The stats speak pretty loudly for themselves when it comes to the small percentage of women working in various areas of film, behind or in front of the camera. And if one was to claim that the role of film criticism culture is to influence the status quo as well as to reflect upon it, it is perhaps no surprise that the ratio of female film critics to their male counterparts is also a discouraging number, despite the current barriers of entry being a lot less stringent. In fact, a study by San Diego State University recently revealed that only 18 percent of reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes were written by top female critics in the spring of 2013 — a percentage that has shrunk significantly from 30 percent in the fall of 2007.
While evidence suggests a discernible gender imbalance, this is of course not the only crisis facing the culture of film criticism today. With more people turning to aggregates such as Rotten Tomatoes for advice, individual reviews are perceived as of lesser importance. So how can women break through the noise as film writers? At a panel moderated by the Brooklyn Rail‘s Rachel Rakes and programmed as part of NYU’s Fusion Film Festival, notably scheduled on International Women’s Day, several prominent female film writers took the stage to discuss their observations and here is what stood out.
Women can influence the culture of film criticism for the better, while the occupation itself is in danger.
In response to the titular question, panelists agreed on the struggles of sustaining oneself financially while working as film critics. “Journalism and jobs of people who write for a living are in danger,” said Slate critic Dana Stevens. “But I also think the web, and social media opened up other avenues for criticism, making it a more democratic endeavor, and less of an elite point.”
“Can women save film criticism as an occupation? No, it’s beyond hope,” said panelist Miriam Bale, who writes for the New York Times and other outlets. “It’s the only place I’ve seen that the rates get lower as you get more experience. But do I think women can save the culture of criticism? Maybe. I notice women whom I knew to be big film fans have this tendency to get really deep with what interests them. I think by opening that up, there is a chance to write different kinds of criticism than just reviews.” Bale also correlated having more female critics to challenging the problem of having few female directors, noting that more female voices could counter many male critics’ tendency to heroicize certain male directors.
“There is something tacit about what movies women should be assigned. We can do a lot of work on that end,” added the New York Post‘s Farran Smith Nehme, emphasizing the importance of female critics not limiting their writing to only female-driven films/topics, in order to sustain themselves as well-rounded writers in the long run.
Female critics challenge the commonly accepted norms of female representation.
“‘What is the job of female critic when talking about gender’ is the bigger question,” said Stevens, bringing up the recent discussion of gender issues surrounding HBO’s “True Detective.” “Nic Pizzolatto was interviewed by Kate Arthur of Buzzfeed who asked him sharply about the accusations. His responses were very dismissive of this genre requirement that there would always be a naked dead lady at the heart of every great show about male detectives. When something like this comes up in the culture, how can we address it without becoming the voice of resentment politics?”
“Having more women talk about what’s in the film is very important in terms of countering the naturalization of male hegemony within the film culture,” added Inkoo Kang, who writes for the Los Angeles Times and the Village Voice.
“The niche perspective is important on sexism and even race,” said Miriam Bale, mentioning Angela Davis’ piece about the women of “12 Years A Slave” as a great example of it. “But it’s challenging. People don’t know [those perspectives] are needed, and push them away. After a while I think, ‘I am a woman. I am an African-American. You need to trust my gut reaction and not your authority.'”
Film industry is encouraging a fanboy culture, which is unfriendly to female voices.
Responding to a question of what fan blogs — mostly written by young white men on genre film — do to the landscape of criticism, Farran Nehme said she started as a blogger who was emphatically not focused on certain kind of violent genres. “My blog Self Styled Siren mostly focuses on pre-1960s film in a pretty idiosyncratic way. But I think of Jeff Wells’ Hollywood Elsewhere — and that is an incredibly testosterone driven blog. If you go into the comments section, it’s really male and almost kind of frightening.”
“Fanboy culture can be very toxic and sexist,” added Dana Stevens. “But it’s being fed a steady diet of comic book and monster movies. There is a direct pipeline between what the industry is producing and that form of fandom. And whenever a female critic doesn’t like a fanboy movie, she is going to go through utter hell.”
“The great thing is that we have close tab,” reminded Inkoo Kang. “There is so much stuff out there I can read. A lot of feminist analyses you see from female critics relate movies to the real world. That interests me a lot more than robots and sea monsters.”
There can be other meaningful entry points to film writing than auteurism or formulaic film reviews.
“I have a very conflicted relationship with auteurism,” said Farran Nehme. “What drew me to classic Hollywood was largely stars. When I first started getting into auteurism, my attitude was ‘Does that not diminish the contribution of other people, and exclude some films I love very much because they are not made by someone in the pantheon of auteurs?”
“I am a card-carrying auteurist,” said Miriam Bale. “But more than the director can be the auteur. You can approach from the angle of stars, producers, and even costume designers.”
“We need more think pieces. If you want to become a film critic, I can’t think of a better way to start than writing about what interests you,” advised Inkoo Kang. “I can tell you by a long shot, nobody would care about whom I was if I didn’t write about Miyazaki’s ‘The Wind Rises.’ I hated that film, went to a film critics’ meeting and told everybody ‘if you vote for this movie as best animated film, you are immoral.’ And I wrote an editorial about it at the Village Voice. If you bring this individual perspective, that is going to be a lot more interesting to read than a review.”
“I spoke with my editor just last week about going for fewer reviews,” said Dana Stevens. “It’s not every week that something deserves an evaluative piece of criticism. There might be something more interesting going on in culture at large.”
Female critics should help promote each other online.
“There is talk of Internet feminism, which is sort of a fourth-wave feminism,” said Miriam Bale. “Have your voice heard online. Make a name for yourself. Twitter is a great place for it.”
“Some people who have been around since the ’80s and ’90s write disdainfully about the Internet in a sense that film criticism has gotten all touristy. But there are some new voices out there that are something,” said Farran Nehme. “What we can do as women in terms of making more voices heard is something as simple as linking, which is the lifeblood of the net. It’s the easiest weapon we have at our disposal.”