Women Film Critics: An Endangered Species?

Mainstream media paid scant attention to Martha Lauzen's "Thumbs Down: Representation of Women Film Critics in the Top 100 U.S. Daily Newspapers" when the report was published on July 28 by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (AWFJ), although the posting was supported by simultaneous distribution to 500 entertainment media and movie industry A-listers.

This latest study from the guru of women-in-Hollywood statistics and analysis indicates that 70 percent of movie reviews published in America's top 100 daily newspapers are written by men, and that 47 percent of those publications -- almost half -- ran no reviews written by female critics.

Lauzen's impeccably researched report shows that women are still marginalized in the national discussion about film, arguably our country's most influential cultural commodity -- a medium of sweeping social, political and economic significance.

AWFJ, an organization of which I am president, wasn't surprised by the report's findings, nor that they were so conspicuously underreported. Disappointed, perhaps, but not surprised. Why would newspapers -- or media in general -- call attention to or even acknowledge a situation that might inspire their readers and viewers to ask disturbing questions?

The deeply entrenched disparity between the number of women who go to movies and the number of women who write about them rankles female film critics. But the issues extend far beyond a relatively small group of media professionals to directly affect moviegoers -- especially women. Many, if not most, women look to mainstream media outlets for information, and it stands to reason that they'd find the perspective of perceptive, well-informed professional female critics useful. The relative paucity of female voices in film criticism is a manifestation of an industry that favors male-made, male-oriented movies despite the fact that women are avid moviegoers.

We escape into movies to laugh, cry and kick ass, alone or with friends. We learn from cinema how to solve problems in our relationships and careers, we let films baby sit for and educate our children. Sometimes we just marvel at the exquisite artistry of the movies.

Lauzen's report and her unimpeachable statistics have opened the door for a much-needed assessment of what's lost through gender disparity in film criticism.

That debate is taking place on the Internet, where mainstream media reporters -- notably Sean Means at Salt Lake City Tribune, Brandy McDonnell at The Oklahoman, Annie Wagner at the Seattle-based The Stranger, Rania Richardson at Indiewire.com and Anne Thompson at Variety.com -- used their well-read blogs to report on Lauzen's findings, although they were apparently given neither space nor leeway to do so in print. Collectively, they have a huge and diverse following on the web. Hopefully the awareness they sparked and discussions they initiated will be ongoing.

Indicating the report's web reach, UK-based ObsessedWithFilm.com's Michael Kaminski was inspired to present his own observations on gender bias: Amazon.com's list of 50 best-selling movie history and criticism books includes only seven women authors; and women inductees into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences averaged only 27 percent of new members over the last five years.

Closer to home, comments by Salon.com's Stephanie Zacharek raise another concern: "The big news isn't that daily newspapers aren't hiring women as critics; it's that many of them have ceased caring whether they have a full-time movie critic at all," she writes. Lauzen's numbers, she continues, "don't trouble me as much as the pervasiveness of the idea that critics -- the last line of defense between moviegoers and studio-generated hype -- no longer matter."

That said, Zacharek gets anecdotal about gender bias: She turned down a job as a major daily's film critic because the salary "was so laughably low. The editor who interviewed me ... made no secret that the paper wanted to hire a female critic, but clearly, what the joint really wanted was a cheap date."

AWFJ experienced the combined impact of Zacharek's concerns and Lauzen's statistics when two members, Eleanor Ringel and Mary Pols, were retired-by-buyout from hard-earned, long-standing careers at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Contra Costa Times, respectively. Other AWFJ members report space cutbacks and confide fears they'll be pushed into Buyoutsville or worse.

The Internet is clearly film criticism's future forum, and the instrument of its democratization. AWFJ is on board. We provide members with a well-trafficked platform at AWFJ.org, where Pols' post-buyout essay, "Reflections of a Former (and Future) Critic," reached a vast and diverse readership via pick up in mainstream online media, most notably Movie City News (which is of Biblical importance to the movie industry and entertainment media) and USAToday.com. It will take this level of exposure to effect change.

AWFJ is concerned not only about mainstream media's gender bias, but also about discrepancies in the quality, credibility and credentials of some bloggers -- men and women -- who position themselves as movie critics on the web. As an organization, we're wary about marketers in critics' camouflage (whether or not their mission is to tout films made by and about women) who use personal blogs to demand the recognition and clout that years of experience and dedication have earned for the professionals.

And, we see a vast difference between what a seasoned Ringel or Pols delivers online and what's posted by newcomers, some of whom regard experience and painstakingly acquired knowledge of film history and theory as irrelevant. Yet we encourage new voices -- especially women's -- though outreach programs, and have published students' reviews on AWFJ.org.

AWFJ is committed to raising the volume on women critics' voices wherever we hear them, even if they come as faint whispers. Our ultimate concern, however, is not gender-based advocacy but the support and exposure of world-class critical voices that might otherwise be silenced or reduced to a whisper by cultural biases so deeply woven into the fabric of society that many people don't believe they exist. Our commitment is to excellence, because everyone benefits when the best and the brightest share their informed insights about the ever changing and increasingly complex world we share.

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