From Ocean's 8 to #MeToo: why the gender bias in film criticism matters

Film criticism has long skewed male. But bringing in new voices wouldn't only make the industry more representative—it'd improve the quality of reviews, too

June 21, 2018
Are Sandra Bullock and Mindy Kaling wrong to want women critics to review Ocean's 8?
Are Sandra Bullock and Mindy Kaling wrong to want women critics to review Ocean's 8?

This week, Hollywood stars and reviewers alike have waded into debates about the gender of film critics.

In a promotional interview for Ocean’s 8, its stars—Mindy Kaling, Cate Blanchett, and Sandra Bullock—suggested that they’d like more women to review their film.

Bullock talked about the need to “balance out the pool of critics” so that it “reflects the world we’re in,” while Kaling said that “often I think there is a critic who will damn it [Ocean’s 8] in a way because they don’t understand it, because they come at it at a different point of view.”

Responding to the cast’s view that men might be more dismissive of their film than women, Buzzfeed critic Alison Willmore tweeted that this was “the same argument an angry teen boy uses when telling me why I shouldn't get to weigh in on Suicide Squad.

“It's also an argument whose end point is that there should never be bad reviews, because that just means the critic wasn't the right audience.”

But Willmore’s argument misses the point. The issue of individual films aside, there is a pressing need for publishers and editors to diversify criticism—and to trust that women and people of colour can write critically about films, even when they are “the right audience.”

Of course, it’s important that studios don’t expect woman reviewers to always write glowing reviews for woman-led films or pigeon-hole them as critics.

But as critic Chelsea Phillips-Carr said: “People are afraid that women and people of colour would never write bad reviews and thus end the critical part of criticism, but let me reassure you that I am a woman of colour and have never written a positive review.”

Studies also show that male and female critics do not award different scores to films featuring women protagonists. However, men do respond differently to films featuring only male protagonists.

Given that historically Hollywood has been dominated by male filmmakers and critics—who tend to write dismissively about women’s films while prioritising the work of men—having gender bias equate to positive reviews is just another day at the office for the boys.

Most critics are men

Last week the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a research group responsible for compiling data about gender and race representation in mainstream cinema, published its first report on film criticism.

Using data pulled from review site Rotten Tomatoes, the group found that approximately 78 per cent of reviews are written by men.

Broken down by race and gender, white men account for 63.9 per cent of reviews, white women for 18.1 per cent, and men and women from “underrepresented” racial and ethnic groups for 13.8 per cent and 4.1 per cent respectively.

This situation doesn’t only limit women filmmakers, but any work considered to be “women’s cinema.” In her work on tastemaking, Barbara Klinger reveals how in the 1950s, Douglas Sirk’s movies were derided by male critics who deplored melodrama and aesthetics described as soap opera, radio play, cliché, artifice, sentiment, tearjerker, and spectacle.

Despite being a man, Sirk’s films suffered because they were rooted in forms and styles codified as feminine. According to Klinger, the reviews “foreground an association between women and the debasing effects of mass culture.”

A trailer for a Douglas Sirk retrospective at the Lincoln Centre.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that a combination of nostalgia and changing cultural mores allowed Sirk’s ouvre—alongside that of filmmakers like John Huston and Frank Capra—to be canonised thanks to new critical analysis by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

British films from the 1940s follow a similar trajectory, with critics and academics in later decades recuperating Gainsborough melodramas and the  heavily stylised, sentimental  work of Powell and Pressburger.

It’s notable that, even in these efforts to reformulate the canon, the focus is always on providing space for more men. Even today, as people work to reshape the canon (see Shelley Stamp’s work on Louis Weber) or blow it up entirely (as advocated by So Mayer), male critics are largely absent in championing women’s work. One study found that 76 per cent of reviews written by men featured male protagonists only.

Rethinking what good criticism looks like

Changing this isn’t only an essential part of keeping criticism relevant for audiences and holding the film industry to account in the age of #TimesUp. Importantly, promoting the voices of marginalised groups—women, people of colour, disabled and LGBTQ+ critics can help us rethink what good criticism looks like. 

If anything, diversifying criticism will remove the bias of male critics that has shaped what films we watch and how we think and talk about cinema for over a century.

It’s all subjective, after all—and we need critics and editors to better recognise how identity impacts their viewing and commissioning. While the representation of women and people of colour in the film industry needs to improve, audiences are diverse, and box office receipts show they want to see themselves reflected onscreen.

Moreover, progressive representation onscreen is not merely incidental and can make a good film great. Analysing how films depict different identities should be a priority for critics, and valorised as a marker of taste and aesthetic judgement, just like recognising excellent cinematography or sound.

Will there still be bad reviews? Sure. But fresh voices will make a stale format more interesting, and better serve cinema and its audiences.