In My View: Understanding the Polygon column

It’s another week, and Twitter has become atwitter with its latest controversy du jour.

This time they’re focused on a column by Kambole Campbell that is titled: Wonder Egg Priority is reimagining Magical Girl empowerment.

According to the Twitter users, the title was only the beginning of the problems with Campbell’s overly enthusiastic analysis of the show. Most people took offense to this portion in particular:

“From the beginning are intricate layers of visual language that recall the work of A Silent Voice director Naoko Yamada (particularly her use of flower language) and the subjective, magical realist portrayal of reality that made Satoshi Kon a name. There’s even some Persona 5 in the way the show’s teenagers deal with the moral failings of adults.”

Wonder Egg Priority is reimagining Magical Girl empowerment

People largely mocked this sentence largely because of its mention of Persona 5. The commenters felt it was just another video game magazine stumbling around the anime space looking at the latest pretty show and going all dewy-eyed over how amazing it is.

Now, I came across this because Lys shared her thoughts about the furor. To paraphrase, she said the article was fine, and that anime fans should calm down.

She has a point. Collectively, we jumped all over Gatekeep Guy for his weird 20 anime list, and then we turned like a shark and enact the same fury on this guy. Seems like we’re doing the same thing he did.

I’ve already shared my thoughts about these kinds of reviews. Sometimes it’s useful to see anime through the lens of an outsider or at least someone who is less well-versed in the anime scene.

Whether it was overly enthusiastic or woefully inept, I can’t tell you. What I can’t do is respond directly to people’s criticisms of Campbell’s piece. 

What I can do is try to provide some context, so people stop getting so angry, and start understanding.

Let’s start with why I can’t intelligently talk about Campbell’s column.

The Anime Industry is Really Big and Really Small

I don’t know enough about magical girl shows to talk about them intelligently. I’ve never seen Sailor Moon, Madoka Magica, Precure or any of the other dozens of shows that are likely out there. I’m not familiar with the trends. I simply can’t talk intelligently about what is common knowledge and what is not. 

Even in genres that I’m familiar with like mecha or shounen fighting shows, I can barely talk with any authority. Sure, I’ve seen all of Votoms, Gundam Zeta, Macross, Eva, RahXephon, and at least a dozen others, but that’s only a small fraction of what exists. 

On top of that, you can invest years into a particular genre, and not see the particular interview where the particular creator said the one thing that you needed to know to understand the one scene that defined the show. 

None of this is helped by the fact that hundreds of anime are produced every year. You could have watched all of the significant shows for the past 10 years, and still not have a complete historical grasp on anime.

The breadth of anime as a medium is deep and wide. (Incidentally, it’s the reason I wrote this post a year or so ago.) 

Even with that breadth and depth, anime is really small as an industry. The newest numbers I could find came from a 2019 report that estimated that the industry was worth $10 billion. This was an all-time high for the industry. In fact, it was the sixth all-time high for the industry. 

In comparison, Netflix’s revenue, by itself, was $25 billion. The movie industry in 2019 reached $100 billion, and video games, well video games made a whopping estimated $179 billion last year. 

Anime could have 10 years with the same income and still not have pulled in what video games did in a single year. Quite literally, anime is smaller than each of those industries (as a whole) by a factor of 10. 

Putting this into context

The thing that shocks me at all is that the video game enthusiast press would sink any time into covering anime. When your industry is now a media goliath dominating the landscape, what do you gain out of covering the tiny anime industry fluttering around your heels? 

Well, honestly, it’s for a reason that people have been complaining about for years. There is a lot of bleed-through between anime fans and video games. People used to complain about the video game rooms at anime conventions, but there are likely just as many hardcore fans of video games that have bled through into watching anime.

While it’s a pleasant curiosity, it doesn’t pay the bills.

Just doing a quick search of Polygon’s site using “anime” as a search term pulls up 1,326 entries. Some of these are only tangentially related to anime, but it’s a useful comparison point. 

When I put video games into the search feature, 41880 entries show up. Some written by the same freelancers that filed anime features. 

This is what is important. Polygon is not going to invest a bunch of money into something that is only tangentially related to their bread and butter. They are going to put the most resources into the things that have the most interest. It’s not a surprise that I don’t see any articles on there about Otherside Picnic or Jobless Reincarnation. 

They’re targeting the shows with the widest appeal — Promised Neverland, Wonder Egg Priority and Jujutsu Kaisen. They’re all safe picks. (Although I am slightly surprised by Jujutsu Kaisen. It is a shounen show, so there is that.)

On top of that, the site is not going to invest in editors with a wide breadth and depth of knowledge. I guess that they are more likely to have arguments about what is the best Zelda game than whether it’s worth it to watch Fang of the Sun Dougram.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the editors were very much on the same level as the freelancers.

Generalists and specialists

There is one other important note about the writers and freelancers that write about anime at Polygon. That’s not the only thing they write about. 

