Rotten Tomatoes Reviews Are the Culture War’s New Battlefield

America’s tedious and exhausting culture war has been fought on many fronts over the years; Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates movie and television reviews, is apparently the newest one. Right-wingers have noticed that there is a difference between reviews by professional critics and self-reported ones by audience members. This has never happened before.

Rotten Tomatoes has been a useful resource for moviegoers since 1998, when it launched. Initially it indexed reviews from professional critics at a wide variety of outlets, expressing them as a score ranging from “Fresh” to “Rotten.” The site now also allows users to leave their own reviews, which are expressed on the same scale.

Over the past few years, this has attracted political actors—especially right-wing ones—to the site to review big pop culture events like Marvel movies. This is a part of a broader cottage industry. Weirdos on YouTube, for example, make dozens of videos about the box office numbers of Marvel movies with non-white, non-male leads in order to make a central point about how being “woke”—i.e. making movies starring people who aren’t white men—leads to poor box office numbers. (This is not consistently true.)

This week, that cultural miasma has spilled out beyond just the nerd sphere, as Fox News and The Federalist have both noted that there are big differences between the professional and amateur reviews of two recent productions. Fox notes that although the critics aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes do not like Dave Chapelle’s new special The Closer, “more than 1,000 ratings collected by the site have given it a 96% audience score.” The Federalist’s target is a National Geographic documentary about Dr. Anthony Fauci. The publication, previously noted for allowing an unlicensed dermatologist to suggest people throw coronavirus parties, says that “the Tomatometer, expressing the views of ordained critics, offers a 94 percent positive rating compared to just 2 percent of the general audience who gave similar praise.”

Something being popular with critics and not popular with audiences is not news. Critics love the nearly three-hour long Soviet film Stalker, while most other people in the world haven’t heard of it. The idea that critics live in a bubble that puts them out of touch with real, salt of the earth folk is not only an obvious and not very interesting truism—most people don’t watch movies for a living—but has also been brought up over and over and over again, often by critics themselves.  Just like your stance on The Last Jedi, making a big thing of this mostly signals your political allegiance rather than your taste.

What Fox and the Federalist—and others, like the Spectator—neglect to note is that the audience scores are in part artifacts of campaigns aimed at producing exactly the kind of coverage Fox and the Federalist are providing. Right-wing users are boosting Chappelle’s special precisely because the aged comedian’s tasteless jokes about trans people play into a broader grievance campaign about “cancel culture.” Fauci—which, to be fair, looks lousy—also appears to be getting a slew of negative reviews from people who think the public-health official loosed COVID-19 on an unsuspecting world and/or is microchipping the world’s citizens. This is called “review bombing”—a practice where large numbers of people leave negative or positive reviews en masse in order to change the average score—and has been around since the first fish crawled out of the sea.

In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes said that it would be working on making changes to how audience scores are aggregated because it knows that the platform is vulnerable to review bombing. It specifically cited issues with negative review bombs for movies like Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters.

What’s missing from the Fox News and Federalist analyses is the most basic thing anyone needs to know about this: The numbers. On the Rotten Tomatoes page for The Closer, there are seven reviews from professional critics and over 2,500 reviews from audience members. Netflix shows, first, don’t usually draw this kind of reaction from the public—Squid Game, the most popular show in the service’s history, has just over 1,500 reviews—which shows that this is not simply about the masses loving Chappelle’s show. Past that is a much simpler question: Why does the average differ between those two numbers? It’s basic math. If you look at the actual reviews from critics, you can see that three of the seven reviewers liked the special—a little under half. When put that way, it doesn’t seem like critics are so out of touch with even an army of partisans after all.

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