At first glance it may seem like fighting over Rotten Tomatoes scores and film critics getting harassed by internet mobs is fairly low on the list of worldly concerns. But at a second glance, of greater breadth and depth . . . what if this is but one manifestation of a crucial issue of socialization facing all levels of society?
Rotten Tomatoes began with the well-intentioned but incompletely extrapolated goal of providing a quick and dirty broad strokes sense of whether a movie is well or poorly reviewed. This is known. The problem, again well-known, is that once you unravel a bit more of the initial assumption, the binary of “fresh” or “rotten” fails to take into account nuances like “it’s okay but nothing special,” which technically counts as “fresh” (see the vast majority of Oscar nominees), and “holy God it’s bad but I’ve watched it two or three times a year for the last twenty years and it’s a blast every time” (I’m sure you can think of an example) which would register as “rotten” if tough-love aesthetic criteria were applied. Experimental art pictures and cult genre movies, both of which tend to be divisive among critics, end up with lower scores despite the greater passions they elicit. In short, an RT score is not – and, I’m sure, not intended to be – an objective rating of worth. It’s the beginning of a discussion, if anything, not its end.
And yet. A critic who gives the first tepid review of a film that had heretofore known only raves, or worse, to the latest installment of a popular franchise. and thus causes the RT score to drop from 100%, will be set upon by droves of screaming hellions. This is not a both-sides-are-at-fault thing either, the responsibility for reform here is squarely on people treating RT scores like a video game. Requiring other people to reflect your views back to you in order to establish their validity, especially in a field they know more than you do about, is untoward, and disrespectful. This isn’t to say film critics are perfect and never get things wrong – this is obviously not true – but that the difference between right and wrong is not a binary, it’s not simple, and it certainly isn’t an a priori truth derived solely from one opinion.
The fact that the abuse over (lest we forget, imprecise if not outright meaningless) RT scores increases by orders of magnitude when the critic involved is a woman lends further weight to the idea that maybe what’s at stake isn’t a spirited discussion of the arts, or of a beloved hobby, or one’s sacred, fragile childhood, but an attempt to impose will. If it was a discussion of viewpoints, intended to persuade someone with differing views in good faith, the discourse would not consist, entirely, of commands to shut up, to go away, to yield one’s position as reviewer to someone with the accepted views. To purge the cultural conversation of any dissent. To, in microcosm, adopt fascism.
Far from hyperbole, fascism is a very real thing in America circa 2016, and the widespread support for openly fascist presidential candidates did not come out of nowhere, and it is not something discretely and hermetically sealed in the arena of politics and current events. The support for fascist and racist philosophy bubbles up from the exact same parts of the internet as targeted harassment campaigns against writers. The individuals involved in each pursuit may not be the same, but their behavior, unpunished, inspires others to lash out, to vent their frustrations in a manner they see to be acceptable, because it is accepted. And so, just as you see people cheering the prospect of genocidal war crimes, you see them trying to harass dissenting voices into silence.
Next: Why Rotten Tomatoes is Bad for Film Criticism
Pulling back to movies and movie-adjacent waters, this kind of thing is why a more civil discourse around movies and the arts in general is necessary. Listen to dissent. Compare it with your own views. Evaluate. Synthesize when necessary. Embrace complexity and nuance. Reject knee-jerk reactions. And be extremely skeptical of any attempts to put a number on art. It rarely if ever ends well.