Film critics often point out the flaws in Hollywood, but lately, Hollywood has been pointing out the flaws in film criticism.
On June 13, actress Brie Larson spoke out against the lack of women and minorities in film criticism while receiving a prize at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards: “If you make a movie that is a love letter to women of color, there is an insanely low chance that a woman of color would get to see that movie” as a reviewer. Sandra Bullock, while promoting “Ocean’s 8,” echoed Larson’s comments, advocating for “balancing out the pool of critics so that it reflects the world we are in,” and her co-star Cate Blanchett said a male critic might see the female-led film through “a prism of misunderstanding.”
Sure enough, on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 74 percent of female critics liked “Ocean’s 8” but only 62 percent of male critics did.
The discussion was partly inspired by a recent report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which found that 77.8 percent of all critics are men, based on reviews of the top 100 films at the 2017 box office from Rotten Tomatoes.
To address this gender disparity, producer-director Miranda Bailey has been creating a website called Cherry Picks, a film review aggregator devoted exclusively to female film critics, set to be launched in time for this fall’s awards buzz.
“Consumers are looking to buy things that people tell them are worth their money,” she says. “When it comes to film, those people are reviewers.”
In other words, films that female critics prefer might be unfairly ignored by audiences. To find out which movies may have fallen victim, The Washington Post compiled data on the 979 movies over the past decade with at least 30 female and at least 30 male reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
One of the films that first inspired Bailey to create this new site was “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” the true story of a couple who used the Warsaw Zoo to save hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust. She cited the Jessica Chastain-led film as one “which women loved,” but “it didn’t do well” overall (it earned $23 million worldwide). Specifically, 78 percent of female critics liked “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” but only 61 percent of critics overall did.
The film comes in at No. 6 on this list of the 10 films in our data set that had the biggest differences between how female and male critics responded to it (see top chart).
When shown this list, Linda Cook, a film critic for the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa, since 1987, noticed that many of the films have female leads, including “Sunshine Cleaning,” “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.” “And ‘The Young Victoria’ also has a strong central character involved in romance. It isn’t a fantasy per se, but it’s about a woman who lives a life about which most women only can dream.”
This pattern continues in the next set of 10 films, with titles such as “Letters to Juliet,” “Hannah Montana: The Movie” and “Tomb Raider.” But this is far from a hard-and-fast rule; films with male leads such as “The Karate Kid” and “Robin Hood” were also in the top 20.
Although it might be tempting to find some movies on this list that underperformed — such as Charlyne Yi’s quirky comedy “Paper Heart,” which earned $1.3 million worldwide — so many variables affect a film’s box office haul, including marketing and name recognition, that it’s hard to definitively attribute the box office results to reviews.
The middle chart is the same but in the other direction, showing the movies that male critics like the most compared with female critics:
Cook said, “I think that ‘Observe and Report,’ ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ and ‘Red Sparrow’ appealed to male viewers because of the action, crime themes and their ‘hard-R’ rating. I have spoken with some women who shy away from excessive violence,” although, of course, it’s tough to make such assessments across all critics.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” was a particularly divisive film; it received five Oscar nominations but sparked a debate about whether it objectified women or was merely a “portrayal of misogyny,” as a Jezebel essay argued.
Cook added that “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” making the list also makes sense because of its “nostalgia factor.” “So many of the men who saw it were boys when the Turtles first were popular that they simply wanted to see these characters again.”
The list includes other movies one might expect to be liked by men, such as the male-heavy superhero film “Justice League” and the Nicolas Cage sci-fi thriller “Knowing.” Raunchy comedy “Hall Pass,” about married men whose wives let them sleep with other people, just missed the cut. Then again, we should be wary of stereotypes, because some romantic comedies, such as “This Is 40,” and women-led movies such as Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress” have also done quite well among male critics.
Time magazine film critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote in an email, “These charts tell you some things you’d expect: Women critics are likely to be more forgiving about love stories, and guy critics will give more of a pass to dumb action or movies that stoke their childhood nostalgia.
“But I’m not sure how far these kinds of comparisons take you into really understanding the differences,” she added. “Processing a movie means feeding it through a filter of logic and feeling, not to mention some knowledge of movie history, and all of that is affected by who you are and the things that have happened to you. As Pauline Kael said, ‘You must use everything you are and everything you know.’ ” The true effect of gender parity might be more nuanced than salient traits such as genre or character demographics.
Part of the debate over critics’ demographics is to what extent the critic’s traits should match those of the movie’s main characters and/or its intended audience. Larson said in her speech that “I do not need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work for him about ‘A Wrinkle in Time’; it wasn’t made for him” and appeared to be aimed at younger audiences. But Justin Chang, a Los Angeles Times critic, wrote an essay arguing against this thinking: “Above all, ‘Who is this movie for?’ rules out the possibility of sympathetic imagination, the ability to empathize with a perspective other than one’s own.”
For many movies, critics of different genders don’t appear to disagree that much. Bailey predicts that “the pits on Cherry Picks and the splats on Rotten Tomatoes” — that is, the worst reviewed films on each site — “will probably be the same. Movies that are incredible will probably be the same. I think that the movies in the middle will differ.”
Judging from the Rotten Tomatoes data, her prediction is likely to prove correct. Movies with overall ratings closer to 0 or 100 are less likely to have a male-female disparity than movies with scores closer to 50.
Mathematically, this observation is unsurprising: If a movie gets a very high or very low score, there’s less room for disparity. For instance, if a movie has a perfect 100 overall, then it must have received a 100 from both male and female critics. But as a movie gets closer to 50 percent, there’s more room for a bigger disparity.
On the whole, male and female critics respond to most movies similarly: 45 percent of films have an average male score and an average female score within 5 percentage points of each other. Seventy-five percent of films are within 10 percent.
Each point in the accompanying chart on the bottom represents a movie in our data set. Points above the diagonal line are movies that female critics liked more. Points below the line are movies male critics liked more. The closer a movie is to the line, the smaller the gender gap — and most points are fairly close. Note that on the whole, there are more points above the line than below it, because female critics in this data set wrote slightly more positive reviews: 70 percent are rated “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, vs. 67 percent for men.
Bailey’s goals for Cherry Picks, the female review aggregator, go beyond just the data. For instance, the site is starting off with newsletters featuring profiles on individual critics. “I want to encourage the art of criticism to come back,” she said. She hopes her site can be “a place where women can learn about the female critics,” perhaps to encourage them to go into criticism.
Bailey confirmed that “women like a lot of things that men like, and men like a lot of things that women like.” But that doesn’t mean female voices shouldn’t be heard just as loudly as the male ones, she said. Fortunately, she foresees a new dawn of inclusiveness on the film criticism horizon: “It has always mattered, but I think now, people are paying attention.”