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2 August 2023

We must resist the hype machine

Our critical culture is grossly overinflated with positive and promotional content. But popular is not always best.

By Sarah Manavis

If I had to pick one phrase to define our culture, I’d choose: “I’m screaming, crying, throwing up.” Over the past few years, this meme has been applied as a reaction to romance novels, blockbusters, pop music, monologues from TV characters – even to people saying goodbye to friends they made only a few weeks before on a reality show. And while the phrase is hyperbolically used to convey both positive and negative emotion, one thing is certain if you see this phrase in action: the sentiment will be wildly disproportionate to whatever it is commenting on.

The internet has always traded on hyperbole, but that hype is growing exponentially louder, always needing to one-up the last round of over-excitement. The latest example of this is the response to Barbie: a film built to promote a doll with some nice sets and a handful of good jokes, underpinned by feminist platitudes. Not only has it become the biggest box-office success of the past decade, the reaction online has reached a screeching fever pitch, with thousands (if not millions) of people suggesting it’s one of the best films that has ever – ever – been made.

We are living through an age of extreme overreaction, where anything popular immediately becomes synonymous with not just good, or great, but the best. A bland record by Harry Styles was crowned Album of the Year at the Grammys after a slavering reaction from fans; repetitive novels popular on TikTok sail to the top of best-seller lists. This hyperbole isn’t just reserved for commercial cultural offerings: it was difficult to watch an episode of the last two seasons of Succession without seeing thousands of people on Twitter claiming each new instalment was the best acting and writing in the history of television.

[See also: Barbie can’t handle the truth]

Taste is, of course, subjective. But the need to justify every piece of popular entertainment as high art leaves little room for critical debate. It’s hard to assess genuine merit over the noise of the fanfare: even before Barbie came out, it was being celebrated for the on-set paparazzi images, the vague quotes from its director Greta Gerwig, and an aggressive marketing campaign. Our cultural memory of Barbie will be less about the actual contents of the film and more about the months-long hype that preceded it.

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Online reactions can overwhelm critical responses – which could change how those with the power to fund films operate. Marketing teams increasingly prioritise social media campaigns over critics’ reviews, because they are almost guaranteed free marketing for whatever they’re promoting. As Manuela Lazic noted in the Guardian yesterday (1 August), at a London press screening of Barbie attendees were heavily encouraged to share their “positive feelings” online, even though it would be days before the embargo would be lifted on reviews. Not only that: the audience was also predominantly made up of influencers, presumably invited to make shiny, uncritical promotional content in the week leading up to the film’s debut.

This culture of overreaction will only lead to worse popular entertainment. Mattel hopes to repeat the extreme success of Barbie with other toys in its back catalogue – projects for Uno cards, Magic 8 Ball and Hot Wheels are reportedly already in development. Even if you loved Barbie – if you found it emotionally complex and rewarding – you might be suspicious that these films will result in similarly introspective work. Instead, it will give corporations permission to flood an already overly-commercial film market with even more content fundamentally (and shamelessly) made to sell you a product.

Maybe you believe Barbie is a creative feat, that Harry’s House was the best album of 2022, that Colleen Hoover writes wonderful novels, or even that an Uno movie could expand minds. Even so, you might appreciate being able to come to this conclusion on your own terms, or being able to stumble across others who disagree. The hype machine doesn’t exist to elevate and promote what’s truly good, but to insist that popular is the same as best, that noisy is the same as urgent, and that familiar is the same as relevant. No one benefits from a culture that cannot tell the difference.

[See also: Why do men think it’s feminist to hate on Barbie]

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