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.
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.”