Do Movie Critics Have A Female Director Bias, Too?

Elizabeth Banks on the set of Pitch Perfect 2
Photo: Richard Cartwright/Universal Studios.
“In 2013, the major Hollywood studios released exactly three films with female directors; in 2014, that number rose to five,” Elizabeth Banks told Net-a-Porter’s The Edit before her own feature-film debut, Pitch Perfect 2, hit theaters on May 15. It certainly wasn’t the first time someone presented the grim statistics about the extreme disparity in male versus female directors of major motion pictures. The ACLU has also officially launched an investigation into the systemic sexism.

The numbers carried extra weight when Banks recited them, though, because steering Pitch Perfect 2 — a major studio follow-up to 2012’s sleeper hit — would turn her into a lightning rod for future discussions about female directors.

“[I]f I didn’t do it well, they would absolutely say, ‘If she couldn’t do it, I guess women can’t do it!’ I’m not very interested in representing my entire gender. I think it’s very unfair. But I do understand the responsibility, and hopefully I deliver,” she told TIME before the movie premiered.

Pitch Perfect 2 surpassed all expectations. The film opened at No. 1 at the box office, beating its main competition, Mad Max: Fury Road, by over $20 million. It marked the highest debut ever for a first-time feature director (male or female). P.P.2. was also the second film directed by a female to open at number one in 2015. Fifty Shades of Grey, which was directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, bowed to $85.2 million in February.

Despite those amazing numbers and an A- CinemaScore, Pitch Perfect 2 seemed to generate an almost inverse reaction in one sector of the movie-going population: critics. Reviews paid a disproportionate amount of attention to Banks’ stylistic and directorial decisions in crafting a lightweight comedy sequel designed to bank on the surprise success of its predecessor.

Were critics treating Elizabeth Banks differently — focusing more on her artistic choices than they usually would in a review of a comedy sequel— because she’s a woman? In many cases, Banks' work was being compared specifically to that of Jason Moore, who helmed the first Pitch Perfect and is an experienced director of stage musicals (he earned a Tony nomination in 2004 for Avenue Q). Still, many reviews seemed to go out of their way to employ the phrase “actress turned director” when mentioning Banks, often with the same undermining tone that accompanies descriptions of Angelina Jolie’s efforts behind the camera.

When male actors try their hands at directing (and the list of these fellows is long), their endeavors aren't met with the same make-it-or-break-it stakes, or reticence to accept their transition. It echoes what Blake Lively recently told TIME about how the media often discussed her segue into the tech world when she launched Preserve. “There’s an ‘or’ — should women stick to this or this?” she noted. Can a woman not do both, with her work in each domaine measured independently of one another?

In 2013, Dr. Martha Lauzen, a researcher at San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, conducted a study about gender disparities and biases in film criticism. Lauzen’s study had three main findings. Among writers designated as “top critics” by Rotten Tomatoes, men wrote 82% of film reviews, while women wrote 18%. Second, female critics are more likely to review films directed by women, and men are more likely to review films directed by men. Since there are a disproportionate number of male critics, this means that films directed by men receive greater exposure.

Richard Brody touched on this finding in a recent New Yorker article called “How Critics Have Failed Female Filmmakers.” Brody admitted that women are fighting for equal opportunity in Hollywood (and the ACLU is finally taking action to assist), but critics — whose reviews hold power over a film's earning potential — need to do more to draw filmgoers' attention to the talented independent female filmmakers that studios are clearly ignoring.

Finally, Lauzen's study found that critics don't write longer reviews or award higher ratings to movies helmed by filmmakers of their same gender. A review's length and the rating assigned to the film might not be the best way to gauge a critic's attitude towards a director, though. The language is often a lot more subtle and possibly unintentional. It might even be indicative of a larger cultural problem with the ways in which a person's work style and personality are described.

Take, for example, David Edelstein’s review of Pitch Perfect 2 in New York Magazine. “[Banks] over-edits the musical numbers and underlines the jokes with pushy close-ups. It’s even possible some of [writer Kay] Cannon’s more cringe-worthy quips would have played without the campy overemphasis. We’ll never know,” Edelstein wrote.

“I think the thing that creeps me out with this review is the tone: ‘[Banks] underlines the jokes with pushy close-ups.’ I mean, yeah, a close-up can be designed to be in-your-face, but there is an offensive sneer in this comment that reminds me of the age-old battle of women in positions of power being bitches, not bosses,” Donna K, a film critic for Hammer to Nail and member of the Women Film Critics Circle (WFCC), tells Refinery29. “There is often a difference in language when discussing male- and female-made films, but I don’t know how conscious it is. We use words, and a lot of words are associated with gender or have other inherent cultural baggage."

The film most analogous to Pitch Perfect 2 is 22 Jump Street. The first movie, 21 Jump Street, was initially met with eyerolls when it was announced. When the film hit theaters, its winkingly meta comedy and affable stars made it a surprise box-office success. A sequel, which did nothing more than mimic the first movie's plot (and directly acknowledged the formula's repetition) but on a larger scale, quickly followed. It, too, was a hit.

