A wise woman once tweeted, ‘we all remember where we were and what we were doing when the CATS trailer was released.’ 18th July 2019 – the day the earth stood still.
I was in the office, surrounded by middle-aged French men who were just as confused as I was by the uncanny visions of an anthropomorphised James Cordon and Jason Derulo prancing and twirling their way to the Jellicle ball.
The joie de vivre emanating from their feline faces was promptly curtailed by the quips and witticisms of a hoard of horrified Twitter users, united together to fight against this common evil. All of a sudden #CATS was trending, along with the names of the celebrities whose careers had apparently taken a nosedive.
I love the original West End production of CATS. It’s fun! There’s no underlying message to tease out, no hidden intentions, no surprise twists. It is an unapologetically camp spectacle, with kitsch costumes, celebrated choreography and the odd moment of magic.
I did not love the movie for a myriad of reasons: the decision to cast A-listers in the lead roles (very few of whom can actually sing or dance), Tom Hooper’s half-hearted attempt to give plot to what is a famously plotless musical thus making it feel like a slightly hornier Disney movie, Rebel Wilson’s involvement (I’m still rooting for her to make a Melissa McCarthy-esque dramatic-reinvention somewhere down the line) and, of course, the decision to use CGI, giving life to the infamous feline-humanoid hybrids.
CATS was not good. It wasn’t good for the fans, it wasn’t good for the newbies, it wasn’t good for my mother, who bemoaned my decision to pick it as the Christmas movie and wished we’d seen Little Women instead.
As disappointing as the film proved, it certainly didn’t deserve the vitriolic reaction it received. I understand that a lot of the apparent hatred towards the movie was intended as humour. And some of the reviews were genuinely funny. I admire Peter Bradshaw’s innovative decision to write a scathing review in the form of ‘The Invitation to the Jellicle Ball’ – a fan favourite song from the musical. But, as often happens when the whole Internet turns against something, a few critics threw the first stone and the rest of the world piled on, each criticism more generic than the last: ‘Nightmare-fuel’, ‘drug-induced psycoma’ etc.
It wasn’t enough to simply dislike the film, to sit patiently, wait until the end and later inform your friends, ‘alas, not really my cup of tea!’. We couldn’t just let CATS be. We had to destroy it. It became a game to see who could leave the most scathing review, who could launch the most ruthless attack.
The whole debacle is indicative of a wider cultural proclivity for public shaming. Rebecca Black’s universally panned Friday comes to mind, and the ease with which we mercilessly mocked a 13 year old girl. Then there’s Twilight – harmless, self-indulgent wish-fulfillment that prompted a tirade against Stephanie Meyer and a generation of teenage fans.
I wonder what our willingness to critique says about our culture as a whole – a culture that defines itself in relation to what we hate. I am intimately familiar with the pet peeves and annoyances of my friends: Izzy hates public urination and performativity, Dani winces everytime Holly Willougby opens her mouth, Tom would rather die than listen to K-pop. But ask me what they love, what lights a fire in their loins, what would motivate them to start a Twitter thread, or a petition or a three page report filled with hideous cliches about childhood passion, and I’m stumped. The same can be said for myself. I can remember spending countless English lessons bitching about Emily Bronte for being too much, Anne Bronte for being not enough and Charlotte Bronte for being too horny for old men. And who does that leave me with? Branwell?
There are plenty of things worthy of hatred – Brett Kavanaugh, the Tory party, Caroline Calloway after a particularly provocative Tweet. I admit CATS certainly gave us a lot to work with, but I think our readiness to take this and run with it to the extent that we have, says far more about our trolling culture than it ever will about the cast and crew of CATS. It’s easier to jump on the hatred band-waggon than to walk away.
In years to come, the memories of Judi Dench’s implied cannibalism, Jason Derulo’s war cry for ‘MILK’ or Taylor Swift’s cat tits will fade. The vitriolic hatred of the 365,000 people who disliked it will not.
So when some bright-eyed and furry-tailed director decides to reimagine the next movie musical, or the next 13 year old goes viral for her awkward but well-intentioned impressions of Hermione Granger, when the next YA novel about an impossibly overwrought love triangle involving beautiful goblins and sexy elves is released, or your mother decides to take her performance art public, instead of spending 15 minutes drafting the perfect take-down tweet guaranteed to make you go viral, maybe you could just find something else to do.