Movie Mom

Movie Mom


Do women critics review differently?

posted by Nell Minow

Jennifer Merin of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists invited me to respond to a blog post from Gary Susman of Entertainment Weekly on whether we need more female critics.


Gary Susman of Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch asks whether we need more female movie critics mostly as a way to pat EW on the back doubly, first for achieving perfect gender balance on its movie reviewing staff (two critics, Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum) and second for transcending gender: “when it comes to so-called “chick flicks” or more male-oriented action fare, both of our film critics are able to see past gender and review them positively if they’re good, negatively if they’re bad. Their differences in taste seems (to me) to have more to do with who they are as individuals than with sex.”
Well, doesn’t gender have something to do with who they are as individuals? My son sometimes teases me by calling me “The Estrogen Critic.” I reply that anyone who writes under the nom de keyboard of “The Movie Mom” is pretty clear where she is coming from, and I remind him that there are already plenty of testosterone critics out there, so why not try for a little balance? If half the people buying tickets are female, don’t they deserve to hear from people who bring some, well, estrogen to the way they look at film?
I remember when I was first trying to learn as much as possible about as many movies as possible as a teenager in the 1960’s. In those pre-IMDB days I had a copy of Stephen H. Scheuer’s movie guide and would pore over it, memorizing titles, directors, and stars. Now and then his capsule descriptions would say, “This one’s for the ladies.” I had no difficulty figuring out what that meant. It was a romantic melodrama with a heroically suffering woman in the leading role. But was that supposed to mean that other movies were not for ladies?
I liked the new critic writing for my home-town newspaper. His name was Roger Ebert and he was young, just out of college, and so I felt a closer kinship to him than I did to Judith Crist, the woman I saw reviewing films on television or to Pauline Kael, whose muscular prose was deliciously provocative but did not strike me as especially female.
It was Molly Haskell who made me think that there could be something indispensably distinctive about a woman’s take on film. Her article in Ms. Magazine about Doris Day completely changed my thinking about an actress I had previously considered the most fluffy and retro of movie stars and, more important, changed my thinking about how to look at movies and the way they portrayed female characters. Her book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies gave me an understanding of movies not just as artifacts and reflections of culture but as shapers of it as well. And I would argue that not just her interest but her insights were very much a part of her experience as a woman.
Susman’s post was prompted by a fracas over a wire service review of “The Other Boleyn Girl” that opened “What is the point of a bodice-ripper starring an actress who – how can we put this politely? – doesn’t have much to offer in the decolletage department?” A woman critic might refer to an actress’s cleavage, but would be less likely to do so in such a dismissive and objectifying manner. Perhaps as important, a woman critic’s comment might be seen differently, though a recent op-ed by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post about the way women respond to politicians was decried as an outrageously sexist piece that would not have been published if written by a man.
Probably right. And all the more reason that newspapers need to publish work from a diverse range of voices.
One of my favorite critics, Jeannette Catsoulis, responded to Susman’s comments this way: They miss the entire point here, sliding into the convenientpseudo-egalitarian cop-out, the position that gender (or race, or age)and opinion are essentially unrelated. Rubbish. That’s just a convenient way of maintaining the status quo. Objectivity is an illusion…Women’s voices in film, like blacks and Hispanics, have been marginalized for decades, and film criticism has been dominated bywhite, middle-aged men for so long we think it’s normal. I don’t carewhat they say about Internet voices, the ones with weight are in the major outlets, and those are primarily white males. I want to see more Armond Whites (for so many reasons), more Dennis Lims, more Stephanie Zachareks and a lot less conformity of opinion.
We need more critics in every category. It is striking that the day after Susman’s blog post a Hollywood Reporter story notes that the wider range of voices in producing movies, leading to the most and most varied independent films since the rise of the studios comes at a time when newspapers and other outlets are cutting back on critics. The very films that are most in need of reviews from experienced, credible, widely distributed critics to get the word out are the first to be jettisoned by print publications with shrinking budgets. So yes, EW, we need more women critics, just as we need more right-wing, left-wing, GLBT, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, disabled, urban, rural, old, young and other critics, not to avoid reviews that are overly focused on Natalie Portman’s neckline but to help audiences find surprising and illuminating movies and surprising and illuminating ways to look at all movies with reviews that are smart, engaging, insightful, and as memorable in their own way as the movies they describe.



  • Big_Dave_T

    I have been disappointed that women critics haven’t been better represented in the public sphere. When Gene Siskel died, I was hoping that Ebert would take the chance to face off against a woman critic. It would have broadened the program’s audience appeal. Bringing on Roeper, from the same newspaper (!), is kind of like seeing Bush debate Cheney.
    Claudia Puig, from USA Today is one of my favorite critics and one whose movie taste seems to mirror mine. I grew up admiring critics like Kael and Judith Crist. I think one reason “Reel Geezers” is popular is because the man-woman chemistry enlivens the exchanges.
    Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. I believe that’s true and it holds true for critics as well. To be honest, if you were “Movie Dad”, I don’t think you would be as interesting to read. That’s my opinion anyway.

  • Nell Minow

    We agree, Big Dave, as usual! I try to bring all of what I am and where I have been to my reviews — that’s all any critic can do.

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