On the cover of the book The Outsiders, the author’s name is written as S.E. Hinton. She thought if consumers knew she was a woman, they’d be less likely to buy and praise her book. Therefore, she used her initials to disguise her gender, and the book was a hit. Maybe this seems ridiculous or paranoid to some, but this is a reality that stems throughout the entertainment world, and it all starts with the male-dominated field of critics. A few months ago, The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University financed a study called Thumbs Down: Film Critics and Gender, and Why It Matters (Thumbs Down). Originally conducted in 2007, it’s the most comprehensive study of women’s representation and the impact of film reviewers. It covers print, broadcast, and online outlets. The updated findings, relating specifically to 2018, backup what females in the entertainment industry, like S.E. Hinton, have always thought: that an industry dominated by male critics negatively impacts female artists.
Women and people of color are constantly being kept out of the industry. According to Thumbs Down, male critics outnumber female critics 2 to 1 in every genre and 71% of reviews are written by men. On top of that, male critics mostly cover films with male protagonists and male directors. That means films with female protagonists barely get reviewed. This leads to lower publicity and smaller audiences. To make matters worse, 83% of female reviewers and 82% of male reviewers are white. So not only is female-driven media being unfairly critiqued (if critiqued at all), but so is content led by people of color. This can cause lower box office numbers, which in turn deters producers from financing inclusive media content.
The odds that someone is going to watch a movie or read a book that has worse reviews than its competition are extremely low. Thumbs Down found that when a female-driven film is reviewed by male critics, they are harsher than female critics, sighting that “female writers award an average rating of 74% and males an average rating of 62% to films with female protagonists,” even though “women writers award an average of 73% and men 70% to films with male protagonists.” Do their tastes suddenly differ when a female is presented as the lead, or is there something about the storytelling that becomes unrelatable to the male critic? If there was equal representation in the critic world, maybe there wouldn’t be these ideas that female-driven comedies don’t sell or that women don’t do well as action stars. Maybe the truth is that people are deterred from seeing these movies because they are unfairly critiqued. Diversity among critics would make overall reviews, such as the percentage on Rotten Tomatoes, more honest and thus change the way women are seen in the entertainment world.
Early on in Spike Lee’s career, he directed an Oscar-nominated movie called Do The Right Thing, which shows why level-headed people become angry enough to riot. Many powerful critics wrote that this film would end Lee’s career and that it encouraged audience members to riot. Lee fought back, saying they were ignoring the scene containing the death of a black youth and the theme of passivity interwoven throughout the movie. He was frustrated because, as white men, they couldn’t see past their own race, and that hurt the film financially. The negative reviews from these prominent white critics had a devastating effect on the film’s financial standings, coming in at a disappointing number 8 at the box office. If there were critics with different backgrounds, then different views would come into play and maybe films like Do The Right Thing wouldn’t bomb opening weekend and make producers believe diverse storytelling doesn’t sell.
More recently, in a powerful statement to Yahoo News, Mindy Kaling said, “If I had to base my career on what white men wanted, I would be very unsuccessful. There is obviously an audience out there who want to watch things like [Oceans 8] which I work on.” She then brought up a statement Meryl Streep made a few years ago, saying “she made movies for women but they are reviewed by men who don’t necessarily value it or don’t look at it in the same point of view as a woman doing it, but it seems just unfair.” If a movie was created for a certain audience, it wouldn’t make sense for the majority of reviews to come from people outside that audience, but that seems to be the norm. According to the Motion Picture Association of America’s 2017 analysis, women make up 52% of moviegoers, so it’s not as if having more female critics would cater to a small margin of moviegoers. On the contrary, it would allow customers to truly see movies that they like instead of wasting their money on movies that they don’t actually relate to.
When you log on to Rotten Tomatoes to look up the score of a movie, do you ever research the people who are behind that score? How about the ratings on IMDB? Do you know the demographics of the critics behind those ratings? Probably not, which is why you wouldn’t know that the romantic comedy you were looking forward to seeing, but decided to skip since it was panned by reviewers, received terrible reviews because it was scored by mostly men, or that a movie that takes a hard look at race in America was mostly judged by white people. It’s one of those institutional struggles that, maybe is not purposefully used to hold back minorities and women in the industry, but it hasn’t been corrected yet and hardly anyone talks about it. So studies like Thumbs Down are important to shed awareness on things that have financial and social impact on the world. There has been an increase in the amount of female critics in the past decade, which is probably why there are a few more female-driven movies doing well, but it’s still not enough and there definitely aren’t enough people of color who are critics. So, although we’ve made a little progress, we still have a ways to go.
To learn how women in entertainment are fighting back, click here!