Movie Criticism Is an Overwhelmingly Male Dominated Field (Study)

Pauline Kael

While hawking the film “Suffragette” last fall, Meryl Streep made headlines for decrying the lack of female critics at major news organizations. The Oscar winner’s scan of Rotten Tomatoes revealed that there were more than seven times as many men reviewing films as women, potentially causing problems for movies made for, by and about females.

“I submit to you that men and women are not the same,” Streep said during a press conference in London. “They like different things. Sometimes they like the same things, but their tastes diverge. If the Tomatometer is slided so completely to one set of tastes, that drives box office in the U.S., absolutely.”

New research confirms Streep’s hunch about the gender disparity among cinema’s leading tastemakers. Men comprise 73% of top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, dramatically outnumbering females, who make up 27% of reviewers, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. However, Streep’s worst fears weren’t realized. Male and female critics tended to agree about the quality of movies with female protagonists.


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Study: Female Protagonists on the Rise in Hollywood — but the Majority Are White

The center looked at 5,776 reviews written by 247 critics over a three-month period this year to get its results.

The gender disparity among critics mirrors a lack of diversity in the film industry. Women comprised just 9% of directors and 23% of producers on the 250 highest-grossing films of 2015. They accounted for a mere 22% of leads in films and 34% of major characters in movies released last year. Only two of the seven biggest studios have a woman running things — Universal’s Donna Langley and Fox’s Stacey Snider. From movie sets to corporate suites, men enjoy much greater representation. That’s trickled down to film criticism, Martha Lauzen, the center’s director and the author of the study, argues.

“It reflects the biases within the industry,” she said. “This doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are larger cultural biases at work and those favor males.”

There also is no evidence that men are more interested in movies than women, thus compelling them to take up the pen to hold forth on the relative merits and shortcomings of a particular film. After all, studies show that women comprise more than half of ticket buyers.

Historically, women have enjoyed success in the field. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael (pictured) is arguably the most influential critic, and her brash, kinetic style influenced a legion of reviewers, with her so-called “Paulettes” including the likes of David Denby, David Edelstein and James Wolcott. And there continues to be several female writers at some of the highest profile posts, including the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis and Slate’s Dana Stevens. They remain, however, the exception to the rule. Across every type of publication, film criticism remains a business dominated by men. They accounted for 80% of reviewers writing at entertainment trade publications (Variety‘s two full-time movie critics are men), 76% of critics writing for general interest publications, 74% of individuals writing for movie and entertainment magazines and websites and 71% of those writing for the biggest U.S. newspapers.

Lauzen believes that the dearth of female critics stems from a lack of women in top editing or leadership roles.

“Men hire men,” she said. “It’s human nature to hire people who look like us. It’s not an excuse, but it’s an explanation.”

The gender imbalance in newsrooms could be coloring critics’ decisions about which films to review, the study argues. A greater portion of the films reviewed by women had female protagonists, while men were more likely to write about films featuring male leads. Some 34% of reviews written by women centered on a female lead, whereas 24% of reviews written by men featured at least one female protagonist.  On the flip side, 76% of reviews written by men featured a male protagonist whereas only 66% of those written by women had men in leading roles.

That could be a problem because many of the movies made by women or focused on women are produced at the indie level. They’re not the kind of superhero movies or special effects driven blockbusters that arrive with a lot of promotional support from studios.

“Independent features rely on critical chatter to give them a boost,” said Lauzen. “If they’re not getting reviewed, they could remain invisible.”

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  1. Beckstle says:

    If this is using Lauzen’s 2013 summary report on film criticism then the following is incorrect. “Male and female critics tended to agree about the quality of movies with female protagonists.” The report doesn’t discuss the protagonists of the films being reviewed.

    What the report does say is that there is no detected bias based on the writer and director of a film. Therefore, a film like “The Hurt Locker” got similar ratings from male and female reviewers. Because the protagonist of a film doesn’t necessarily match up with the gender of its director and writer there’s no way to assess how the protagonist affects the reviewer’s perception.

    It actually would be an interesting study to look at how reviewers rated films based on the protagonist, That study doesn’t seem to exist though.

  2. Andrew says:

    I agree , Of late so many “Action films are back to having ” Pump Up men , I observe so many young men working out to the point of st#r*ods. My first real of a woman in a leading action role was Sigourney Weaver in ” Alien , Sadly not so much now,But lets hope it will change..

