A Five-Star Diatribe

Such-and-such movie got 57% on Rotten Tomatoes!

Really? It got a 7.1 on Metacritic.” 

One of my biggest pet peeves about reading entertainment reviews is the employment of the five-star rating system (and its many cousins such as the score out of 100, and A-B-C grade). Some argue that such a system allows readers to quickly gauge if a movie is worth their time without having to read through the entire article. Other times, the individual opinions by critics are averaged so that the reader can get an idea of the general consensus. 

Unfortunately, the fact that a movie is rated 23% or 2.3 or C- tells the potential movie-goer absolutely nothing about whether or not they will like the movie. (Thus producing a crowd of angry consumers commenting that the critics must be crazy or stupid because such-and-such movie was completely awesome/horrible). 

thumbs-up1In exchange for its simplified convenience, the number scale sacrifices meaning by obscuring the subjectivity of the ratings. Movie reviews are completely useless unless you know the theoretical stance of the critic (Do they care about… the acting? how realistic it is? representations of women? What is their own social/religious/political background?). No writer or critic is objective or innocent in this respect. If the critic is judging the movie with standards that are not in line with your own, then their numeric rating says nothing about how much you will appreciate said film. By turning an expression of taste into numbers, language is undermined and meaning subverted. 

The five-star rating system makes the faulty assumption that a person’s perspectives on a book or movie can be characterized as  an objective degree of excellence. Most importantly, it assumes that taste is the same for any audience. It fails to consider either sociohistorical context or individual response. 

thumbs-downBut numeric rating systems are only the tip of the problematic iceberg of reviews. The truth is our society places too much value on emotional appreciation, reader response, the pleasure principle, or whatever else you want to call it. People assume that their emotional reaction to a literary work is equivalent to how “good” the work is (i.e. its literary value). Too often I hear students talk about how much they dislike the novels they read in lit class, wondering “Why are we reading this? It’s so boring/bad/lame/hard.” Unfortunately, their aesthetic “judgment” of a text is based on a visceral reaction rather than intellectual analysis.

Perhaps my beef with those silly stars is that they are a gauge of society’s Id-driven pleasure principle rather than an actual examination of aesthetics. Anyone and everyone can write an amateur review and talk about what they liked or disliked, but I am wholly uninterested in that kind of instinctual subjectivity. Reviews push prescriptive agendas of taste; criticism, on the other hand, speaks of technique and device, interpretation and meaning. 

(This is not to say that I hate all reviewers. Some are actually able to get past individual response (or assumed audience response) and I’m quite fond of New Yorker reviews – which happen to be sans stars. :))

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