According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's new series, our woman movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
I don’t remember the first time I ever watched Harriet the Spy, but I distinctly recall pleading with my mum to buy me a yellow raincoat and a marbled notebook so that I, like Harriet M. Welsch (Michelle Trachtenberg), could eavesdrop on the neighbours, all in service to my then-imaginary future as a professional writer. I “hid” in my writer’s retreat (a tent in the backyard) to collect my thoughts, and tried to crouch beneath open windows in search of that sweet, sweet scoop that never came. I think I even called my babysitter Ole Golly for a while, and may have tried to get her to wear a beret a la Rosie O’Donnell, for which I would like to officially apologise. The point is, the 1996 movie, directed by Bronwen Hughes and based on the 1964 book by Louise Fitzhugh, was as formative a cinematic experience for me as the novel had been for countless women over the three decades prior to its release.
So, it was with some shock that in the course of researching Refinery29’s monthly Writing Critics’ Wrongs column, I realised that the original reviews for the film were largely dismissive of its potential impact. As Alissa Wilkinson has written over at Vox, Rotten Tomatoes scores are a flawed tool in gaging critical reactions to films, mainly because the site doesn’t reflect any kind of middle ground. But after reading individual takes, I found that while many critics writing about Hughes’ adaptation did point out that its target audience was young girls, it was usually as a way to emphasise mediocrity.
Desson Howe at The Washington Post wrote: “Girls currently between 6 and 12 are likely to be the most receptive audiences, not because the movie’s particularly appealing, but because it covers their territory.” Meanwhile, in his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Peter Stack bemoaned the film’s “meanness,” pointing out that it’s “aimed at preteen girls.” (Has he ever gotten to know one?)
This is a trend I’ve noticed over and over again in more than a year of writing the column, which started in the aftermath of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative Study showing that women critics are still vastly underrepresented in a space dominated by white men. Women, and young women in particular, have historically not been respected as an audience.
It’s a dismaying and destabilising feeling to realise that things that you consider vital parts of yourself were either misunderstood or disparaged, dismissed as trivial and unimportant, by those considered the gatekeepers of cultural tastes. You start questioning your own feelings and opinions, wondering if perhaps they’ve been off this whole time. You even start wondering whether you matter at all.
Take the barbs launched at Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, a film whose candy pink exterior coats sharp criticism about society’s expectations of teenage girls. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that it lacked “wit or real significance,” while Stephen Witty of the Newark Star-Ledger called it “a teenager's diary, read aloud over some awesome mixtape.” Which... hell yeah it is! Those elements, noted here as a negative, are precisely what made the movie feel so relatable to my friends and me. It took the story of an 18th century queen known for her lavish lifestyle and dropped it into the Mean Girls universe, where we could adopt it as our own.
Growing up, Lesli Linka Glatter’s Now and Then enjoyed a status on par with gospel. Written by Pretty Little Liars’ I. Marlene King, it gave voice to young women’s fears about growing up and apart from one’s friends, taking those questions just as seriously as the parallel themes of death and loss. And yet that’s the same movie TV Guide, of all places, dismissed as a “sappy, derivative girls' coming-of-age tale set in the groovy '70s.”
Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body is only now enjoying a cultural resurgence, a decade after James Berardinelli at Reel Views called it a “spectacular disaster,” and “the kind of thing a cat might bury in a litter box and still keep building the covering because the stench can't be smothered.” Ebert famously compared it to Twilight, ironically another movie skewered as benign despite its fresh take on a young woman’s sexual desire.
In her interviews to promote her adaptation of Little Women (snubbed by the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards last week despite glowing reviews), Greta Gerwig has been stressing the power of books to shape character. “The character of Jo March was my literary character. I didn’t know if I wanted to be like her because she was like me, or the inverse — like, I made myself like her,” she said during the 2019 Los Angeles Times’ Directors Roundtable. “When you’re young, there are books that get inside you and then they become part of your personal landscape of things that you feel belong to you.”
The same could be said for movies. At the age of 6 or 7, I was oblivious to the fact that Harriet the Spy had been directed by a woman, let alone that it was her feature directorial debut, and starred Queen Gerri from Succession (J.Smith Cameron) as Harriet’s social-climbing mum. All I knew was that as a curious, nosy little girl who wanted to write, the movie spoke to me on a very visceral level. It understood the concerns and minutiae of girlhood, and reflected those things back to me. I was so starved for a glimpse of myself on screen that I naturally gravitated towards these portrayals. That’s a powerful idea, and one that directly echoes Geena Davis’ famous mantra, “If she can see it, she can be it.”
