All the Rage
Yes, Diversity In Film Criticism Matters
More than three-quarters of film critics are white men, which not only impacts how films by women and people of color are received and portrayed to audiences, but whether they’re even reviewed at all.
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When Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman film debuted in 2016, it was heralded as a massive coup for female representation onscreen. Critical reviews were glowing and its $100 million domestic box office opening weekend showed that audiences agreed. By and large, critics and audiences had loved the film, so it came as a shock when Vulture published a review by David Edelstein that many considered to be incredibly sexist. Edelstein’s review was curiously focused on star Gal Gadot’s body, made pointed references to her sex appeal. and lamented the lack of bondage in the story. He also noted that “the gushing reviews of Wonder Woman suggest that people are grading on a big curve,” openly implying that the film’s merits had been grossly inflated. The review became a flashpoint online that demonstrated the urgent need for diversity in criticism. Despite the pervasiveness of the problem, it was still rare to see a male critic so transparently dismiss the female moviegoing experience simply because it didn’t appeal to him.
It’s hardly a novel idea that someone’s personal perspective might give them a different read on a particular bit of mass media. We all filter pop culture through our life experiences, and it affects the assumptions and prejudices that we bring with us to a new film or television show and how we respond to its stories, characters and themes. That’s why it can be so exhausting to repeatedly explain why diverse voices are desperately needed in film criticism. Whether it’s diversity of race, gender, or sexuality, the plurality of experiences that are represented on film should be reflected in the ways the films are discussed and criticized.
The 2018 USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media focused on the reviews aggregated by Rotten Tomatoes for the top 100 films of 2017 and found that over three-quarters (77.8 percent) of all film reviews for the top 100 movies of 2017 were written by male critics, and 82 percent were authored by white individuals. White men also outnumbered women of color critics nearly 27 to 1, and of the 100 films studied, 45 percent had no reviews from women of color critics at all. The study also found that even for woman-driven films, female critics tended to write less than half of the represented reviews. As the study asks, “What are the ramifications of having cultural storytelling produced and evaluated largely by individuals from the same demographic group? How does this perpetuate a worldview that may not be shared by the more diverse ticket-buying audience at the box office?” When even female-fronted films like Girls Trip, Rough Night, Pitch Perfect, and Home Again are not even receiving 40 percent of reviews by women, they suffer from not being viewed through the lens of their intended audience.
Across the board, women, and especially women of color are being shut out of conversations about the movies that we all consume, which in turn means they have less of an opportunity to influence how films are received. A quick scan of the Rotten Tomato page for 2015’s Chi-raq showed no reviews by Black women, who turned out to be the film’s most vocal critics regarding its depiction of sexual violence. But without the chance to register their objections through “official” channels, their concerns were ignored. According to Latinx critic Monica Castillo, in an article for Washington Post’s The Lily, the problem is also often one of access and opportunity:
“The study also doesn’t define the freelance/contributor/staff hierarchy of critics that ties into a larger conversation about the gender wage gap. If women—especially women of color—are found mostly at the freelance end of the spectrum, then it means they are being paid less and have less job security than their white male counterparts. Part of the reason why critics of color can’t review more movies is because they’re denied accreditation or access to screenings. Publicity departments—be they from the studio, a festival or a third party—can play the role of gatekeeper.”
But often even when films geared toward women are well received, the tenor of the praise is concerning. According to Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez, the gay married couple behind their namesake pop culture and fashion blog Tom and Lorenzo:
“There’s a condescension that arises whenever films are geared toward women audiences, toward gay audiences and toward mature audiences. When it comes to films that center characters of color and their voices and experiences, there’s a tendency toward tone-deafness or cultural blindness that doesn’t get acknowledged as much as it should by white critics, whether they’re talking about the work of Tyler Perry, Ava DuVernay or Spike Lee.”
Films targeted for women typically tend to find their audiences in women’s media and are championed by those writers and critics. After the 2015 film Fifty Shades of Grey premiered, many outlets were quick to decry the film as poorly written and acted, and problematic because of its depiction of kink. Despite this, smaller women-led publications like Bitch Media made the case that even with all its flaws, it was a celebration of women’s sexual pleasure and gratification, which should be embraced. Too often, it takes women to find the merits of media geared towards women because men write them off as frivolous or insubstantial. Even HBO’s prestige drama Big Little Lies was subjected to this treatment. The show’s focus on the inner lives and concerns of women was treated as a betrayal of the moody murder mystery audiences were promised.
