A local afternoon radio drive show wanted to know what their listeners thought of the star-based rating system for plays or movies. Opinions came down on both sides, but which opinion someone has is irrelevant to this post. This is about how human beings routinely and unwittingly demonstrate the flexibility of reality.
What separates choosing using reviews vs choosing based on those with the most stars, is that the star system presumes a universal reality. 5 Stars is seen as a fact for anyone to experience, and yet we all know one person can love a movie or play and another person can hate it.
A quick example easily illustrates that using the star system has an invisible and significant qualifier attached –the person assigning the stars may have little in common with many of the people using them.
Let’s say that someone sees a play in a Fringe Theatre Program. Let’s imagine it’s called “Ugly Business” and the description says, “The sale of a family company and the arrival of a long lost sister complicate a family’s feelings over their roles and what they believe they are owed.”
Some of them will read that and think to themselves: Ah! I’m more of a creative person, I’m not interested in stories about business or people fighting over an inheritance. Plus it only got two stars.
And if they think that, then they often won’t think it’s relevant for them to read the full description or any reviews. And yet a review might be half way through before it says something like, “I was largely disappointed because this wasn’t what I went in expecting, so consider that. It takes place in a business, but it’s really more of a complex emotional story about the assumptions humans make about their roles in families.”
“Maybe if you’ve been adopted and had a reuniting process go badly this play might have depth I can’t feel, but this reviewer couldn’t find her way into this material despite very able performances and direction.”
Now, let us also imagine that both the playwright/performer and the person picking the play share the fact that they were both adopted at the same age. And imagine their experiences attempting to reunite with a birth parent went terribly.
Add the fact that the performer and the prospective theater-goer are around the same age and will have shared many of the same major social and cultural experiences and suddenly that feels like the perfect play.
This is the connection all performers want with the audience, even in a comedy. If a play can establish any form of genuine empathy with us, rapport can easily build between the performer and audience. That effect can easily turn something from a two star rating into a five.
People have preached efficiency and brevity and ease as though they are religions. But as things like the Slow Food Movement, pedestrian based neighbourhoods and the resurgence of things like board games and dinner parties demonstrate, many people are more interested in connection than efficiency.
In movies or plays or restaurants, star systems have a real validity. But using them –along with other abbreviations of complex life experiences– threatens to alter the notion of ‘value’ in the same way that facebook accidentally changed and shallowed the definition of ‘friend.’ Those kind of redefinitions are not things society can double back on.
We can use stars if they work for us. But no matter what ‘systems’ we use to ease our decision-making in life, there will be trade-offs. Any decision can be fine depending on the individual and context, but we should know not only why we’re making any given decision, but also why we’re not making the alternate decisions.
We can’t just look at the upsides of something, we have to ask what price or consequence goes with each system or decision and weigh each one on the basis of both realities.
Choosing to use stars to judge art by is completely legitimate. That legitimacy is made wise if we also use that system knowing full well that our approach may cause us to occasionally miss out on value that can only be found by slowing things down to a speed where we can read life’s fine print.