Meryl Streep and Film Criticism, By The Numbers

By  · Published on October 8th, 2015

Yesterday morning, as part of the press junket for her new film Suffragette, Meryl Streep had a few unkind things to say about the diversity of those tasked with evaluating her art. After spending some time on the popular movie review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Streep found what she described as an “infuriating” imbalance between male and female critics. Here’s the full quote, courtesy of the Hollywood Reporter:

“I went deep, deep, deep, deep into Rotten Tomatoes, and I counted how many contributors there were – critics and bloggers and writers.

And of those allowed to rate on the Tomatometer, there are 168 women. And I thought, ‘that’s absolutely fantastic.’ And then, if there were 168 men, it would be balanced. If there were 268 men, it would unfair but I’d get used to it. If there were 368, 468, 568 … Actually there are 760 men who weight in on the Tomatometer.”

While many were quick to praise Streep for leveraging her universal appeal to deliver a message of equality, the subsequent conversation has focused almost exclusively on the person making them. The story isn’t the four-to-one ratio of men to women in film criticism as much as Streep’s bravery in biting the hand that keeps her fed; this means that the immutability of her math goes only as far as Streep’s credibility as an expert. For people looking to poke holes in her argument – perhaps those angered by her recent declaration of humanism over feminism or her poorly phrased choice of apparel – finding a fault in her reputation can effectively “disprove” the larger point that she is trying to make. So here’s a modest proposal: let’s make the argument less about Streep and more about the numbers.

In a 2013 study at San Diego State University titled “Gender @ the Movies: Online Film Critics and Criticism,” PhD Martha M. Lauzen broke down the male and female population of Rotten Tomatoes critics into their various genders and industries. In looking at each approved critic, Lauzen found that 82% of all Rotten Tomatoes critics were male while 18% were female, numbers that align perfectly with Meryl Streep’s 760 and 168. Furthermore, women comprised “10% of those writing for trade publication sites, and 9% of critics writing for movie/entertainment magazine sites” The largest segment of female film critics could be found at public radios or newspapers. Even if we like to romanticize the idea of Meryl Streep angrily scrolling through a list of film critic names, her math proves to be just as accurate as a major academic study.

Of course, you also have to consider the extremely limited pool that is Rotten Tomatoes. When you visit the accreditation portion of their website, what quickly jumps out at you is the fact that you must be writing for a “Tomatometer-approved publication.” Write horror reviews for a genre-focused site like Shock Till You Drop or Fangoria? Sorry. Take a deep dive into the cinema culture and history at Reverse Shot or Flavorwire? Maybe if you started writing for a real publication. Even those that make the list of sanctioned Rotten Tomatoes critics include a disheartening (for us) mix of people who have retired, moved into new areas of journalism and entertainment, or, worst of all, have passed away. And this is not even accounting for the fact that as online film criticism grows exponentially, many of our best writers have moved away from the traditional review format in favor of longform articles and opinion pieces. Mark Harris, for example, might be one of the best in the business, but he does not get to decide whether a movie has a shiny red tomato or an ugly green splat.

To get a better idea of how women are represented in the industry, we would need a list that was selected organically, not subject to pre-approval and based only on the strength and frequency of their output. And that is where the daily recaps of film sites come in handy. Earlier this year, as part of a piece that I never ended up publishing, I pulled the data on a month of critical roundups at several major film sites. Using the daily recaps at Criticwire, The Dissolve, and for January 2015 as my base, I wrote down the relevant information (author, author gender, publication) from each article mentioned in a recap. Only the articles that featured an excerpt were included. If an article was mentioned by multiple publications, it received a separate entry for each mention as it was, in essence, taking a spot that could have gone to another article or author. Any co-written articles or lists that featured multiple both male and female authors were excluded from the data.

And when I was done, I found that the numbers reinforced a lot of what we already knew. For example, both The New York Times and Vulture were near the top in number of articles selected, but they also featured the most diverse writing pool; Vulture led the pack with fifteen articles by twelve unique authors. This contrasts directly with a site like Uproxx, which featured five unique articles but only one author. Most importantly, though, these numbers confirmed the same lack of gender diversity in our field. Of the 231 articles that met my criteria, only 81 were written by a woman, or roughly 34% of those featured. Even if we adjust for unique representations – discounting authors who may skew the results by having multiple pieces selected – we are left with roughly the same breakdown. 171 authors and 60 women for a total just north of 35%. Even in this ideal scenario, where we let smart people choose the best writing that they think represents us all, male film critics are still favored by a two-to-one majority.

The truth is, there is no one factor or publication we can point to that prevents these numbers from being less crooked. If we want more women selected as Rotten Tomatoes critics then we need to make sure there are more women writing for Tomatometer-approved publications. If we want more women writing for Tomatometer-approved publications then we need to build an industry that both identifies and develops talent from within. If we want to identify and develop talent from within then we cannot turn potential writers away with underrepresentation on the screen or in the bylines. As with any system of inequality, the most visible problems are systemic, not the aberrations or exceptions to the rule. But the fact of the matter remains. We can believe that Meryl Streep used bad math on her way to an otherwise noble conclusion, or we can put our faith in the egalitarian system of contemporary film criticism. Choosing between 18% and 35% only feels charitable when you’re sitting on the other end of the scale.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)