Does movie criticism have a male gaze? And is that a problem?
A debate over the question has predictably ensued since the release of a report from University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative finding that, based on reviews of the 100 top movies of 2017, 77.8 percent of movie critics are white men. Three years ago, Meryl Streep bemoaned the “infuriating” absence of women in the top echelons of film critics. More recently, Brie Larson, Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett have raised similar concerns, with Larson noting during a speech earlier this month 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.”
The pushback started almost immediately, with several critics delivering huffy retorts, insisting that the understanding of cinematic history, technique and aesthetics transcends such petty considerations as ethnicity and gender. As one film-site commenter put it, “Objective evaluation has zip to do with identity politics.”
To unpack that statement is to reveal just how wrongheaded the entire conversation often is regarding representation — starting with the precise definition of “objective” and “identity politics.” When the movies depict just one race and gender as the neutral norm for 100 years — when white men have been portrayed as the only people capable of heroism, mythic importance and compelling personal journeys — it becomes painfully clear that the notion of objectivity itself is deeply inscribed with identity, even if it’s been rendered invisible by being mistaken for the universal.
But Larson’s comments also perpetuate unfortunate ideas about pleasure, artistic intent and the practice of criticism itself. Just as reductive and simplistic as it is to assume women like only frothy love stories and men like things that go boom, it’s insulting to suggest that a movie can make sense only to its “target” audience, whatever that may be.
The “Fast and Furious” movies might have started out as a franchise its producers assumed would appeal to teenage boys, but they have proved popular across a spectrum of ages, sexual identities and nationalities. The success of “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther” have taught Hollywood that boys will happily accept a female superhero and white viewers can easily relate to a story rooted in and told through African signifiers and symbols.
The job of a critic isn’t to evaluate a movie on the basis of its imaginary audience, but to try to discern what kind of story filmmakers are trying to tell, ascertaining whether they succeeded and judge whether the enterprise has merit — in terms of ambition, originality, aesthetic sophistication, technical achievement, implicit values and intellectual depth.
Part of that analysis has to do with such crafts as writing, acting, cinematography, editing and sound — the fundamentals of cinematic style. But even when evaluating those elements of a movie, each critic’s individual tastes, biases and realities will inform their perception, which is why inclusion matters when it comes to making sense of popular culture.
In other words, it’s not that a 40-year-old white dude can’t be fair to “A Wrinkle in Time”; it’s that critics from other groups might be able to understand more intuitively why a story about a young heroine of color — whatever its flaws and missteps — might be deeply meaningful to viewers.
Each of us brings a specific, multifaceted lens to everything we see and hear — lenses that are honed by experience and education, not to mention the assumptions that take root from either being catered to as a dominant majority or being habitually marginalized, stereotyped, or left out. Like everything else in culture, movies operate on a number of frequencies, and the more critics can tune into them, the more useful our analysis will be.
Objective evaluation may indeed have “zip” to do with identity politics. But the ability to evaluate a movie objectively has everything to do with context, nuance and cultural fluency. In the end, perhaps the most important thing isn’t whether the gaze is male or female, but whether’s it’s curious, sensitive or even open at all.