what fans' extreme reaction to bad reviews reveals

I noticed this story yesterday about some fans' extreme reaction to negative reviews of an upcoming movie.
As The Dark Knight Rises hits theatres this week, critics posting negative reviews of the Batman film have been flooded with a wave of online abuse and threats sent by fans.

The final instalment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which officially opens in theatres Friday, is one of the year's most anticipated films.

U.S. online film critic Marshall Fine offered the first negative appraisal of the comic-inspired tale on his site Hollywood & Fine and via the popular movie-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

As expected, fans raised a furor in the comments section. Although most were negative, some commenters went so far as to vow to take down his website, while others threatened violence against him — including beating him into a coma or setting him on fire.
I find this pretty bizarre, and the story made me wonder... what's going on here?

Fine, the critic may well be right. He is quoted as saying:
This is what they live for, so to have somebody say 'This isn't good,' they take it personally. To them it's a slap in the face. It's not just that I said 'I don't like this movie.' They hear that as 'I don't like this movie and if you do, there's something wrong with you.' They take it personally and they respond emotionally.
For so many people, I am what I consume. If you don't like what I buy - the movies I watch, the games I play, the music I listen to, the clothes I wear - you don't like me. Not only don't you like me, you've dissed me, you've put me down.

This thinnest of skins, most fragile of egos, combined with obsessive materialism, is what leads to shootings over a pair of sneakers or drivers running people down over a scratched car - a violent episode erupting over some perceived slight. The glove has been thrown down and you must represent.

Naturally, these outraged fans haven't even seen the movie themselves. Their comical anger mirrors the right-wing protests that inevitably accompany a movie with religious themes. Facts? We don't need no stinking facts! This movie will be great (or offensive) and don't you say otherwise!

Another theme at play, obviously, is troll behaviour, people unleashing their inner nastiness as they hide behind the curtain of online anonymity. The trolls and their vitriol pollute our online interactions like roadside litter on the information highway. We all know about this and deal with it all the time. I wish all the news and information websites would close their interactive features, but that will never happen, as long as clicks sell advertising.

Then there's the anti-intellectual strain of popular culture, on full display in comments on the CBC story (and likely any story on this subject). These folks proclaim a perverse brand of egalitarianism: we all know the same things. "What do critics know? Usually whatever they hate, regular people like!" "Critics are stupid. That is only one man's opinion!"

In a literal sense, of course, that's true: a review is one person's opinion. But the person is - or at least is supposed to be - a student of the genre they're reviewing, someone who spends a huge amount of time learning about and analyzing the art form. A critic is supposed to bring a broader perspective to the table, telling us not just "I like this," but "This is good and here's why, and here are some things it might have done better". They're supposed to offer analysis, place the work in context, measure it against other similar pieces. Although we often disagree with reviews, there are presumably reviewers that we recognize as reliable authorities, whether or not our tastes always jive with theirs.

The anti-critic comments are part of the general rejection of expertise - a denial of the very concept of authority, or at least a misunderstanding of what authority is. (I wrote about this here, in relation to online question-and-answer sites.) Experts exist. There are people who have spent a great deal of their life studying a particular subject, and so, their views on that subject are more informed, and should carry more weight, than the views of someone whose sole knowledge is as a casual, non-critical consumer.

Naturally no opinion is sacrosanct. (Neither is any movie!) Often people with great authority are also highly biased, and are sought out for exactly that reason. We see this all the time in the mainstream media: bank CEOs are asked for their economic prescriptions, former generals are asked if a war is worth fighting. So of course we must question any authority's motives and interests, and never accept a resume in lieu of an argument.

But with all these important caveats, authority and expertise do exist. Bad movies exist, too, but that's another story.


M@ said...

Excellent write-up. The connection with consumerism is especially good -- not something I had thought of before.

But the mindset you describe goes a long way towards explaining political "thought" and responses too, doesn't it?

laura k said...

Thanks, M@, glad it made sense.

But the mindset you describe goes a long way towards explaining political "thought" and responses too, doesn't it?

Yes, it does. I'd go so far as to say that that politics in the US is reduced to consumerism. Do you buy the red brand or the blue brand? According to the marketers (and many of the candidates), people who buy one brand drive these sorts of cars, eat this sort of food, buy this kind of media, etc. (All a superficial distraction, of course, from how similar the two brands really are.)

A slight tangent, but hopefully related.

johngoldfine said...

For so many people, I am what I consume. If you don't like what I buy - the movies I watch, the games I play, the music I listen to, the clothes I wear - you don't like me. Not only don't you like me, you've dissed me, you've put me down.

This becomes an issue for a writing teacher who wants students to use their own lives and experience for material but who also wants to critique their writing and who is several generations removed.

For a lot of my students, saying a brand name conveys a whole world of connotation and implication, but nowadays it's usually a world I can't enter--is there something about Aeropostale that sets it apart from Abercrombie and Fitch? Damned if I know, but if I press or ask questions, students think I'm being willfully stupid and playing rude and disingenuous English teacher games.

