Study Shows Film Criticism Is Just as Male-Dominated as Filmmaking
Particularly avid film fans are likely well-aware that the industry is a male-dominated one in which women — both behind of and in front of the scenes — are outnumbered and thus outranked by men. But as Meryl Streep pointed out last year, the problem extends beyond Hollywood proper and into film journalism, where a new study supports the idea that the industry as a whole is unfairly skewed — the implication being that if the majority of film critics are male and promoting predominantly male-driven narratives, then Hollywood has no reason to make a change.
Via Variety, a new study reveals that 73 percent of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes are male, while women make up just 27 percent of critics. That doesn’t take into account the women (or men) who aren’t members of Rotten Tomatoes, such as yours truly, which means those numbers are a mere sampling of the industry’s imbalance.
It’s not all bad news, however. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University analyzed 5,776 reviews written by 247 critics over the course of three months this year and despite some troubling results, they did find that men and women often shared similar opinions on films featuring a female lead.
But what really makes this study interesting is that it sheds light on why major studios continue to shy away from female-driven films. We’ve seen an increase in movies with female leads in recent years, but the statistics are still indisputably disheartening: Of the 250 highest-grossing studio films released last year, only nine percent were directed by women, while 23 percent of those titles were produced by them.
In front of the scenes, women accounted for just 22 percent of the leading roles and 34 percent of the prominent roles of those 250 films. Movies with women in leading roles have proven their box office worth time and again: The Hunger Games, Lucy (or anything with Scarlett Johansson), Spy (or anything with Melissa McCarthy), the Pitch Perfect films, Frozen, and even Mad Max: Fury Road. At the box office, women account for more than half of ticket sales, and it was women — not your average male comic book fan— who made up over 50 percent of sales for Guardians of the Galaxy.
But if these movies are so damn successful, then why aren’t studios quick to green light more of them? Perhaps this new research provides a clue. Men dominate the field across the board, making up 80 percent of critics for trade publications and 74 percent of the journalists who write for movie and pop culture magazines and websites (like the one you’re reading right now).
If we write what we know, then the numbers make sense. 34 percent of reviews written by women were for films with a female lead, compared to just 24 percent of the reviews written by men. 66 percent of the reviews written by women were about male-driven films, compared to 76 percent of the reviews written by men about the same films. Women are writing about women more than their male counterparts, but those numbers also indicate that there’s still a major disparity.
Martha Lauzen, who directed and authored the research at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, tells Variety that the results reflect “larger cultural biases” that favor men. You need only look to just about any industry to see that men continue to dominate almost every career field. In fact, the few jobs in which women are paid more than men include sex work, physical therapy, kindergarten and pre-school teachers, service industry positions and food preparation. Sit with that for a moment: The only jobs that pay women more than men are those that reinforce the stereotypes of women as domestic providers, mothers / nurturers and sex objects.
Lauzen adds that “It’s human nature to hire people who look like us,” which means men are hiring and promoting other men — and not all of them are conscious of their innate bias, which is in some ways more dangerous than overt sexism.
If women aren’t being hired as often, then we aren’t being promoted to positions of power where we can hire more women and create balance. That problem extends to the film industry as a whole, where women are not directing and producing nearly as many films, and thus there are less women working behind the scenes in general. The Wrap recently looked at upcoming movie releases from major studios, and neither Paramount nor 20th Century Fox has a single film with a female director on their calendar through 2018. That could still change, but for the time being, neither of these studios have a film in development with a woman at the helm.
That’s especially troubling for Fox, which is one of only two major studios (Universal is the other) with a woman in charge. On the other hand, since Kathleen Kennedy became president of Lucasfilm and spearheaded a new era of Star Wars, the franchise has become far more diverse. The casts of The Force Awakens and Rogue One are incredibly diverse, with women and people of color in both prominent and minor roles. Even the background casting is diverse.
Despite the fact that Luacasfilm has yet to hire a woman to direct a Star Wars film, Kennedy proves that putting women in authoritative positions can effect change and increase diversity. If more women aren’t producing and directing films, then we aren’t going to see more films with women in leading roles. The same goes for film criticism: If more women aren’t writing about movies and sharing our unique perspectives, then nothing is ever really going to change.
The majority of films are about men, and it’s mostly men writing about them, which means that even if female-driven films have a higher ratio of “fresh” to “rotten” reviews, it doesn’t really matter. As long as there are way more movies for, by and about men, the system will remain intact. If the box office success of movies by and starring women can’t change the industry, then we need to start enacting change when and where we can.
Last year, Paul Feig shared a memorable photo from the set of his Ghostbusters reboot in which women made up the majority of his film crew. That’s how you change things. Hire more women and give them the same opportunities, whether it’s making movies or writing about them — it’s as simple as holding the door open for the person behind you, which isn’t just good manners. It’s common sense.