Name as many current film critics as you can. Even if you’re not a cinephile, chances are you’ve seen their names glow on the TV screen in tiny type below quotes (often taken out of context) that explain “why you should see Michael Bay Presents Transformers 14!”
At The Movies’ Richard Roeper, New York Magazine’s David Edelstein and Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers are probably the first three that flit across any pop culture connoisseur’s mind. And who could forget Roger Ebert, the king of snarky-but-insightful film criticism, inventor of the thumbs-up rating system and posthumous fixture in any movie fan’s vocabulary and Twitter feed?
All of them are good at what they do—they wouldn’t rise to the top of the popcorn box if they weren’t experts in conveying their opinion through their writing. But they have something else in common.
They’re all men.
A 2013 study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego University showed that women made up only 22 percent of top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, a site that compiles film reviews from top media outlets. The gender gap grows when looking at media outlets that solely cover entertainment and film, such as Entertainment Weekly and the century-old Variety, where 91 percent of critics are men.
But once away from the niche world of entertainment journalism, mainstream news seems to be doing something right. The top four most-read newspapers each have a female critic in a leadership position.
Pulitzer Prize winner Dorothy Rabinowitz is a critic fixture at the Wall Street Journal, the most subscribed-to newspaper in the country. She writes criticism (and has since starting at the paper in 1990), runs the Best Books column and serves on the editorial board.
“Maybe there’s some kind of unacknowledged sense that we shouldn’t be an all-male stronghold,” she says of the Wall Street Journal’s board, where 8 of the 21 members are women. “It’s not anything that’s programmed.”
Rabinowitz says she didn’t know women were so underrepresented in the critic community, let alone why, although that question was the one that most intrigued her.
“It’s not easy to prove that there’s a prejudice against women reviewers,” she said. “The question is why do you find so few women? An accident? Possibly. Women’s preference? Possibly. Maybe a lot of women don’t feel like they want authority to tell people what to do.”
Rabinowitz has visited university journalism classes where she said that, although 95 percent of the students were women, a majority of them weren’t interested in reporting and writing. “They wanted to be journalists on TV reading the news,” she says. “They wanted to be Katie Couric. That has to tell you something.”
But a quick Google search debunks the idea that women don’t have the interest or ambition. They may not be found in the classrooms Rabinowitz cites, but they can be found contributing to smaller websites and running their own blogs. Some of them have even formed organizations. The Women’s Film Critic Circle, for instance, is a group of 64 aspiring female critics and scholars involved in print, broadcast and web journalism.
WFCC members range from the experienced to the aspiring. One member, Edie Nugent, is trying to zap some voltage into her up-and-coming career as a critic. She says she has to fight her way onto a screening list in order to preview films for Weird Tales Magazine, where she is a contributing editor trying to start a horror and sci-fi film review section.
For Nugent, the lack of female critics is linked to the patriarchal film industry. “It’s a male dominated business, so obviously men will be the ones writing about it the most,” she writes in an email. “Film seems, by and large, to be something that men make and women watch.”
The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film released its annual Celluloid Ceiling report in January, showing that this is indeed the case—women were less likely to have a hand in writing, producing and directing films in 2014 than they were in 1998. Meanwhile, a demographics report published by the Motion Picture Association of America in March showed women bought 50 percent of movie tickets in 2013.
“I don’t think it’s an intellectual discrimination,” emails another WFCC member, Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi. “It’s rather a sociological legacy that we are trying to change day by day.”
One of those days was March 31—Alison Willmore’s first day at Buzzfeed.com. She is the first film critic hired by the 42nd most viewed website in America (according to Amazon’s web ranking site Alexa) and the average millennial’s go-to for procrastination fodder.
Jace Lacob, Buzzfeed’s Entertainment Editorial Director, said that hiring Willmore fit in with the site’s vision to be a progressive media outlet that pushes the boundaries of traditional journalism.
“The prevailing notion is that critics typically tend to be white, male and middle-aged,” he writes in an email. “Alison’s incisive, analytical criticism—which offers a fresh perspective from someone who doesn’t fit into that narrow rubric—will hopefully spark conversation by not adhering to ingrained traditions and modes of thinking.”
Willmore’s background in criticism stemmed from a role at the Independent Film Channel, where she worked for six years before freelancing for publications such as The AV Club, Timeout New York and Movieline.
Most of the critics she read growing up were men, and she says that maybe one of the reasons for a disproportionate number of women in the industry is that people tend to hire others who are just like them. White men continue to hire white men. “It’s not just unfair,” she says. “It creates a very narrow window.”
Presumably, more male critics means more male-focused films get made and marketed to wide audiences. Although few male critics emphasize a gender-biased view—a major exception being Rex Reed, who is infamous for devoting full film reviews to fat-shaming actresses such as Melissa McCarthy—they subconsciously perpetuate what feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey called “the male gaze” in her 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” And the industry rewards that by creating more of the same. Only 15 of the top 100 films in 2013 had female protagonists, according to another report by San Diego State’s researchers.
But the 2013 critics study also looked at whether gender played a role in which films reviewers critique. Although there is some evidence to support the idea that men are more attracted to films directed by and starring men while women gravitate toward female-led pictures, there was no clear indication that this distorts how each gender reviews films made by the same or opposite sex.
“When you have a particularly uniform group of people who are dominating the discussion in terms of what is good, what is worthy, what is quality, it inevitably tends to get skewed in one direction,” Willmore says.
Willmore refers to the Internet Movie Database’s user-voted “Top 250,” which she says is a perfect example of men being louder than women in rating movies. To her, many of the films on the list are worthy of such accolades while more women-focused films with just as much clout are totally forgotten. The list may not be compiled by critics themselves, but it definitely acts as evidence to how male-centric criticism has formed audiences opinions of what constitutes the best cinema.
“Films are so powerful, they get inside your head,” Nugent writes. “They become scripts in our minds that we repeat and attach to our own lives. I think if more women were made aware of how that functions—with strong female voices drawing their attention to patterns and tropes—women would demand entertainment that better represents the broad spectrum of, well, broads.”
Graphics by Hannah Burkett; Written by Kate Everson
To see more, check out the summer issue of Lydia Magazine