For instance, the second author under Campbell is Toussaint Egan, who wrote: “What to watch after Jujutsu Kaisen.” He or she was also responsible for several other list articles like “10 movies to watch before they fade away like the dying sun in Sunshine” and “6 essential Black history docs that speak to Black present.”

The next person is the senior news editor for Polygon Michael McWhertor, who wrote that there is a Terminator anime coming to Netflix. It’s pretty easy to guess that most of his posts aren’t about anime.

I could keep going on, but I think you get the point. The people who are writing for Polygon about anime are generalists. Today they might be writing about Wonder Egg Priority tomorrow they’re trying to come up with a feature about the latest episode of WandaVision.

Writing, especially freelance writing, is about trying to get as much done in as short of a period as possible. If Campbell wrote about Wonder Egg Priority in two months, it likely wouldn’t be relevant anymore. If he waited until he could become the true specialist that anime fans seem to want him to become, well, he would starve before that happens.

And he presented a well-written case for why he believes Wonder Egg Priority is a special magical girl show. That’s what is important to editors at this point. That and he likely got it on deadline.

Now, I’m not sure if he pitched the article or it was pitched to him. He seems to be embedded enough that he has multiple bylines on the site, so I assume that he pitched the column.

Why can’t they all be specialists?

The one question that appeared to get asked multiple times is, “Why couldn’t this be better?” or “Why can’t video game websites do a better job covering anime?” 

The answer should be pretty obvious right now. Becoming a specialist in something is a time-intensive process. In this case, it’s a time-intensive process that doesn’t have much of a payoff. Their primary audience isn’t anime fans. It’s people who have a passing familiarity with anime. 

It’s really for the people that Gatekeeping Guy was criticizing. Expecting the site to suddenly cater to deeply enfranchised fans is frankly ridiculous. 

For the most part, I’ve stayed away from actually talking about the post because I don’t know enough about the material to have a critical reading of it. 

I do want to point out that along with mentioning Madoka and Sailor Moon, he did spend the time to research who was making the show. And he mentioned Satoshi Kon. As much as this guy might not be a Magical Girl expert, he isn’t just some schlub that walked off of the street. 

But if you’re upset about it, then I would urge you to try your hand at freelancing. It’s not an easy life, and you aren’t going to make a living as the man or woman who watches magical girl shows. 

That’s the real truth about why freelancers have to be generalists. They need to be able to write about as many topics as they can reasonably pitch to editors. 

In the end, he probably got a lot of grief for a feature that he got paid a few hundred dollars for (if he was lucky). 

I hope he got to get himself a beer with it at least. 

As always, thanks for reading. 

7 thoughts on “In My View: Understanding the Polygon column

  1. It is still just flickering images on a screen telling stories. I have never understood why people get worked up about anme. Perhaps they just want to get worked up over something and anime won the raffle.

  2. Thanks for this, which is a better-informed look at the media ecosystem side of this it than I’d ever manage!

    I do think the Polygon piece has flaws. I suspect it got the strong reaction it did in some quarters because it touched on an already-raw nerve: as some pointed out on Twitter (without @-ing the author) there’s a long history of magical girl anime receiving short shrift from writers who assume, with varying amounts of culpability, that they have a handle on it. It’s probably worth saying that.

    I think it’s a shame we have an ecosystem in which freelance writers wind up in this position. It’s particularly galling that the controversy will have sent a bunch more people to the article, so while the writer gets a bunch of people yelling at them on Twitter and has to lock their account, Polygon just get more clicks out of it. If anything, that’s an incentive for the site to encourage more writers into writing more inciting articles! This seems to me to fit a broader pattern of events which happens to freelancers writing in all kinds of fields. I wish paid writing on the internet functioned differently.

    While Wonder Egg Priority’s a critical darling this season, it’s making a considerably smaller splash with anime fans at large than Jujutsu Kaisen: WEP has about 256K user listings on MAL, while JK has about 766K; JK also easily beats WEP’s levels of upvotes and comments on r/anime. These are very crude measures, of course, but they’re what we have! Both are operating on a totally different scale to older anime (Votoms has about 18K MAL listings!), but I suspect Polygon might’ve generated more traffic from their Jujutsu Kaisen article.

    1. One of the things I’ve been thinking about writing about is the gap between the truly enfranchised fans and the less enfranchised fans. That’s gap is where I think a lot of this friction comes from.

      I do think the Twitter reaction to this was way outsized to whatever the perceived crime was.

      I’m also slightly troubled by Polygon’s reaction to this. If anything, they had the power to put out a mea culpa, which would have headed taken some of the pressure off of their freelancer. The fact that they didn’t leads me to believe that they really don’t care about maintaining their credibility with this audience.

      I have to admit that I was making a guess about WEP’s popularity this season mostly based on the traffic I saw on Twitter. Those are some good metrics to use, And it’s a crime that Votoms only has 18K MAL listings.

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