What Does The Gender Divide In Criticism Mean For Women Filmmakers?

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If you take take a look at the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, you'll notice a few things.
1) There are some great movies on that list. (Citizen Kane! The Godfather! A Streetcar Named Desire!)
2) None of them are directed by women.
It's no coincidence — nor is it that surprising. A new study released Monday by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that the gender divide in film criticism has a tangible impact on the overall exposure and evaluation of female-led films, and films with women directors.
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Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, found that men wrote 71% of the reviews studied in 2018, and women just 29%. The study considered U.S.-based individuals working for print, broadcast, and online outlets whose reviews are aggregated by Rotten Tomatoes, and who had written at least three reviews during the months of March, April, and May of this year.
“These gender imbalances matter, because they impact the visibility of films with female protagonists and/or women directors, as well as the nature of reviews," Lauzen said in a press release.
Breaking it down further, Lauzen found that men outnumbered women regardless of job title (staff critic or freelancer), the type of media outlet, or the genre of the film considered. Men accounted for 70% of critics writing for trade publications like Variety or The Wrap, 70% of those working at general interest magazines and websites, 69% writing for a news website or wire service, 68% writing for newspapers, and 68% writing for movie or entertainment-focused publications.It doesn't matter if the movie they're reviewing is horror, comedy, animation, drama or any other genre— men's voices will still outnumber women's. Basically, for every woman critic weighing in on the conversation surrounding a film, there are two male critics expressing their views. What's more, the vast majority of both male and female critics are white, limiting the scope of the conversation even further.
So far, this is consistent with the findings released by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative back in June. But what does it actually mean for the film industry? Well, for one, it creates a situation in which the films that are considered "important" or worthy of consideration for entry into the canon of classics are vetted by a very limited demographic.
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"Critics are in many ways the gatekeepers. They’re kind of arbiters of taste, and only having a male, or having a predominantly male sensibility helps reinforce the idea that things that are 'male' are more interesting, more serious, than things are that 'female,' said Cristina Escobar, director of communications at The Representation Project.
Critics, she continued, are "who gets to define what’s art, what’s good, what’s going to get the microphone of the Oscars stage, and the review really does have an impact on who can get funding, and also who sees what." That kind of vetting, Escobar points out, is more important than ever in a world where streaming content is available to all at any time, which means viewers have more choices to make, and therefore might be more likely to need guidance as to what is worth their time.
But more importantly, the gender gap in the dialogue around film criticism also has very real ramifications for a Hollywood that has been increasingly vocal about trying to be more inclusive of women. Hiring more women in positions of power in front and behind the camera won't solve the problem if the people reviewing the movies aren't as diverse.
Lauzen's study found that a larger proportion of films reviewed by women tended to have female leads or be directed by women. 25% of the reviews written by women were of films with female directors, as opposed to 10% of those written by men. Women were also more likely to name a female director in their review, and to make exclusively positive comments about that director's skills.
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All of this impacts how we – audiences, readers, consumers, writers, creators and critics – think and talk about who gets to sit in the director's chair.
"There are myriad ways that critics belonging to different demographic groups and with different life experiences may differ in how they talk about films and filmmakers," Lauzen wrote in an email to Refinery29. "We are just beginning to understand how some of these differences may be reflected in reviews."
She added: "For decades, many male directors have benefitted from a type of romantic auteurism in the critical dialogue in which the filmmakers have been described in larger-than-life, almost mythic ways." (Think of the way the fuccbois of Tinder describe Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, or Darren Aronofsky.)
"Few women, with the possible exception of someone like Kathryn Bigelow [The Hurt Locker], have benefitted from this same type of critical treatment. The study documents this tendency. Female critics tend to evaluate the skills and vision of women directors more favorably. Male critics tend to evaluate men directors more favorably."
Amy Adrion, whose recent documentary, Half The Picture, focused on the struggles faced by female directors in Hollywood, said that the gender divide in criticism is a hurdle that she and many of her peers face with apprehension. [It] can be very scary as a filmmaker because you've made something, you've put your heart and soul into it," she said. "It's a story that resonates with you and with people you know, and you put it out in the world and you hope that the industry at large can connect to it. And when it's largely middle-age white men who are reviewing almost all of those films at festivals, you just hope that they can look at your film and find elements that they can connect with."
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Still, Lauzen is adamant that the study isn't making an essentialist argument — in other words, that women should love other women's work just because they are women. "These are tendencies, not absolutes," she said. "There will always be exceptions."
This year's study marks the fourth edition of "Thumbs Down," which was first released back in 2007, and initially considered the representation of women working as reviewers for the top 100 daily U.S. newspapers. (That project found that that men wrote 70%, and women 30% of all reviews, numbers which aren't that different from the ones mentioned above.)
The 2013 and 2016 iterations of the study shifted to consider the "top critics" on Rotten Tomatoes, while the 2018 version opened it up beyond the aggregator website's coveted label.
And while Lauzen did find that the percentage of women holding the title of film critic did increase marginally over the last two years (from 26% in 2016 to 29% in 2018), the percentage of women on staff at publications remained stable (41% in 2016, and 40% in 2018). Interestingly, however women did make gains in less stable positions such as contributors (13% in 2016 to 40% in 2018) and freelancers (25% in 2016 to 20% in 2018).
This is why the study's inclusion of individuals not considered as "top critics" by Rotten Tomatoes is so important. According to the site's guidelines, those select status-holders "must be published at a print publication in the top 10% of circulation, employed as a film critic at a national broadcast outlet for no less than five years, or employed as a film critic for an editorial-based website with over 1.5 million monthly unique visitors for a minimum of three years.”
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Those requirements – including that dated detail about “print publications” which doesn’t seem to acknowledge 2018 realties about media – put even more limits on women striving to join an already male-dominated field. It also means that the reviews reaching the widest possible audience are usually written by men. But most of all, it exposes a disparity regarding who is hired for the most prestigious criticism jobs — and by extension, who gets priority access to press screenings, and first dibs on interviews with Hollywood talent.
"When I think about that dynamic, to me what I see is the gender pay gap," Escobar said. "Here we are all doing the same work, some of us are getting paid more than others, some of us are getting more prestige than others. And I would say if you looked at the quality of the work, it may not be that different. There’s definitely a huge range, but I think you could find many an amazing woman critic who’s not getting the spotlight and the pay that she would get maybe if she was a man.”
Those barriers to entry are partly what led Miranda Bailey to found Cherry Picks, billed as the women's answer to Rotten Tomatoes, earlier this year. The site, which will launch in the fall, will curate reviews written by women about all sorts of films, not just those with female-leads, in an effort to highlight marginalized voices.
"Women have not really been given a fair shake at any of this stuff, especially in writing, until kind of like right now," Bailey told Refinery29. "And it’s not men’s fault, it’s history’s fault. So, we’re not going to be holding those kinds of guidelines, because we understand that it’s hard for women to get into the door to create that kind of resume."
As a filmmaker, producer and distributor, Bailey has seen firsthand how criticism can affect not only how audiences react to a film, but what kind of films get greenlit by an industry that is also dominated by men.
For her, this is an integral and often overlooked part of the conversation about inclusion in Hollywood: "How in the hell are we going to change getting women’s stories out there, or women behind the camera, if the people telling the buyers, the consumers what is good, are all guys?"
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