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller directed both Jump Street movies. Reviews praise the duo's work with phrases like, "[They] have become masters of exceeding dangerously low expectations." "They pretty much never drop the comedy ball," Martin Roberts wrote in his review of 22 Jump Street for Fan the Fire Magazine. Leonard Maltin grew tired of the film's "smug self-awareness," but offered the directors a pass. "Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller bring the right energy to the proceedings."

Lord and Miller are a bit more established as a directing team now that they have both Jump Streets and The Lego Movie under their belts. Still, the words and phrases that pop up to describe their stylistic and directorial choices in reviews always seem to remark on their smart, wry decisions and comedy mastery. Sports analogies like "drop the comedy ball" are common. Even male directors aren't safe from gendered language in film reviews.
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Elizabeth Banks directs Hailee Steinfeld in Pitch Perfect 2
Photo: Richard Cartwright/Universal Studios.
Many members of the WFCC who spoke to Refinery29 have suggestions for how to remove this inherent gender bias from film criticism.

“Personally, I’d watch films twice if I could. Once without paying attention to the director, and then once knowing who the director is, and what they’ve directed in the past,” says Kaneisha Montague, a WFCC film critic. “It makes all the difference in recognizing my own biases based solely on gender and previous work. A film should be criticized based on content. I say this because each film a director makes can differ based on what they are attempting to convey to their audience. Seeing that directors are human themselves and undergo perspective alterations due to experiences, we can only expect growth from one film to the next. Why should we criticize a film based on the aspects of the director (i.e. black, white, male, female)?”

Montague also says that she tries to stay away from using “he” and “she” when referencing a director in a review, opting to use their last name instead. “It redirects the readers’ focus towards whether the director presented the content well or not.”

The critical gender bias seems to extend beyond director, though. “Here’s another thing I’ve noticed: Male critics patronizing women for bad ‘female movies,’” Lesley Coffin, film critic for The Mary Sue, says. “I heard a critic say women need to be blamed for movies like Fifty Shades of Grey. That is a similar trend to mocking women for the bad romantic comedies Hollywood makes...This kind of criticism suggests girls are silly for embracing their femininity, and this is someway a negative…rather than accepting that there are good movies in a genre and bad movies.”

After Quartz's Emma Pierson found her own reaction to Fifty Shades of Grey differed greatly from that of the critical majority, she conducted a study of the film's reviews. She found that “female critics were twice as likely to give the film a positive review.” Fifty Shades currently sits at 25% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes — more negative than positive — though, which makes sense given that there are more male critics than female.

“The current critic system is set up in a way that favors the Hollywood system as it continues to cater to one broad and boring audience: white dudes,” Donna K. says, referring to Pierson’s Fifty Shades of disappointing critical findings. This tiess into what Coffin noted about how male critics' opinions seem to have a larger influence in the film landscape at large.

Addressing a film's target audience in a review is another way critics sneak in gender bias. “I almost never mention the intended audience. Prescribing an audience to a film really limits exposure for everyone involved," Donna K. explains. "Instead of continually giving audiences directions to the places they’ve been, I feel like it is my job as a critic to introduce people to new places to go.”

Audiences for Pitch Perfect 2 and Fifty Shades of Grey turned out in droves — regardless of reviews. Sequels for both are in the works. Unlike films like 22 Jump Street, where the press didn't waste time speculating about whether directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller will return, the first question on everyone’s lips for these female-helmed blockbusters is always whether or not the studios will deign to allow the director back for another round. Yes, the boxing metaphor is very apt.

The press repeatedly pointed out Sam Taylor-Johnson’s tension with author E.L. James while filming Fifty Shades of Grey. Despite the movie's success, the director officially announced she wouldn’t be directing Fifty Shades Darker in March. Elizabeth Banks, whom studios haven't yet branded with the scarlet D (as in "difficult"), seems to be more in demand now that she’s “proven” herself with Pitch Perfect 2. Is it a coincidence that the two films she's considering directing next — Pitch Perfect 3 and Red Queen — are both aimed at female audiences?

Both Taylor-Johnson and Banks had movies open at number one this year. If they were men, they would be fielding offers for Marvel tentpoles, guaranteed.

Of course, those Marvel movies have a gender problem of their own. “When we had the search for directors of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, I was happy to see a number of female directors mentioned, but disgusted that it took a ‘female movie’ to consider these women…many of whom can direct action and could have been considered for any other of the other ‘superhero films’ in development,” Lesley Coffin says.

“Women and men can make male or female films, big or small, studio or indie, and both sexes should receive the opportunity to be considered for these jobs,” Coffin continues, stating the painfully obvious conclusion movie studios have yet to realize. In that scenario, critics could further help to end Hollywood's systemic sexism by reviewing for style, content, and entertainment value — that's it.

Words are powerful. Funny how we have to keep reminding people of this.
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