I recognize and respect a deep and serious world of music many of my students are concerned with, but my musical tastes are the same as their grandparents'. (I can get a laugh sometimes by remarking that the new last song I listened to was 'Take It Easy.')

I get the same bemused and confused laugh when I tell the student trying to write about computer games that I played Pac-Man with my son once, back in the early Reagan years.

But those jokes are just holding actions against a gulf several generations wide.

laura k said...

But those jokes are just holding actions against a gulf several generations wide.

Not only generations wide, but split by niches and subniches. The music world is more fragmented now than when you kept up with it. In those days, there was AM top-40 pop, and there was rock. Now there are a dozen different categories at least.

It seems to me for your students' purposes, given the place that (I imagine) writing will hold in their lives, allowing a brand name to stand in for a more fully fleshed-out description would be forgiveable. But I suppose your standards are higher than that. :)

laura k said...

The whole "dis my stuff, dis me" mentality leads people to apologize to me if they say they don't like baseball or a movie I recommended or the Rolling Stones. I'm always at a loss for what to say. We don't have to apologize for personal taste! And geez, I didn't invent baseball, I didn't write Brown Sugar, I can't take that personally!

johngoldfine said...

But I suppose your standards are higher than that.

Nah, I'm no perfectionist, and I try to avoid extreme assholism with students.

If they are emotional about Aeropostale and can't explain why, I move briskly along and look ahead to the next assignment.

But sometimes a student will be quite eloquent orally about some aspect of Aeropostale, but when I say, 'Great, put it on paper,' the student gets grumpy and acts as if they had said nothing more interesting than 'soda is sweet.' They don't want to do the donkey work of writing something so obvious and trite. And I can't convince them that what might be obvious and trite to them is esoteric and mysterious to me. How could it be! Everyone knows that!

That's when I get gloomy.

laura k said...

So many professional writers don't want to do that donkey work either. It's so difficult!

It's interesting, tho, that many people who are articulate and eloquent verbally, as you say, find it so difficult to express themselves in writing. I'm the opposite. I often feel like a tongue-tied lummox, wishing I could just write it down, it would be so much easier.

M@ said...

I wonder if the students realise that five years from now, the fine distinctions between Abercrombie and Aeropostale will be incomprehensible to anyone, even themselves. That's the other crazy thing -- brands are so ephemeral. I actually avoid them in my own writing, because I know that by the time the book sells (if it sells, yes), those brands will be obsolete.

Even brands that once felt long-lived are now changing very rapidly. Look at Ford -- the Mustang, the Taurus, the Focus. Complete transformations one generation to the next. A brand like Black Angus meant quality a short while ago; now it means Old People Food (because wagyu beef is much better quality! I mean brand!). Mont Blanc pens -- quality and luxury to those over 50, what's a fountain pen to (many of) the rest of us.

It's hard enough to get into Shakespeare's audience's mindset, and he's one of the few authors who has struck a truly timeless vein of humanity. Can you imagine if he had spent his time making fun of Blankenship's Codpieces, which were much lower quality than Spunton's Fine Groinwear? His plays would all be buried only inches above him.

But that's one of the tricks that brands play on us, isn't it -- that they're for all time, not only for the current moment -- that is, they lie to us and tell us they mean something that lasts even slightly longer than the cash transaction itself.

laura k said...

Well said, M@, great stuff. Groinwear, LOL.

This would seem to apply to the Batman movies fans are so worked up over. I can't say for sure, since I cannot imagine seeing these movies, but unless these films are of a very rarified breed, no one will remember them, either.

When I was writing fiction, I also studiously avoided brand names - and band names. Unless music is so huge as to be timeless, it's best fictionalized.

laura k said...

One of the big differences between the pop/consumer culture of my teen years and the present one is the proliferation of brand names and how quickly they rise and fall. We had our brands, of course, but there were 2 or 3 dominant names per item (i.e. 3 kinds of jeans, 3 kinds of sneakers, etc.) and they were around forever. Some brand of sandals or whatever would become the rage one summer, and people would wear them for years.

Of course that didn't keep people dissatisfied enough, so the pace had to be stepped up.

impudent strumpet said...

@johngoldfine If you want to make your students understand this concept (I'm not sure whether doing so falls within the scope of your job), you might show them passages from old novels that describe clothing, as though there's a world of meaning in the type of fabric used.

The only specific example I can remember off the top of my head is that Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm very nearly makes a plot point out of the fact that one kind of muslin was used for a graduation dress as opposed to another kind, all of which was completely meaningless to me when I read it (especially since this was in the days before Google Image Search). I also know I've read other books with better examples, but they aren't leaping to mind right this minute.

laura k said...

passages from old novels that describe clothing

I think the Little House on the Prairie series did that, too. Muslin, taffeta, serge. I never knew what any of it meant.

Of course, I haven't read those books in more than 40 years, so I could be completely wrong.

(Hey, I could check... at the library... Hmmm...)