As we roll on towards the end of 2018, this point in the year is typically designated as Best Of season for writers such as myself. I’m a sucker for lists so this is a good time for me. I like the often unnecessary and convoluted nature of ranking things you loved based on arbitrary qualities more than I’m willing to admit. Yet every year these conversations lead to the same levels of self-aggrandizing and overtly confident declarations that certain things are ‘overrated’. Everyone loves to throw around that word and direct it at every piece of pop culture imaginable. Oh, Avengers: Infinity War was overrated. Ugh, wasn’t Crazy Rich Asians overrated? How about Burning, that Korean drama by Cannes Film Festival award winner Lee Chang-dong? Totes overrated. Of course, we’re also one year on from the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and all you have to do is express mild appreciation for it on Twitter before the usual hordes find their way into your mentions to let you know that it’s the most overrated film ever by stuck-up SJWs such as myself.
‘Overrated’ is now a meaningless term, and I think we should stop using it for a while.
When words or phrases are used wrongly or for ill purposes, that doesn’t make the word itself necessarily bad. Think of how long ‘feminist’ was weaponized against those who identify as such. However, it’s also true that you often lose control of language beyond your reach and getting it back can be an insurmountable task. I had this conversation with friends over the weekend regarding the term ‘Mary Sue’. What was once a helpful trope for a very specific phenomenon in fan-fiction has been rendered useless by sexist creeps who have co-opted it to deride any competent female character with a discernible personality. It happened to Manic Pixie Dream Girl too, to the point where the trope’s creator, Nathan Rabin, admitted he regretted coming up with it in the first place. It’s no coincidence that the terminology of fandom and pop culture, so often used by women and people of colour, is thrown back in our faces by those who think our mere presence here is a crime.
‘Overrated’ hasn’t quite reached those levels of toxicity, but it is applied with the same cavalier attitudes and giddiness of superiority. Too often, the cries of ‘this film is overrated’ is the beginning and end of the conversation. It does not spark debate so much as it seeks to shut it down. There’s no rhyme or reason behind it. This year alone, I’ve seen it used to dismiss everything from Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up special Nanette to the Spongebob Squarepants musical to the experimental indie drama Madeline’s Madeline, a movie that made about $185k at the box office. Every film-maker is overrated, be they creating $300m blockbusters or shooting low-budget fare that is seen by critics and not much else.
The moment something becomes popular, it will become overrated to some. It’s an instinctive reaction for many, and I’m not exempt from that phenomenon. We’ve all had that moment where we’ve finally caught up on that movie everyone’s talking about, only to feel less than enthused about it. when the hype gets too loud or that seemingly united front opposing your own opinions gets a tad too much, you reach for the ‘overrated’ label. It’s easier to throw around than to work out your own feelings on the matter and it can be satisfying just to shove that declaration in someone’s face. But who benefits from it?
I think the ‘overrated’ conundrum is one of the reasons so many people in my field get pent up about the notion of backlash. I see it a lot during this time of the year when the Best Of lists appear but also as Awards Season rolls on. Before a film festival’s cycle ends, we can see consensus build up around a much-hyped title. The applause will roar on, the new stars born for the braying crowds, and predictions of Oscar glory made with utmost certainty. Then the rest of the world sees the film, or at the very least, the other critics who didn’t go to the festivals see it. I’ve written about this problem before and how the notion of awards season backlash is usually just the reality of the critical conversation moving beyond exclusive circles. The overrated problem feels like a big part of this fear. Critics want to avoid such glib reductions of the narrative so the moment anyone expresses mild discontent or a point-of-view that wasn’t part of the original bubble of hype, they see it as an ‘overrated’ moment and dismiss it out of hand.
But ultimately it goes far beyond that. To call something overrated is all too often a way to attack easy or vulnerable targets. It requires endless moving of the goalposts in order to retain any sense of meaning. Is something overrated to you because a lot of people like it? Or a lot of critics? Or just certain critics you don’t like? What is to be gained by going against the popular consensus but offering nothing beyond an ego boost?
The ‘overrated’ cries also fit in a little too neatly with an overriding problem in pop culture right now: The need to ‘take down’ sh-t. It’s not enough to give a bad review, it has to ‘destroy’ the film or T.V. show. Every time I see a website do a post on the most overrated things, I don’t see good faith behind it. We all know where the page views are and what gets the clicks but does this really help to prompt reconsideration of long accepted classics or the current zeitgeist? Do we really learn anything when people write smug lists on how overrated that films some critics liked that made no money at the box office is? I would argue it doesn’t. It’s designed to get people to argue against an instinctive reaction and that’s seldom fun or productive. Go after easy targets and you’ll get easy responses.
But of course, this is a tough field to navigate. You can’t tell people to stop reacting emotionally to art. That’s kind of its job. Criticism is about subjective reasoning and instinctive responses, which is why it’s so bonkers when people demand reviews be ‘objective’. Sometimes, you can’t verbalize why a film or series or book made you feel the way it did (which is a problem in my line of work!) But there are still better ways to conduct the conversation than giving into the glibness of ‘overrated’. We have so many words in the English language for substitute and there are so many other ways to guide the conversation beyond eager hostility. Let’s find new words, new attitudes and maybe a sense of proportion as we head into 2019.
Header Image Source: Fox