thing that can rouse Tinkerbell back to life is a nice, strong boo. 


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