The Curious Case of the Missing Women in Film Criticism

The Lack of Women in Film
Jeannie Phan for Variety

Film criticism’s demise has been eulogized by endless film festival panelists — mostly male, mostly white. Yet, that waning power still goes largely unshared with women (and people of color).

“Film criticism is in the exact same position as latenight talkshow hosts,” says B. Ruby Rich, UC Santa Cruz professor of film and digital media. “The hiring of Stephanie Zacharek at Time is positive. Manohla Dargis reviews for the New York Times and Ann Hornaday is at the Washington Post. And, yet, female critics who barely got a toe-hold anyway are often the last hired, first fired.”

And there has been a decided brain drain among the few, the strong that once had industry stature. Where have the heavyweight professional critics Janet Maslin, Carrie Rickey, Caryn James, Leah Rozen, Eleanor Ringel, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Susan Wloszczyna, Claudia Puig, Christy Lemire, Lisa Kennedy and Katherine Monk gone, once they took the buyout or got shifted from their perch? Most are still writing, but their perspectives are harder to find as they navigate the passage into the digital seas and, in many cases, the loss of salary and benefits.

Martha Lauzen, executive director, Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, has been tracking the profession for years. “Because men make up the vast majority of critics — 78% of the top critics appearing on the Rotten Tomatoes website in spring 2013 were male — films with male directors and/or writers receive greater exposure from critics,” she says.

Melissa Silverstein, founder, website Women and Hollywood, says, “We need women and people of color’s opinions on movies on all topics. However, it is vitally important that we have more women’s voices reviewing and commenting on women’s stories and on women directors because women have a different perspective than men. Not better, not worse, just different. We have our own lens in how we see the world and that makes our perspective vital.”

“Women have a different perspective
than men. Not better, not worse, just different. We have our own lens in how we see the world and that makes our perspective vital.”
Melissa Silverstein

Director Karyn Kusama, (“Girlfight”) says, “To me it’s the question of female directors, writers, cinematographers, designers, editors, actors and critics. If you have substantially fewer of them in the world, then we’re missing a crucial human perspective, and the world suffers for it.”

Another problem is ingrained bias, conscious or not.

Clem Bastow, culture writer at Guardian Australia, says, “The critical response to ‘The Intern’ was fascinating. There’s a subset of male critics that clearly see Nancy Meyers as code for chick flick and react with according bile. What’s very interesting, though, is that I think female critics, working in an industry that is coded as very male, if not macho, often feel the need to go hard on certain films for women, presumably because they worry that they’ll be dismissed, critically speaking, if they praise a film like ‘The Intern,’ as though they’re only reviewing it favorably because they’re women.”

Rickey, long-time Philadelphia Inquirer critic currently at truthdig.com, says, “The lion’s share of the daily and weekly reviewers is male. Are they sexist? I think not. But are they more enthusiastic about female characters seen from a male perspective, i.e. Todd Haynes’ ‘Carol?’ Possibly.”

According to the Gender at the Movies study of top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, men account for 91% of those writing for movie/entertainment magazines and websites such as Entertainment Weekly; 90% of those writing for trade publications and websites; 80% of critics writing for general interest magazines and sites such as Time and Salon; 72% of those writing for newspaper sites; and 70% of critics writing for radio outlets and sites such as NPR.

There is no evidence that gender equity is improving within the profession. According to Lauzen, “In 2013, 78% of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes were male and 22% were female. I repeated the study at the beginning of 2015 and the numbers were the same.”
Despite the increased awareness, a reversal of the trend is not imminent.

“Unless they get the system of shaming to work against studios, agents, distributors and critics I don’t believe there will be any solution from enhanced information,” Rich says.

“Until somebody is willing to bankroll a lot of women directors, until someone is willing to payroll a critic, change will not happen,” Lauzen says.

So what keeps the industry from calling out critics on their white male majority?

“People who live in glass houses have to be very careful about casting stones,” Lauzen says. “Every corner of the film industry lacks diversity, from the executive suites, to the behind-the-scenes creative community, to those working on screen. The seamlessness of this largely closed system is astounding.”