FILM CRITICISM THROUGH THE AGES
Critics began to analyze films on the basis of their merit and cultural value in the early 1920s, and the star system of the 1930s gave rise to a corresponding increase in the popular prominence of film critics. But it wasn’t until a new style of persuasive criticism arose in the 1940s that film criticism became more mainstream and later, a staple of print media, appearing in most newspapers and magazines. Film criticism became a way to talk about movies and their influence on the larger culture and not just their pure entertainment value. It’s a shift that persists to this day. The problem was that gender norms did not move as quickly as technology, and film as a medium progressed, women were still largely shut out of the forums that discussed them.
But as media landscapes changed, so too did the relative prominence and regard for film critics and film criticism. At its peak, film reviews grew popular enough to merit the creation and syndication of the television show Siskel & Ebert At The Movies, hosted by popular film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Pauline Kael grew to prominence as one of the best critics of her time while working at the The New Yorker and her brash and her personal style is still regarded as something of a coup. In the digital age, film criticism has largely moved online as newspapers cut costs and labor over broadsheet inches. The democratic nature of the internet also means that anyone can theoretically be a critic; long-form blogging and review aggregators like Rotten Tomato and MetaCritic allow moviegoers to participate in the conversation about film in a measurable way that oftentimes impacts “buzz” and future box office response. It’s very common for positive scores to become a part of a movie’s promotional campaign.
The way people consume the news has changed drastically in even just the past decade, so it makes sense that the way audiences interact with films and news about films has also changed. But the freedom of the internet doesn’t mean that real life social dynamics have changed much, and the same systems that suppress the voices of gender and racial minorities online are just as effective online. While Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic are the most popular and most trusted review aggregators, their list of participating publications skews towards legacy media that are also dealing their own ingrained issues with a lack of diverse voices. This means that these services privilege the opinions and perspective of straight white men by default. After all, if the raw data is bad, the results can’t be better.
FOR US, BY WHOM?
As concerns about diversity and inclusion in Hollywood trickle down to the industry, it becomes more and more apparent that simply putting more white women and people of color on screen won’t do much to shift the culture that marginalizes their voices. Part of getting more diverse films into the mainstream is understanding who the audience for a film even is, and assigning critics with the cultural competency to understand the nuances of that film. Culturally specific subject matter tends to be misunderstood or underestimated by straight white male critics who lack the experiences needed to parse and appreciate the stories that female and minority filmmakers are trying to tell. But the opposite is also true: a lack of experience means white male critics have no context for the problematic depictions in minority stories. Kumail Nanjiani’s 2017 directorial debut The Big Sick was rightly praised as a wonderful new entry into the rom-com genre that didn’t center a white couple, but it took a female critic and fellow South Asian woman to clearly identify its issues with depicting women from their shared culture.
When eventual Oscar winner La La Land came off the festival circuit in 2016 with major awards buzz, the general consensus was that the film was light, fun and romantic and that everyone should see it. It wasn’t until Black critic Ira Madison III’s review for MTV News pointed out the strange racial optics of the film’s white protagonist striving to preserve the purity of jazz music over the pop sensibilities of a black jazz musician that the conversation around the film shifted to encompass the way racial blind spots of a largely white critical class can influence how a film is received:
“The wayward side effect of casting Gosling as this jazz whisperer is that La La Land becomes a Trojan horse white-savior film. Much like Matt Damon with ancient China in The Great Wall or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, in La La Land, the fate of a minority group depends on the efforts of a well-intentioned white man: Gosling’s character wants to play freestyle jazz instead of the Christmas jingles he’s been hired to perform because, damn it, if the people can’t hear real jazz, then it’s going to cease to exist.”
And though it was a slightly unique circumstance due to the subsequent flurry of press surrounding his past rape allegations, the conversation around Nate Parker’s 2016 film Birth of a Nation had a similar trajectory. After receiving rave reviews at Sundance Film Festival from a mostly white and male press, and selling for a record $17.5 million dollars to Fox Searchlight, the tenor of the critical conversation changed once a wider audience had access to the film. As Soraya McDonald, culture critic at The Undefeated said in an interview, race played an integral role in the film receiving so much undue praise:
“The narrative of that film’s import was set from the moment it debuted at Sundance. It was completely skewed by the audience there, which is hugely white and liberal, and that goes for the critics there as well. It’s not a triumph of filmmaking on a technical or aesthetic level, and it’s also got mad issues with female character development (or rather, the lack thereof). But those things were overlooked because Birth of a Nation seemed like such a promising answer to #OscarsSoWhite. But #OscarsSoWhite is a huge, gaping, systemic problem. Birth of a Nation was a tiny bandaid with most of the adhesive ripped off.”
The festival’s largely white audience was already primed to praise a more diverse story, and they didn’t notice that it wasn’t any good. It took Black critics, (especially Black women) to point out where the film had failed in its goal to tell a compelling story.
