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Female-fronted films take over Hollywood - but are film critics keeping up with change?

Across the top 100 movies of 2017 male critics authored 77.8% of reviews.

Rihanna attending the Ocean's 8 premiere.
Rihanna attending the Ocean's 8 premiere.
Image: Shutterstock/JStone

WHILE HOLLYWOOD HAS started to shift towards having more diverse cast and crews, the same diversity isn’t borne out when it comes to film criticism.

A study from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, part of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative has concluded that white male critics were writing top film reviews at a rate of nearly 27 times their racially underrepresented female counterparts in 2017.

The study, Critic’s Choice, examined critics across the top 100 movies of 2017 who generated 19,559 reviews.

Of those reviews, male critics authored 77.8% and females authored 22.2%, with white critics writing 82% of them.

The situation is even worse when broken down by ethnicity: the report suggests that 82% of reviewers are white, with 18% from under-represented racial/ethnic backgrounds.

The majority of all critics were white males (53.2%) followed by white females (23%), underrepresented males (14.8%), and then underrepresented females (8.9%).

The study focused on the most popular movies of 2017 in order to examine films that were seen by a large proportion of the population and which generated the most money for studios and distributors.

The authors added: ”It is possible, however, that critical reviews of less popular movies may feature a more balanced corps of critics.”

No surprise

Like Hollywood, The Irish Film Board is making a conscious effort to make the Irish film industry more diverse.

Last year it announced a series of new funding opportunities for budding female filmmakers.

But despite the initiatives to achieve gender parity behind the camera, Dr Ruth Barton, a lecturer in film studies at Trinity College Dublin, says that the figures in the Critics Choice study don’t surprise her at all.

Barton is the author of several books on Irish cinema and has irregularly attended press screenings over the years but has always noticed the uneven gender breakdown in critics there.

”Probably, there might be one or two women, and all the rest would be guys, they all knew each other as well, it was a bit off-putting.

She also voiced concerns about critics ”producing a consensus” on the films they’d seen.

Barton said that the audiences at review screenings don’t ”reflect the composition of the cinema when you go in the evening”.

Having no correlation between the critics and the audience is a problem according to Barton as ”taste is gendered”.

”To generalise, I think that men are more gender-blind than women, so are less likely to be looking for issues of gender representation in films than women are.

”If they are very few women reviewing films then you’re going to get very little in the way of a nuanced examination of gendered roles.

And then that feed backs into the films themselves. If nobody is critiquing them, then why do they have to change.

Barton says there is a greater problem among film critics and that is the aggregated movie review sites like Rotten Tomatoes.

The study from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism recommended that sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and other aggregators address disparities in their critic representation by ensuring parity in the critics that they include.

”There is a diminishing of critical culture and that is in part due to the aggregated sites.

”There are links to reviews but most people take one look and see 40% of critics liked this film, ‘I’m not going to go see it’.”

Ocean's 8 Photocall - New York Cast of Ocean's 8 Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Female Reboots

The Critic’s Choice study found that female-driven films are lacking a female critics’ perspective.

Of the 36 female-driven stories in the sample of 100 movies, not one featured proportional representation of women across all reviews

Four female-driven films featured 50% or more female reviewers.

”We need to remember that this is not a particular tradition, in the past some female film critics that have been really influential.

”So it’s not like it’s always been like this so there’s absolutely no reason why this should not change,” Barton said.

Hoping to flip the critical perception of all female-driven films is Ocean’s 8, a reboot of the Ocean’s franchise.

Speaking to press in the build-up to the release of the film, the cast has been critical of the reviews that the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters got in 2016.

Sandra Bullock told Variety that she is still mad about the sexist response to Ghostbusters two years on.

“That was unfair on a level that I can’t even not be mad about talking about,

“And it doesn’t just take five people to make a movie. It takes about 300, so, you know what? Let’s back off the meanness,” Bullock said.

Also, this week Oscar winner Brie Larson called for more diversity in movie reviews at a speech in Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards in Los Angeles.

“I don’t need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work about A Wrinkle in Time,” Larson said. “It wasn’t made for him! I want to know what it meant to women of colour, biracial women, to teen women of colour.”

A look at the breakdown of IMDb votes shows a disparity in the gender of reviewers.

PastedImage-53421 The ratings for Ghostbusters (2016) broken down by demographic. Source: IMDb

The academics behind the Critics Choice study have called for review groups to set target inclusion goals and then work to meet them over two, four, or six years referred to as the 30/30/20/20 plan.

PastedImage-3711 Source: CRITIC’S CHOICE? GENDER AND RACE/ETHNICITY OF FILM CRITICS ACROSS 100 TOP FILMS OF 2017 USC ANNENBERG INCLUSION INITIATIVE

The future of critics

Many blockbusters that are released can do well at the box office but be a flop with critics.

Barton says that blockbusters and superhero franchises tend to be ”critic-proof” but smaller independent films need critical attention because they don’t have big budgets behind them.

”Because people are making the decision to go and see those films, they will listen to critics and make a decision based off opinion.

”There’s not an automatic choice to go and see those more challenging art films and that’s why you need critics.”

Ocean’s 8 will be released in Irish cinemas on 18 June and it won’t just be the gender of its stars that’s up for discussion – now all eyes will be on who reviews the film too.

About the author:

Adam Daly

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