A few people used the word “overrated” in a thread on the message board to describe some movies, and it reminded me that the word bugged me, but I couldn’t quite put into words why it did so. Then today my colleague Sean P. Means of The Salt Lake Tribune wrote a column on the subject, and I remembered it was our other colleague Scott Renshaw of City Weekly who first turned us against the term. And now my thoughts are more clear.
You can read Sean’s column here. He’s referring specifically to film critics who use the word, decrying it because it basically means “You all got it wrong.” The arrogance of the critic he cites — the New York Times’ A.O. Scott — is particularly galling, because A.O. wrote an entire article explaining WHY the critics who liked “Sideways” liked it. It wasn’t just because they thought it was a good movie (which to me is the most logical explanation); A.O. thinks they saw themselves in the main character and thus liked the movie.
I agree with Sean that this is an arrogant position to take. Disagreeing with his fellow film critics is one thing, but A.O. takes it a step further. He says, basically, “I didn’t like this movie that a majority of my colleagues liked. My opinion is the right one; my colleagues are wrong. But my colleagues are usually pretty smart, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and determine what subconscious event occurred to make them get it wrong this time.” That kind of snobbery doesn’t help the divide between movie critics and regular people (nor the divide between the New York Times and regular people, for that matter).
But “overrated” bugs me when normal folks use it, too. I suppose it’s seen as shorthand for “a movie I didn’t like that a lot of people did,” and that’s probably all that most people really intend when they use it. But the word implies more than that. “I disagree with the majority on this film, in that I did not like it,” while wordier, would be more civil and more accurate in most cases. “This film was overrated” implies that everyone else made a mistake in praising the movie so highly — they “over”did it, you see. “They all missed the boat, or fell for the emperor’s new clothes, or succumbed to the hype. I did not!” is the unspoken, superior declaration.
And the reason that’s arrogant, of course, is that opinions cannot be wrong. Unless they are based on faulty criteria — e.g., declaring “Schindler’s List” unenjoyable because it wasn’t funny enough — everyone’s opinion is as valid as everyone else’s. A movie hasn’t been “overrated” simply because many people liked it and you did not. That would mean that YOU are the zero point for judging a movie, and that if too many people are more enthusiastic about it than you are, then those people are in error.
Movie critics write in emphatic language — “this movie IS good, that movie IS bad,” as opposed to “I THINK this movie is good, I THINK that movie is bad” — but that’s only because that sort of writing is more persuasive, as anyone who has made it past ninth-grade English knows. It’s not because we don’t allow for the possibility that other people won’t feel the same way. All we’re doing is saying what WE thought. Your mileage may vary. And your mileage is allowed to vary. That’s why America is so rad.