Reviews of Pixar’s latest hit Coco also had similar issues with white audiences bringing loaded cultural assumptions to the film. According to Castillo, it was odd to read “reviews of “Coco” that were in awe that a movie about the afterlife wasn’t sad or morbid.” To her, the reviews missed a fundamental part of why the story was so meaningful to Latinx people. “That’s not how we view the dead or death itself. It’s a celebration of one’s life, and a part of life just as much as birth. It was weird to see the culture commended for what it’s always been.”
Tom and Lorenzo admit that they also fell into this trap after seeing the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and had to course correct after listening to the critiques from critics of color:
“Many white film critics (us included) saw it as a reflection on rural white anger. Many critics of color rightly pointed out that the film used racism as a backdrop for the drama centering around white people or as a character-defining trait for white characters – without ever engaging with the few black characters in the story or allowing any of them to have a central voice. […] White critics largely failed to notice that central flaw in the film’s structure whereas critics of color often found the film impossible to praise because of that flaw.”
Several films released in the last couple years have had to contend with critical gatekeepers who didn’t fully understand how the framing of their writing influenced conversations about films geared to audiences other than white men. Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time was critiqued for its simplistic approach to the story’s themes. But as actress Brie Larson said in a speech given at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards, “I don’t need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work about A Wrinkle In Time. It wasn’t made for him! I want to know what it meant to women of color, biracial women, to teen women of color.” Sometimes, it’s the perspective of the intended audience that matters.
2018’s Ocean’s 8 and 2016’s Ghostbusters, both “female reboots” of films with original mostly male casts were criticized for not living up to the cult status of the originals, disregarding that female audiences may in fact be looking for different things from their movie-going experience. A satirical review of this year’s musical sequel Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again from The Onion captures the spirit of this idea perfectly: sometimes people just want to watch movies that make them feel good, and a historical lack of representation can mean that a lot is forgiven in exchange for seeing oneself on screen.
While this bias to forgiveness might be most obvious regarding issues of race and representation, it’s equally likely when it comes to gender. According to McDonald, too few critics challenge films that sideline the inner lives of women. “What’s more insidious is an acceptance of the male gaze as a neutral gaze, as the objective truth, because it’s just so damn predominant. And I think critics get lazy and they don’t challenge it … After a while, female characters who don’t have much to do or say becomes the status quo, and few critics challenge that,” she said.
IDENTITY OVER EVERYTHING?
One of the main critiques of the push for more diversity in criticism is that it shouldn’t matter what a critic’s identity is, because a good film is a good film. Supposedly, the cream rises to the top, and all minority filmmakers have to do is to make excellent art. But what the critique doesn’t acknowledge that our very ideas about what constitutes “excellence” are shaped by the long history of privileging the work of straight white men. Anything that deviates from the norm is considered obscure or niche.
One of the ways this can be seen most clearly is in the designation of any film with a majority Black cast as a “Black film” regardless of the subject matter the story. As McDonald says:
“[I]t is the soft bigotry of low expectations that always seems to accompany films with majority-minority casts. I think the conversation about this has evolved in the past few years […] but when it comes to more pop-py POC films that are aimed at a broader audience, like say Girls Trip, or The Best Man Holiday, there’s always a surprise when they do well at the box office! Why be surprised? Black people over-index when it comes to the ticket-buying audience.”
But a critic’s identity can and does “add value” so to speak to the reviews they produce. Having a perspective that isn’t usually present in the mainstream means that they are able to see and highlights aspects of a film that might otherwise be overlooked. As Castillo says, “I understand choreography and how the body moves, which is helpful anytime dance is a part of a movie. Why can’t my lived experience as a Latina be as much as an asset to my criticism as my experience as a dance teacher?”
The 2018 study entitled “Thumbs Down 2018: Film Critics and Gender, and Why It Matters” conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film concluded that “in every type of media outlet, male reviewers dramatically outnumber female reviewers” and showed how that gender imbalance can affect everything to how the film’s directors are described to how positively the films are rated. Nearly every analysis of the state of criticism shows that the lack of female critics and critics of color has a measurable effect on the consensus around a film. It’s heartening to see that many institutions like Rotten Tomatoes, Toronto International Film Festival, and Sundance Film Festival are making an active effort to offset this imbalance by reviewing their strict policies on credentialism to allow for a diversity of voice to participate in the discussions we have about the stories we tell. Concrete efforts to diversify the critic pool is the only way to ensure that not only do more diverse creators get a fair assessment of their work, but that the conversations around their films will broadly and comprehensively evaluate the movie from a variety of perspectives that might matter to moviegoers.
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