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The league of men: why are there so few female film critics?

Film festivals are not the only venues where the film industry produces all male panels. AAP/Javier Etxezarreta

The league of men: why are there so few female film critics?

When you go to the movies, do you first read the film reviews? Do you ever think about who is writing them?

It’s a question raised periodically by film critics and researchers alike, usually when citing studies such as “Gender at the Movies: Online Film Critics and Criticism” (2013) that show reviewers are predominantly male and, according to “Australian film critics, then and now” (2011), usually over 40 too.

A widely published study on the topic conducted by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University in 2013 painted a particularly damming picture of this gender skew.

Surveying 2000 reviews by 145 writers it found the top male critics on the site aggregator Rotten Tomatoes wrote 82% of reviews. Women wrote a paltry 18%. Rather than levelling the playing field, the internet has amplified the imbalance.

Just last week, film critic Clem Bastow addressed the issue in her review in The Guardian of the new Nancy Meyers film, The Intern (2015). Giving the film a favourable rap, she criticised the “drubbing” it had received from male critics, a fate that, she says:

befalls the work of many female film-makers, especially if they dare to make films that are nominally “for women”.

Bastow’s argument is that because there’s a disproportionate number of male film critics, female filmmakers are less likely to receive positive reviews. In turn, female audiences find it harder to locate points of view that reflect their own. She’s not alone in her thinking.

Why does the gender or age of film reviewers matter?

The majority of reviewers don’t represent audiences, who are not all men over 40.

This is an issue because evidence suggests “film critics tend to gravitate to films directed and written by individuals of their own sex”. It is also likely that demographically similar reviewers would gravitate to similar worldviews.

Among other things, this seems to be a missed business opportunity, particularly as - OK, I’m speaking anecdotally here - women also decide which films heterosexual couples go to see.

Margaret Pomeranz attends Tropfest 2014 in Centennial Park, Sydney. Britta Campion/AAP

It also begs the question of what happens to films made by women: do they miss out on main review slots, skip being reviewed at all, or wind up with mediocre reviews (as with the Intern), because they’re being reviewed by middle-aged men?

So what’s the situation in Australia?

The Australian Film Critics Association have 38% women as members, and the Film Critics Circle of Australia is 33% female. According to Ranker.com, one of the most famous female film critics globally is Margaret Pomeranz.

Looking around Australian media, there are plenty of talented female critics: Debi Enker, Philippa Hawker, Rochelle Siemienowicz, Sandra Hall, Tina Kaufman, Stephanie Bunbury and Julie Rigg among them.

According to Rose Capp, Vice President of the Film Critics Circle of Australia:

Statistically, men might outnumber women in terms of critics currently working in Australia, (but) I think it is more constructive to look at the relative influence of women writing on film.

By any measure, that has been and continues to be, considerable in this country.

This is true globally. Some of the most resonant critical voices have been women, including Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Laura Mulvey and Ruby Rich.

Film audiences are not solely made up of older white males, as demonstrated at the premier of 2014 Bollywood movie Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Is this a bigger question than just who reviews films?

The International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam did some research in 2014 and discovered that if they didn’t have women on selection or judging panels, then very few women were proportionally selected for festivals, or won prizes.

It is perhaps natural that individuals might like films that reflect their own (gendered) perspective on the world. But if what gets made, and what gets seen, is selected only from one demographic, we miss out on the many and varied stories about life and experience. Popular culture can only be the poorer for this lack of diversity.

The importance of family in The Walking Dead. FX/AAP

Do men and women view and interpret films so differently?

When I enjoy The Walking Dead (2010-present), what I connect with is not people being scared by zombies. I am interested in community (and family), the idea that there will be people that you can count on and who will support you no matter what happens. This is possibly a perspective that emerges from my gendered worldview.

And, according to The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti, The Walking Dead has been “the most popular show on US cable television history […] but also the most popular television show among women”.

Valenti argues it is because women are “looking for nuance” – along with the fact that it isn’t about women getting raped:

Women have to fear violence and sexual assault in their everyday life, so the fear of having to watch it so directly while supposedly being entertained was just too stressful.

But knowing I can watch The Walking Dead – a violent, action-packed, drama with great writing, cinematography and one of the best characters on television (Michonne) – and not tense up every time a woman is alone on camera, well, that just makes the show so much more enjoyable to watch.

Can certain kinds of films only be made by women?

The October 2015 issue of the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight and Sound features The Female Gaze: 100 Overlooked Films Directed by Women.

Here, filmmaker Clare Denis writes of Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (1990):

This is not only a great film by a great director […] but for the first time I felt here was a film that could only be made by a woman, this woman. And not only as a filmmaker but woman as a whole, brave, brave, as a human can be.

This is not a film about a brave woman’s tormented heroic destiny […] No, it has something deeper, more urgent to declare about films and women. This film changed my life as a woman, not simply as a filmmaker.

Denis is identifying with gender. I know what she means: in films made by women, and in many of Campion’s films, I too experience a “shock of recognition” that the film is telling me something about women, something all too often not seen in the cinema.

If reviewers have the same gender and other attributes as the filmmakers, then there is unlikely to be a clash of world-views from which we can see varied ways of understanding.

If you understand film criticism as an artform itself, then that sheds another light on the question of gender.

Are female filmmakers more likely to challenge stereotypes?

There are of course also gender issues, and women critics are arguably more likely to give voice to them. For example in Molly Haskell’s review of Roseanne (1988-1997) and Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2012) she said:

Women’s comedy is the continuation of consciousness-raising by other means.

Certainly those shows were active in challenging traditional feminine stereotypes.

June Whitfield, Jennifer Saunders and Julia Sawalha from Absolutely Fabulous. Reuters

But it pays to be careful of cliches - the kind that suggest men prefer violence, drama, mystery, sci-fi, and high speed chases, with women preferring love stories.

As Jane Campion has said about her work:

I like detail and I read things into detail and, I think that is quite a feminine quality. […] I’m satisfied with that, I don’t expect to be dealing with the big explosions and the big fights and I’ll see my whole world in something much smaller.

Is reviewing a film akin to “telling people what to do”?

The Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Rabinowitz has responded to questions about the dearth of female film critics by claiming that “maybe a lot of women don’t feel like they want authority to tell people what to do”.

But is this really a valid reason? Critic Rose Capp told me that a discussion with members of the Film Critics Circle of Australia suggested it is related to:

the factors responsible for the historical under-representation of women in many areas of the professional workforce, including screen-based industries. These would include active discrimination against women taking up roles regarded as the preserve of men, lack of opportunity and family-unfriendly working conditions.

As critic Clem Bastow neatly summarises:

Giving voice to more women in the film industry doesn’t simply mean more female directors and writers, but critics too.