At a press conference for “Suffragette,” in which she plays women’s voting-rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst, Meryl Streep slammed the “infuriating” gender imbalance in film criticism, singling out Rotten Tomatoes for its disproportionate membership. Her complete remarks are at the end of this post.
Making a foray into data journalism, Streep tallied the number of Tomatometer-approved critics on the review aggregation site, and found them skewed, 168 women to 760 men. She also tallied the membership of critics organizations, and found them similarly lacking: “Who are the New York Film Critics? The New York Film Critics are 37 men and two women.” That precise description fits neither the New York Film Critics Circle, which has 31 members of whom six are women, nor the New York Film Critics Online, with 39 members and 12 women, but the general point about a gender imbalance in the profession is impossible to argue. We’ll take her word on the Tomatometer’s gender breakdown, although it’s only fair to note that nearly half of the posted reviews of “Suffragette” —eight out of 17 — come from female critics, and that the film is rated 71 percent fresh.
The question of whether there’s an inherent different in the views of male and female critics was also broached recently by Australian theater actress and director Jane Griffiths, who wrote that the reviews of her version of “Antigone” broke down along pronounced gender lines: “The extraordinary division in gender in the critical response prompts me to analyze the assumptions, misinformation, and downright sexism out there in the critical cultural conversation,” she wrote, expanding the analysis to her entire career. “Looking back on all that, there does seem to be some consistency in those criticism. All written by men, all by men who didn’t like the fact I didn’t write the story they wanted to see, or act the way they thought a woman should be. All written by men who would not engage with the world I was ‘narrativizing.’ In other words, written by male critics who cannot or will not make the act of translation most women have spent their lives perfecting.”
The counterargument will be that Rotten Tomatoes and other aggregators are simply proving an accurate reflection of the critical landscape. (Criticwire has reached out to Rotten Tomatoes for comment, and will update this post if we receive a response.) But they, like any critics group, have a choice about who they admit and who they don’t, and a numerically accurate reflection may not be the most fair, or even the most useful, approach.
Here’s the relevant video of Streep’s remarks (the complete press conference is here), followed by a transcription lightly edited for clarity.
“In our business, part of it is driven by buzz. So I was always thinking, ‘What makes buzz?’ What controls that? In the United States, when people go to find a movie to watch at night, to go out to the movies, they go to something called Rotten Tomatoes…. So I went deep, deep, deep, deep into Rotten Tomatoes… and of those that are 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 would be used to it. If there were 368, if there were 468, if there were 5… 6… Actually there are 760 men who weigh in on the Tomatometer. Now, I submit to you that men and women are not the same. They like different things. Sometimes they like the same things, but sometimes their tastes diverge. If the Tomatometer is slighted so completely to one set of tastes, that drives box office in the United States — absolutely. I went on the site of the New York Film Critics. Who are the New York Film Critics? The New York Film Critics are 37 men and two women. And I started to go on all the sites of the critics, and it is — the word isn’t ‘disheartening.’ It’s ‘infuriating.’ Because people accept this as received wisdom. This is just the way it is. You can take every single issue of feminine rights, female rights, in the world and examine it under this same rubric. It isn’t fair. So we need inclusion. Rotten Tomatoes this year should say, ‘It has to be even. Half and half.'”