This is the Moment for Female Film Critics

By  · Published on July 8th, 2016

The Academy Has Shown Us The Way.

If you feel like we’ve reached a bit of a turning point with regards to film criticism, you’re not wrong. The failures of film criticism as a male-driven industry have never been more obvious; the metrics of exclusion have never been more damning. And now that even Hollywood itself has taken steps to improve the diversity of its members, with all due respect to Mahatma Ghandi, it’s time for film critics to be the change they want to see in the world.

On Thursday, Jen Yamato of The Daily Beast published an article exploring the darker side of the male gaze in film criticism. In her piece, Yamato offered three recent examples of gendered articles gone wrong – an editorial on the appearance of Renee Zellweger, a leering profile of Margot Robbie, and an opinion piece explaining why Blake Lively can barely hold the author’s interest — and argued that the industry needs more female writers and editors if it is to evolve. “Hollywood’s lady problem isn’t just limited to the disadvantages women face in front of and behind the camera,” Yamato wrote. “Weeks like this, it bleeds into our own pages and websites, daring us to do better for the Renees, the Margots, and yes, the Blakes out there.”

Yamato is not the only person arguing for gender equality in film criticism, though. Just this past month, San Diego State University released their newest batch of research suggesting that female film critics are regularly and systematically underrepresented in the industry. This news comes on the heels of an ongoing project by Women and Hollywood to raise awareness for female culture critics often overlooked by general audiences. Certainly, neither of these studies represent the entire body of work dedicated to diversifying film criticism, but these articles demonstrate how widespread the recognition of this problem has become. It is not just a handful of critics attempting to raise awareness; filmmakers, actors, audiences, and academics have all converged on this as an important issue the industry needs to face.

It is also a problem that eludes an easy fix. A few years ago – in response to the 2013 San Diego State University findings – NPR’s Linda Holmes tackled the issue of diversity and found a few problems with how the numbers for female film critics were being generated. Many of these points remain mostly intact: some writers who tackle gender and Hollywood are not necessarily doing so in the format of a traditional movie review, and many women who do write about movies may not have a say in their assignments. As a writer for one of the first wave of Medium publications, I can certainly speak to the number of talented writers who operate independently of a traditional publication. Some of the best writing to be found on the internet exists at personal blogs and Medium sites, and no amount of RottenTomatoes research will fully appreciate what those writers bring to the table.

But there’s a part of me that questions whether those types of posts can generate any real sustainable success for female writers as a whole. Most writers tend not to talk about the networking component of the industry – we like to think that quality writing will be noticed regardless of where it is published – but the more prestigious or visible your outlet, the more competition there is for your time and attention. Many critics are much better at reading “up” the ladder than they are at reading down; to build the type of professional network necessary to connections necessary to build a reputation as a writer, you need to either form a personal connection with strangers or already be someone with a solid reputation. The odds that a piece of writing from a self-published outlet will get noticed – or that the author will see any noticeable increase in visibility from writing a particularly good piece – are slim at best. This can be daunting for anyone, but it can be particularly challenging as a woman trying to break into a mostly male establishment.

A nice parallel to this is the recent diversification of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Last month, the Academy announced that its 2016 class would be comprised of 46% female invitees and 41% people of color. While these numbers only shift the overall populations slightly – two percent and three percent, respectively – it also comes as the culmination of two years of frustration with whitewashed Academy Awards ballots. What made the #OscarsSoWhite movement such a powerful force for change was the fact that it did not belong to any one specific part of the industry. Filmmakers and actors spoke out in favor of a more diverse Academy; so did journalists, audiences, and stakeholders in the entertainment industry. With pressure being put on the Academy from all different sides, change was inevitable, and a slow and cyclical process of improvement began. A more diverse academy will champion more diverse films, which will in turn increase the return for critics and general audiences alike.

This should be the blueprint for those interested in pushing for a more diverse group of film critics as well. There have never been as many talented women writing about film as there are today, but without paid criticism – and the reach that comes from writing for a paid outlet – this number lacks the teeth to bring about real change. Critics and editors who hold some sway in the industry should continue to promote the work of female writers they admire; in turn, filmmakers should continue to ask that their work be consumed and discussed by as diverse a population as possible. With pressure from all sides, recent articles like the ones mentioned above can become the exception, not the rule.

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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)