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Movie Mom


Report on Gender and Movie Criticism

posted by Nell Minow

Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, Director of the Center for the Study of Women In Television and Film at San Diego State University, has released a new report on the representation of women among film critics. I live in the Washington D.C. area, where the Washington Post buy-outs of 100 of its once-900 newsroom staff eliminated two film critic positions, leaving Ann Hornaday as the only full-time critic on staff. The movie critic for the nation’s largest circulation newspaper, USA Today, is Claudia Puig (pictured), now that long-time critic Mike Clark is concentrating on DVDs. And most movie features for USA Today are written by Susan Wloszczyna. claudia puig.jpg
But Dr. Lauzen’s research shows:
Contrary to the myriad prognostications of media observers and writers, film criticism is not dead. It is, however, hurtling into a new era in which professional critics share space with amateurs, and credentialed journalists find multiple platforms for their reviews. Through web sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, formerly print-only film critics and writers now supplement their traditional audience with a whole new generation of on-line readers….
Of the newspapers featuring film reviews in the fall of 2007, 47% had no reviews written by women critics, writers or freelancers. In contrast, only 12% had no reviews written by men critics, writers or freelancers. Overall, 70% of the individuals reviewing theatrical film releases in Fall 2007 were male and 30% were female. In addition, men wrote significantly more film reviews than women. Men wrote an average of 14 film reviews. Women wrote an average of 9 film reviews.
ebert460.jpgThese imbalances may be slightly tempered by the fact that women critics, writers, and freelancers wrote for newspapers with marginally higher circulations. The average circulation size of newspapers with women writing reviews was 348,530. The average circulation size of newspapers with men writing reviews was 294,760….
Overall, these findings suggest that film criticism in this country’s newspapers is largely a male enterprise, echoing the heavy male dominance behind the scenes and on screen in the film industry.


The most interesting findings of the study were the differences in subject matter and similarities of approach. Whether by the inclination of critics or editors (the report suggests both), women were more likely to review romantic comedies, for example. Women were also more likely to review films with a female protagonist. But male and female critics approached films similarly in their judgment and in the structure and balance of reviews.
We counted the number of positive, negative, and neutral/mixed sentences in these reviews. Positive sentences praised some aspect of the film including performances, cinematography, pacing, and storylines. Negative sentences noted poor performances, disjointed plots, and overly pedantic or frenzied pacing. Mixed or neutral sentences included both positive and negative comments or offered plot descriptions.
On average, women and men wrote equally negative reviews. Both women and men wrote reviews with an average of 4 negative sentences. On average, women and men wrote equally positive reviews. Both women and men wrote reviews with an average of 5 positive sentences. The remaining sentences in the average 23-sentence review offered either mixed or neutral observations. In addition, women were not more likely than men to write significantly more positive reviews about films with at least one woman director and/or writer or featuring a female protagonist or ensemble cast. Similarly, men were not more likely than women to write significantly more positive reviews about films with only men filmmakers or featuring a male protagonist.
The AWFJ website also has an essay by Mary Pols with her conflicts on leaving her job as a film critic. Be sure to look at the comments, especially a peppery response from “Joan,” a studio executive, who does not think much of movie critics.
I left a comment as well:

What an engaging exchange! It makes me think that what might be more illuminating and provocative than traditional movie reviews would be a conversation or point/counterpoint on each one, the way Ebert and Siskel used to be. But in a way that’s what we get online from aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes.

As this exchange suggests, no one is stopping you from writing the kinds of reviews you want to write about the movies you want to see. But making a living at it is a different story, and one that is impossible to separate from what is going on throughout the field of journalism, especially print journalism. Budgets and coverage are being slashed across the board. Be glad you’re not a book critic or a classical music critic or a foreign correspondent, all slots going the way of the dodo. Look at the way bloggers are stealing the thunder — and the stories — from the MSM.

With regard to film critics, I think we are close to the point at which there are more people who want to write movie reviews than there are people who want to read them. But the best — like Dana Stevens, who went from her own website to freelancing for the NY Times to being Slate’s critic in a remarkably short time — will always be sought after.

Joan, I like a lot of what you have to say. But you are not the audience for most movie reviews. They are not intended for people who work in the field and know a lot about film and film-makers and see tons of movies. Most reviews are intended for the “is anything good playing that we both want to see” folks, and it is critics who bring non-blockbusters to their attention.

I don’t think being local is all that important. What is important is a range of voices — male, female, young, old, gay, straight, married, single, parents, non-parents, every color and ethnicity, cineastes and people who are suckers for glossy romantic comedies or slasher zombie films or who only like arty indies. And there’s even a place for people who are the movie equivalent of a TV weatherman — not the one who tells you the barometric pressure, the one who tells you if you need a sweater.

People who are passionate about writing about film will find their outlets and people who are passionate about reading about film will continue to read them. Making a living from it — that’s still the tricky part.



  • Big_Dave_T

    For me, it begs the question of whether more men or women go to the movies. Do you know? If more women go to the movies than men, it makes sense to have more female movie critics. For the life of me I can’t understand what my wife sees in most of the movies she watches at home (for example, those on the Lifetime Movie Network).

  • Nell Minow

    I don’t think critics have to be like the people who read them. I know I enjoy reading critics who are different from me in every category.
    But I think the appeal of the Lifetime movies is their predictability.

  • Alicia

    Nell, I read a bit of the piece and the discussion you linked to – very interesting points by “Joan.”
    From a strictly utilitarian (or cost-benefit) standpoint, it is easy to make the argument that most art and literature, including most films, aren’t needed. Indeed, many of the best films are seen by relatively few people. Some of the mainstream “roller-coaster rides” make much more money than the ‘little films.’
    But, from a personal standpoint, my life would be immeasurably less rich if it weren’t for movies, literature, and art, including criticism, and I imagine it is the same for others. Plus, there is some art, for whatever reason, that is indelible.
    You might want to give a shout-out about this story to Rod Dreher. He has a story up on Crunchy Cons about Roger Ebert’s return to print criticism.
    Cheers!

  • Lindsay A.

    I am a former student of Dr. Martha Lauzen, and find her research progressive and a fascinating contribution and investigation into our culture. This particular research regarding female film critics is an interesting parallel to women being underrepresented in film and TV in front of and behind the scenes, as stated in this article.
    I am a freelance critic and I do mean freelance. For me, writing is an outlet and a gift to those who are passionate about the art of film and how it comments on the events of our world. Does anyone remember Pauline Kael? She is who I aspire to as a film critic. She is simply the piece de resistance.
    When women represent more than half the population, you have to question the validity of the messages we see in our media. So cheers to Dr. Lauzen for highlighting these disparities and the message of parity for women’s representation in film, especially when it is such a major export and a representation of how women are viewed in this country.

  • Nell Minow

    Thank you so much, Lindsay, and I hope you will return to comment here about the movies you see and your progress as a critic.

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