  3. Nanny Mo says:

    Disgusting attempt to turn the issue into race and gender. Disgusting. I want to believe that Modern America is past articles like this that only highlight a person’s race and gender, but obviously this “rag of a mag” has not caught up with modernity.

  4. Holly Wood says:

    This article is riddled with statistical dead ends, bad sociology and a powerful bias of its own, and I think it’s bad for women.

    Up until recently three of the seven studios were run by women, and Amy Pascal isn’t gone because of her gender. That’s 43%, and if that world really is so male dominated that’s a pretty hefty percentage, and up from 0% not so long ago. But we don’t learn anything from half-baked numbers: of all the people who’ve had aspirations to run film studios, what percentage were women, and of those, what percentage were equally or more qualified than the men they lost out to, and how do we know which jobs were lost to gender bias and which to other reasons?

    When a man and woman interview for the same directing job, what better qualifies any of us than the studio and/or producers to discern who’s best suited for it? It’s not boxing or tennis or running against a clock, it’s a subjective process that relies on skill, experience and expertise in making those kinds of decisions. But then again the people doing the hiring might not be gender biased at all, just lousy at their jobs. How would we know that, even for a given project much less for movies or even an entire industry as a whole?

    What percentage of those who aspire to being film critics are women, and of that percentage, what percentage loses jobs to less qualified men? What percentage of women who lose jobs to less qualified men lose them to gender bias? Same questions as above about the people who are doing the hiring.

    Sorry: it’s complicated. Soundbites are killing us. Of course there’s gender bias, and sometimes against men, too. But articles larded with heavily manipulated statistics and calls to arms are biased in themselves and engender frothy, emotional responses. And that, in turn, ironically, is just the kind of thing that promotes the unfavorable stereotype of a woman who makes decisions with her heart and not her head.

    It’s one thing, and an admirable one, for a powerful woman to use her position to help other women. But on the way up? If Donna Langley, Stacey Snider, Amy Pascal, Sherry Lansing or anyone else on the long and storied list of impressive women who’ve conquered Hollywood wanted to write film reviews for a living, they wouldn’t be speaking out against gender bias or forming committees to promote awareness or texting their lawyers. They’d be too busy writing film reviews for a living.

  5. Jana J. Monji says:

    You have to be pretty tough to get into and remain in any male-dominated field. It is stressful. But it starts with the hiring, doesn’t it?

    Editors have to take a moment and think if they are really serving their community well, communities that are at least half female. Not only are male reviewers guessing at what women feel and what women are looking at, they are also guessing what women experience every day and what they want to see.

    If there were more female critics perhaps documentaries like the 1998 “War Zone” should have gotten more reviews and perhaps there would have been more criticism of the more recent “The Hunting Ground” or “Fantastic Lies.”

    If there were more female critics perhaps there would be more super heroine movies and special effects driven movies and the age gap between the male lead and the romantic interest wouldn’t be so cringe-worthy wide.

  6. S. A. Young says:

    “Historically, women have enjoyed success in the field. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael (pictured) is arguably the most influential critic, and her brash, kinetic style influenced a legion of reviewers, with her so-called “Paulettes” including the likes of David Denby, David Edelstein and James Wolcott.” Three names to represent the (late) great Pauline Kael’s legacy and they’re all men.

    • Sexracist says:

      So you’re saying men are not allowed to be influenced and inspired by women, eh? Nice job

      • Maggie Lee says:

        Stephanie Zacharek who is now Chief Critic of Time Magazine, shortlisted for Pultizer Prize in film criticism, former Chief Critic of Village Voice, and longtime critic for is widely known as a Kael protege, but she’s not mentioned here.

      • Sexracist says:

        Ah, so you’re celebrating Kael’s influence on the opposite gender! My mistake

      • S. A. Young says:

        Uh, no that was not my point at all (but you knew that). Nice handle.

  7. Brian Newman says:

    Take a look at the gender (And diversity) breakdown of festival programmers, the real gate-keepers for the majority of films.

    • Christopher says:

      This disparity also influences what films are included in the ‘greatest” lists. Some films like Vertigo appeal to both genders, but The Treasure of the Sierra Madre will never be replaced by The Way We Were. Both movies deliver brilliantly but one has the onus of being regarded as a chick flick. This bias colors the way the history of films is written as well.

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