Uproxx reported Wednesday that a possibly tongue-in-cheek petition on Change.org to shut down critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes was attracting sincere support from fans of Suicide Squad, who were unhappy about the film’s overwhelmingly negative reviews. To be precise, the petition, which now has more than 17,000 signatures, said:
We need this site to be shut down because It’s Critics always give The DC Extended Universe movies unjust Bad Reviews, Like
1- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 2016
2- Suicide Squad 2016
and that Affects people’s opinion even if it’s a really great movies
There’s a lot wrong with this petition, from the idea that Rotten Tomatoes somehow controls the opinion of the critics who didn’t like the DC movies to the idea that a bad review should spoil the fun of an individual viewer who likes these films. But I’m shocked to report that I’ve found common ground with of people who believe that critics care in the slightest about DC vs. Marvel. I, too, think Rotten Tomatoes is a terrible thing for films—and not just Suicide Squad. Not because it “Affects people’s opinion even if it’s a really great movies,” or even because of problems with the model (a three out of five star rating is marked “fresh,” instead of “mediocre”), but because it uses a model at all. Rotten Tomatoes encourages a math-driven approach to something that is inherently personal and subjective. If your opinion about a work of art can be expressed as a number, it’s not a very interesting opinion.
This is not to say that math has no place in writing about art; in fact, critics would greatly benefit from using it more. There’s no music without rhythm and harmony, no poetry without meter, no prose without structure. In film, editing, shot composition, and story structure are all well-suited to quantitative criticism, to seeking to answer the question of how a film works or doesn’t work. By the same token, we could probably spend more time talking about the qualitative aspects of math: Cantor’s diagonalisation proof is a beautiful castle built on air; the Pythagorean theorem’s various proofs by rearrangement are so grounded they don’t need language at all. Our personal aesthetic and qualitative responses to great works of mathematics, like quantitative formal analysis of great works of art, can help us understand them better. But there’s little value in assigning a number to how much we liked them. The interesting questions are “Why?” and “How?,” not “How much?”
There’s nothing wrong with the question “Should I see this movie?,” and criticism can definitely help answer it. But the right way to find an answer is to consult one or two critics whose taste you trust, not a thousand critics you don’t know. In fact, a review that talks about why and how a film works written by a critic whose tastes are completely different from yours will tell you much more about whether you, personally, might enjoy it than a “fresh” or “rotten” rating. Things don’t get better by adding more voices to the din, they get worse. One of the greatest harms aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic do is convincing people that there’s value in aggregation to begin with, that by asking enough people the same dumb question, a Rotten Tomato score will approach some mythical asymptote of objectivity. This is the logic that says that one shitty mortgage is a bad investment, but a thousand shitty mortgages are solid gold. Once you buy that, attacking critics whose opinions are “wrong” is an easy step to take. They’re out of step with objective reality, as determined by math, so they must have an ulterior motive. The problem with the Rotten Tomatoes petition isn’t the goal, it’s that the person who wrote it has clearly internalized all the faulty premises the site is based on.
There’s a larger argument here about the way aggregate scores dovetail neatly with our technocratic urge for assigning metrics to everything, which inexorably leads toward miserable people crying in their cubicles and collapsing from heatstroke—but it’s probably unfair to lay scientific management at the feet of Rotten Tomatoes. Although Taylorism may be a garbage idea from a garbage culture, profit is undeniably quantifiable: artistic value just isn’t. And from that initial category error, misery flows like blood from a wound, from fans who are genuinely sad and furious that someone is hurting their film’s score to critics who have to deal with their harassment campaigns. Video game companies are even linking compensation to Metacritic scores: It looks like some kind of objective way of measuring the work a developer did; coincidentally, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than sharing profits. And so the loop of bullshit closes: The same internet hordes who attack critics who pan a big game can, correctly, say that those critics are hurting the game’s creators financially. (To my knowledge, no critic has asked to be part of any company’s human resources system, nor are any of them being paid for writing employee evaluations.) But in the HR spirit, here’s some data-driven results-oriented analysis: The New Soviet Man this system produces is not James Agee but Milo Yiannopoulos, quantifying the value of other human beings like a deranged Nazi robot. (Not coincidentally, he’s also an internet terrorist who allies himself with actual Nazis.) No thanks.
This is not to say that using Rotten Tomatoes will necessarily turn you into a Nazi. It’s an aesthetic choice like any other. You can choose to understand the world around you by boiling down very complicated, personal responses from a wide variety of people to a single number. You can choose to be offended when your own response to something doesn’t match the “objective” rating you’ve conjured out of thin air. But like any aesthetic choice, this too can be qualitatively described. So here’s how I, personally, respond to Rotten Tomatoes, a website that assigns aggregate numbers to works of art. It’s uninspired. It’s boring. It’s ugly. You can be on the side of Cogentiva or you can be on the side of Enlightened. I know which one I choose. After all, it’s 86-percent fresh.