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  1. fam 4th says:

    Just read two reviews of ‘room’, one in the NYT and the second in the Guardian.co.uk
    Both critics were male, and I couldn’t believe we had watched the same movie. That first hour made me sick to my stomach with sorrow for the poor mother, doing her motherly best in such ghastly emotional circumstances. Why aren’t there women critics? This is something women can be very good at, so if it isn’t lack of talent, what is it?

  2. Articles like this are disgusting because they take away the focus from the milestones women have conquered, denying us of the idea of progress… When people write garbage like this, it discourages women from trying, and encourages them to give up.

    Keep your Stale wine and Moldy Cheese away from the future of women who want to go into the industry and be the change they want to see. Painting a dark hallway with no possibility of light on the other side, helps no one.

    For the author to claim they have been in the field for 2 decades, this article is poorly written and boring…

    The lede which is in passive tense, isn’t even attractive to read, grammatically:
    “Film criticism’s demise has been eulogized by endless film festival panelists — mostly male, mostly white. Yet, that waning power still goes largely unshared with women (and people of color).”

    It should have been written like this:
    “Film critics play a eulogy of demise, sung by a majority of white males in an endless line. While waning at a steady pace, they are reluctant to share their power with females and people of color.”

  3. Firebug14 says:

    Behind The Times of London paywall, chief film critic Kate MUIR is a trusted & admired source, especially potent at European film festival press interviews. Time & again, questions attributed to her have been known to spark the most serious inquiry of moment.

  4. lisafrenchrmit says:

    Women are a minority by percentage in most roles (including key creative roles) in the film and television industries globally. In Australia there is currently a lot of momentum to improve the participation of women in production (including by the film funding bodies and guilds such as the Australian Directors Guild). But not a lot of attention has been paid to this issue – that if women get their films made, they are up against it from film critics as well. I think it is an issue of ‘unconscious bias’, in all sectors of screen industries achieving diversity will enable a range of views, perspectives, responses and stories. Global film culture will be richer for it!

  5. greenviolets says:

    I’ll write you a film review. I’ll do one of Carol, if you like. No one seems to have got that one right yet. I put that down to a form of mass brainwashing rather than white male supremacy per se: we always had that, even in Virginia Wool’s time, and Patricia Highsmith’s. No, the misinterpretation and the weird perspective’s far worse than men running stuff. It’s what kind of a male brain and why. I’d even question whether it is a male brain at all, just an intensely dull one. As dull as the sexless, boring lesbians in that travesty of a film.

  6. Je vizzusi says:

    “In the 1930`s when Hollywood became a Industry and men learned how to make money from making Movies, the women were systematically thrown out! This mindset continues today. I have actually heard male Unit Directors and Stunt Coordinators call out Females on set for not being tough enough!
    WIF may not be enough, I now think the DGA should branch into a new catagory, WDGA!
    Jv

  7. dioxinblues says:

    History, both distant and very recent, shows that those in power, which are very often men and white men at that, are not likely to give up their positions willingly.

  8. groovyfokker says:

    Plenty of female film critics in the UK, many of whom would, I’m sure, be willing to write for American publications. Contact via the 102-year-old UK Film Critics Circle – the chairperson of which happens also to be female.

  9. This is a rare problem that has an easy solution: Make the effort to support female and minority critics. Seek them out, read them, follow them, retweet and repost them. The vast majority of great TV and movie critics have always been women and minorities, and I know that because my list is carefully curated. If we all retweet and repost them, they will be hired because they can demonstrate a following.

    If you’re not willing to do this – worse, if you expect “the industry” to do it for you or male critics to endure a “system of shaming” – sit down. On the floor. You don’t deserve a chair.

    On the other hand, RT’s overall list of critics should be more diverse given how people use it. The “top critics” aren’t the issue, because nobody uses that feature except to weed out the Justins anyway, so if you’re a Britney you’re going to be ignored. But the overall mix could be improved so the percentages speak for critics from all walks of life. What’s RT’s criteria? Why isn’t MJ Brewer on it despite her low readership, just for the sake of a more well-rounded snapshot of overall opinion?

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