Gender disparity among film critics

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July 22, 2019
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Gender disparity among film critics

Men have dominated the film world ever since the Biograph Company decamped from New York to California in the early 20th century. Except for starlets such as Mary Pickford and Clara Bow, Hollywood players—writers, directors, and producers—were almost exclusively male. Although women have made incredible strides in the past century, the select world of film criticism continues to operate as something of an old boys' club.

Since 2007, Dr. Martha Lauzen of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University has conducted an annual study of female film critics and their impact on the film industry. Dubbed "Thumbs Down" (an ironic reference to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's popular rating system), the report sifts through data collected from over 380 critics working in print, broadcast, and online publications and whose work appears on the popular film review site Rotten Tomatoes. The first section summarizes findings relating to the overall pool of film reviewers, while the second section focuses on "top critics" or those whose work has appeared in widely circulated print publications, heavily trafficked, editorial-based websites, or who are particularly distinguished in terms of reputation or influence.

Why is gender in film criticism so important? The answer is simple: Critics wield incredible power. They counsel prospective audiences about which movies are worth their time and money. Critics can confer stardom, or just as quickly destroy a career. As Jessica Chastain noted in a 2107 interview with The Playlist, an overwhelmingly male perspective silences the female voice, limiting vehicles for female audiences and women throughout the film industry. Looking forward, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs for directors and producers will increase by 11% in 2020. Critics' fortunes directly link to the number of films released in a year. An uptick in production should, therefore, yield increased opportunity for women to level the playing field.

Stacker waded through the numbers and condensed the Thumbs Down 2019: Film Critics and Gender, and Why It Matters report into this easily digestible slideshow. Scroll through to find out how women fare in the make-or-break world of film criticism.

You may also like: Women in film, by the numbers

Most film critics are men

In 2015, three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep took film criticism to task, noting the shocking disparity between male and female critics in the industry. While this comes as no surprise to film buffs, Lauzen's study is one of the first to document this using hard data. In 2019, women accounted for only 34% of film reviewers—a jump of just 2% since 2018.

Less than a third of film reviews are written by women

Given the relatively small pool of female critics, few film reviews reflect the female perspective. According to Lauzen's study, women authored just 32% of film reviews—even though women account for slightly more than a third of all critics.

Both full-time critics and freelancers are overwhelmingly male

Men are the winners when it comes to landing full-time gigs and cornering the freelance market. Women account for just 29% of full-time positions and 36% of freelancers.

Female film critics lag behind male peers in most media outlets

Newspapers, magazines, online publications—women tend to be underrepresented across the board, accounting for only 28% of all contributors. Journals such as MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture, inspired by Swedish actor and filmmaker Mai Elisabeth Zetterling, were created to address this imbalance and provide a forum for the female voice.

Male critics dominate all film genres

Action and adventure films are marketed to male audiences, and men review the vast majority of these movies. Reviews of traditionally "female" genres, such as romantic comedies and period dramas, however, are also dominated by male critics.

Female critics give more bandwidth to leading ladies

While it isn't clear if women naturally gravitate toward films with female protagonists or are assigned female-centric projects, one thing is sure: films with female leads are reviewed more frequently by female critics. Similarly, reviews written by men skew higher toward films with male protagonists.

Films with female leads receive higher ratings from female critics

Women award a generous average rating of 78% to movies featuring female protagonists, while men rate them a full 10 percentage points lower. Conversely, male critics awarded approximately 77% to films with male protagonists, with female critics averaging 70%.

Female critics review more films helmed by women

Men dominate the directorial field. Consequently, most reviews are about films directed by men. Of the small pool of movies directed by women, however, female critics review almost twice as many films directed by women than male critics. Again, it is unclear if this is because of personal preference or of editorial assignments.

Female critics are more likely to mention female directors by name

Women are nearly twice as likely to refer to female directors by name than their male peers. However, female critics are also less likely to specify the name of male directors.

Male critics are less likely to cite the filmographies of female directors in positive ways

Lauzen's study found that male critics are more likely to cite the filmographies of male directors in positive ways (28%) than those of female directors (16%). Female critics are more gender neutral on this issue, stressing the positive qualities of filmographies equally among male and female directors.

Top male critics outnumber top female critics

Rotten Tomatoes defines "top critics" as practitioners who "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."

Gender parity doesn't improve even for women at the top of their game. While industry titans such as Pauline Kael and Molly Haskell could make or break a film, relatively few women have wielded such power. In 2019, women accounted for just 28% of top critics—a decline of six percentage points compared to the previous year.

Top female critics are losing ground

The number of top female film critics jumped 12 percentage points from 2013 to 2018. In 2019, however, this number fell from 34% to 28%.

Top female critics publish fewer reviews

Typically, top critics publish fewer than 20 reviews a year. In the 2019 Thumbs Down study, men churned out an average of 18 reviews, while women posted an average of 13.

Top female critics trail male counterparts in most job categories

Among top critics, men outnumbered women in every division of employment, including staff writers, freelancers, contributors, and editors. Women posted their best numbers in radio and television, accounting for half of all critics.

Women of color are underrepresented among top critics

The vast majority of top critics—both male and female—are white. Just 17% of women in the upper echelons of the profession are minorities. Critic Valerie Complex compiled an extensive list of women of color writing film reviews in 2017.

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