Movies

Are Women Really Missing From Film Criticism?

Two women watch a movie screen. i i
iStockphoto.com
Two women watch a movie screen.
iStockphoto.com

A new study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film has led to headlines claiming that women are missing from film criticism. "Female Movie Critics' Influence Shrinking, Says Study," reads the headline in the Chicago Tribune. "The age of the Internet has not been kind to female movie critics," says the lede in The Wrap.

What the study apparently did (it's not been released in full to the public yet, but was provided to some outlets) was examine the number of reviews by what the movie aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes calls "Top Critics," finding that men wrote 82 percent of the reviews, leaving a measly 18 percent written by women. The Center's executive director, Martha Lauzen, said in a report that because women wrote 30 percent of the movie reviews in the Top 100 U.S. daily newspapers in 2007 according to a study that the Center did back then, film critics are less gender diverse now than they were six years ago.

I certainly wouldn't quibble with findings I haven't seen, so let's assume this is all exactly correct as it's been given to these other outlets: 82 percent of this spring's "Top Critics" reviews on Rotten Tomatoes came from men. Would that really have the suggested meaning that film criticism is less gender diverse than before?

First, understand that the "Top Critics" designation on Rotten Tomatoes isn't primarily about quality. It has is a strong institutional tilt, favoring people who are longtime reviewers at large print publications, national broadcast outlets, or large web sites. (The Variety story syndicated in the Tribune explains this more.) Without special dispensation, online writers can't even get into the "Top Critics" ranks until they've been writing for three years:

To be considered for Top Critics designation, a critic 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. A Top Critic may also be recognized as such based on their influence, reach, reputation, and/or quality of writing, as determined by Rotten Tomatoes staff.

So if online outlets were making criticism more gender diverse, any change in the last three years isn't likely to show up here anyway, making a comparison between now and 2007 a little suspect to begin with.

And in any event, comparing "Top Critics" from Rotten Tomatoes to the film critics at the nation's top 100 newspapers is apples and oranges. By 2007, there was already a thriving culture of online writers about film — it's entirely possible that that world was far more slanted than it is now, but you wouldn't see that from looking only at the newspaper film criticism of 2007. In fact, according to the study, newspaper reviews were still 28 percent written by women (about the same as in 2007), meaning the much bigger problem is Everywhere Except Newspapers, which is the sector where we don't know anything from these numbers about where we were in 2007.

Furthermore, film writing goes far beyond what are traditionally considered and counted as "reviews," so it's critical to remember that reviewing, in the sense that the term shows up on Rotten Tomatoes, is only a subpart of writing about film. And some of the women who are most passionate about film don't necessarily write "reviews," as much as they write columns or essays — and that's even more true with women who care specifically about gender issues in film. (Monika Bartyzel's "Girls On Film" column, for instance, or Melissa Silverstein's Women And Hollywood, or what Alyssa Rosenberg writes.)

Similarly, not all women who want to break into film criticism are particularly looking to do it in the largest traditional media outlets and the most heavily trafficked web sites. Some of them want their own space, their own voice, their own room to take whatever attitudinal approach suits them. And sometimes that means making peace with not being a "Top Critic," at least for now.

It's possible that women who are doing criticism and commentary have made their advances in formats other than day-of-release, up-or-down reviews in big outlets, which is essentially what interests Rotten Tomatoes and other aggregators that try to come up with a number that represents "critical opinion." It's possible that as you incorporate different voices into a conversation, they don't only contribute in higher numbers, but change the definition of a contribution and expand the spaces where it happens. So if you keep looking at the old spaces and formats alone, you might miss them.

But the most curious conclusion — at least as it was passed along by The Wrap and Variety — was a sort of shrugging at the fact that both female and male critics allegedly prefer the films written and directed by people of their own gender. As summarized by Variety:

The study also found that female critics do tend to gravitate towards writing reviews of films directed and written by women, while male critics are more drawn to films with male directors and writers. 36% of the reviews written by women were of films directed or written by women, while just 21% of reviews written by men were for films directed or written by women.

Okay, hang on a minute. Even assuming that this would be a bad thing, in order for any of this to mean anything about what people are choosing, you'd have to know how many films overall that would be eligible for review are written or directed by women. If it's 50 percent (spoiler alert: it's not), then men and women are both selecting against them. If it's 5 percent, then both women and men are disproportionately reviewing them over movies exclusively by men. If it's 36 percent, then women aren't "gravitating" toward anything; they're just reviewing what's out there. In other words, it's inaccurate to suggest that both women and men have a bias toward their own gender simply because within this sample, women reviewed somewhat more films by women than men did.

But more damaging to this part of the claim is that there is far, far, far more to a critic reviewing a film than "gravitating" to it. Film criticism for money is not a matter of looking at what's around in a particular week, picking something to review, and sending your copy. There's very often a process by which an editor of some sort either assigns or at least agrees to the critic's decisions about what to review. Women reviewing more movies by women could mean gravitating to them, sure. Or it could mean being assigned to them by editors who assume women are better at reviewing "women's" movies, or being assigned to them by editors because men don't want to cover them. Same with men — the fact that men review fewer movies by women than women do doesn't mean men prefer movies by men.

Sometimes, particularly when you're part of a staff, you review what needs reviewing. This is how I wound up doing Beastly.

Now, this may be a problem with the way this is being relayed in the press rather than reported by the study, because the Center that did the study certainly knows this, and raised this issue when they found exactly the same thing to be the case in the newspaper-only study in 2007. Back then, they acknowledged that a similar disparity could be the result of reviewer choice or editorial assignment.

But interestingly, at that time, of the newspaper study, 14 percent of the films reviewed by men were written or directed by women, and 22 percent of the films reviewed by women were. That means that both the women and the men in this study are reviewing substantially more films either written or directed by women, and whether it's because more films are available, because more critics are seeking them out, or because Rotten Tomatoes "top critics" review more movies by women than newspaper critics did when considered alone, that deserves to be part of the conversation as well.

Who reviews what is actually a really interesting soup of complicated issues. Some people think only a parent can really review a movie about parents, or only a woman can review a movie about women, or only a divorced person can review a movie about divorce. But there are certainly people who respond to a negative review of an action movie by a woman as proof that Women Don't Get Action Movies, rather than as proof that it's not a very good action movie. (The same thing may very well happen to men who review romantic comedies or Eat Pray Love or whatever.)

This is not, of course, to in any way minimize the issue of increasing the number of female voices (and voices of people of color) in criticism, in day-of reviewing, in papers, online, or anywhere else. There is absolutely a disparity, and there are absolutely issues of representation.

There's a lot going on here. Conversations about gender and gender politics are often engaged by men as well as women. Many women see no reason whatsoever to care what gender a director is. Some critics care a great deal about representation behind the camera, and some don't care at all. Some people write essays and reviews and lists and features, and some work every week in a strict review format with a grading/rating system.

But it would be a mistake, I think, to take this study as a sign that women aren't making themselves heard in cultural writing, because they are. Outlets that don't hire women or don't listen to them are, of course, causing problems, mostly for themselves and their readers. But whatever problems we're facing, the percentage of reviews showing up in Top Critic designations at Rotten Tomatoes is only a very small and very specific piece of it.

I'm far more concerned about what we say about actors and directors, and about how we receive stories that are about women, than I am about counting heads at one web site's definition of "top" outlets. There are a lot of women who are making themselves heard fairly tirelessly on gender-related topics and other topics, so underestimate (and undercount) them at your peril.

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