It’s important to note that in most cases, reviews aren’t evenly split by gender. Some male critics loved the movies I mentioned above, while some women critics hated them. Yes, the substance of their objections are often different, but not always. Women have always been part of the critical conversation, and overlooking their dissenting opinions and arguments is just another form of erasure. Likewise, to dismiss male opinions entirely is just as limiting as saying that movies about men aren’t for women. Criticism is an entirely subjective profession, one that is made more interesting by varied and layered perspectives, often in contradiction with one another. Calling for more diversity in criticism isn’t saying “men can’t understand movies about women,” but rather “women and people of colour should be included in that conversation.” Not only does it make for a richer, more nuanced debate, it illuminates viewpoints that one might not have even thought of.
“‘Who is this movie for?’ rules out the possibility of sympathetic imagination, the ability to empathise with a perspective other than one’s own, as the chief impulse behind artistic depiction and appreciation,” he wrote. “We negate the possibility of sympathetic imagination when we assume that someone’s particular affinity for a work of art will be dictated in advance by specifics of race, gender, and age. It’s not that those specifics aren’t factors. It’s that some have a tendency to mistake factors for absolutes.”
Still, it’s one thing to not appreciate a film based on subjective opinion. It’s another to underestimate what it might represent to people unused to seeing themselves on screen, or dismiss its intended audience entirely, as is often the case for movies directed at teenage girls.
This disconnect comes down to the fact that for a long time, white men have not been asked to identify with experiences other than their own.
“From a very early age, girls are expected to identify with male stories, but boys are never expected or asked to identify with female stories,” Beanie Feldstein told Refinery29 in 2017, when asked about the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Lady Bird. “Either girls don’t watch movies, or they watch movies about boys.”
That’s starting to change. A recent USC Annenberg study recently found that as many as 14 of 2019’s 100-top grossing film will have been directed by women — the highest it’s ever been. What’s more, women are at the helm of five of 2020’s most highly anticipated studio movies, including four superhero behemoths: Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey; Niki Caro’s Mulan; Cate Shortland’s Black Widow; Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984; and Chloe Zhao’s The Eternals. Where critics are concerned, the emergence of review aggregators like Cherry Picks and Twitter accounts like Female Film Critics, designed to amplify women’s voices, are fostering more inclusive and vibrant conversations.
Obviously, gender bias isn’t the only problem. Many of the films I’ve written about for this column were helmed or about white women. Those are the films I gravitated towards and was exposed to growing up, but it also speaks to who among marginalised communities gets to be heard and seen first in an environment that excludes so many.
In her 2016 essay for Refinery29, Arianna Davis drove that point home, highlighting the gap between films her white colleagues considered “classics” versus the ones that she had grown up watching as a woman of colour.
“Don't mainstream media and white moviegoers also have a blind spot when it comes to our classics,” she wrote. “After all, it was absurd to me that many viewers had no idea who Taraji P. Henson was before Empire, or that when I once brought up Regina Hall and Sanaa Lathan in a meeting with white colleagues, they had no idea who these actresses were. In ‘Black Hollywood,’ they are legends.”
That too is slowly shifting. In the past couple of years alone, Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, John Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give, Minhal Baig’s Hala, Malcolm D. Lee’s Girls Trip, Susan Johnson’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Jennifer Katyin Robinson’s Someone Great have given generations of young women a fuller, more diverse spectrum of women to look up and relate to to.
What’s frustrating, however, is that despite Hollywood’s lip service to inclusion, women and people of colour still don’t get the recognition they deserve. This year’s Golden Globes nominations suggest that it’s likely we’re in for another awards season without any women nominees for Best Director, despite the success and critical acclaim of films like Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy, Melina Metsoukas’ Queen & Slim, Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — and many more.
Reacting to the Golden Globes snub, Har’el tweeted: "I was on the inside for the first time this year. These are not our people and they do not represent us. Do not look for justice in the awards system. We are building a new world."
Luckily, that attitude reflects decades of work in Hollywood. Women have always struggled to be seen and heard, on and off-screen. But the fact that their films still manage to break through to shape the way young women experience the world is one reason for continued optimism.
In his review of Harriet the Spy, Ebert wrote: “It is not a very technically accomplished movie — the pacing is slow and there are scenes that seem amateurish — but since Harriet doesn't intend to inspire anyone to become a movie critic, perhaps it will work a certain charm for its target audience.”
He was dead wrong, but also right. Harriet the Spy did work its “certain charm” for its intended audience: A little girl who was enamoured with the film and its protagonist — so much so, that she ended up becoming a movie critic.