Female Film Critics Are Still the Minority, and New Study Finds They’re Predominantly Covering Movies About Women

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Film criticism remains dominated by white male critics, yet another new study finds. Now in its second decade, the Thumbs Down study is the most comprehensive and longest-running study of women’s representation and impact as film reviewers available. Some of the study’s findings are predictable, like that “across every type of media outlet, male film critics outnumber female critics by approximately 2 to 1,” while others, particularly insights into the kind of films that other critics cover and the ways in which they write about them, are eye-opening.

Female film critics remain the minority in their field, but this latest look at the industry also finds that they are predominantly covering movies for and by women.

Sponsored by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University and headed up by executive director Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, Ph.D. — also known for her work on the annual Celluloid Study and other reports about inclusion in the industry — this year’s study, Thumbs Down 2018: Film Critics and Gender, and Why It Matters, is focused on critics working “for print, broadcast, and online outlets during spring 2018.” Per an official press release, this year’s study included 4,111 reviews written by 341 individuals, all available on Rotten Tomatoes.

The study found that “men comprised 68% and women 32% of reviewers in spring 2018. By media outlet, men accounted for 70% of those writing for trade publications, 70% writing for general interest magazines and websites, 69% writing for a news website or wire service, 68% writing for newspapers, and 68% writing for movie or entertainment publications.” The new report also found that male writers outnumber female writers in every job title category. (Also in the report: findings that hold that “83% of all female critics are white, 14% are minorities, and 3% have an unknown racial/ethnic identity; while 82% of all male critics are white, 9% are minorities, and 9% have an unknown racial/ethnic identity.”)

Last month, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released a report that examined nearly 20,000 reviews of last year’s 100 top-grossing movies. The report found that women wrote only 22.2 percent of 19,559 reviews of the 100 top-grossing films posted to Rotten Tomatoes. Later that week, Brie Larson told the crowd at the Women in Film Los Angeles Crystal + Lucy Awards that the Sundance and Toronto film festivals planned to provide 20 percent of press credentials to “underrepresented journalists,” as a way of combating that imbalance on a festival level.

The new study also unearthed some interesting findings about the type of films that female film critics predominantly cover in the course of their work. The report found that “a larger proportion of films reviewed by women than by men feature female protagonists,” as 51% of reviews written by women but 37% of reviews written by men are about films featuring at least one female protagonist. (Conversely, the opposite is also true, as “63% of reviews written by men but 49% of reviews written by women are about films featuring male protagonists only.”)

Moreover, female film critics tend to “award higher ratings than men to films with female protagonists,” as the study found that “women writers award an average rating of 74% and males an average rating of 62% to films with female protagonists.” Notably, the divide is not the same when it comes to the reverse, as “women writers award an average of 73% and men 70% to films with male protagonists.”

When it comes to films directed by women, “a larger proportion of films reviewed by women than by men are directed by women,” and “25% of films reviewed by women but 10% of films reviewed by men have female directors.” (Also of note, “90% of films reviewed by men but 75% of films reviewed by women have male directors.”)

The study also found that, when women review films directed by women, they are more likely to “mention the name of the director in their reviews and to speak about the director in exclusively positive ways.” The reports holds that “female reviewers mention the name of a woman director in 89% of their reviews and males in 81% of their reviews.” And that makes a difference, especially to the filmmakers in question.

According to an official statement from Lauzen, “These gender imbalances matter because they impact the visibility of films with female protagonists and/or women directors, as well as the nature of reviews. … Something as simple as the mention of a director’s name in a review, and labeling that individual as a ‘master’ of the filmmaking craft can help shape the narrative surrounding that director. For decades, many male directors have benefitted from reviews in which they have been described in larger-than-life, almost mythic ways. … While there are exceptions to these tendencies, women reviewers tend to evaluate female directors more favorably. Male critics tend to evaluate men directors more favorably.”

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University is home to the longest-running and most extensive studies of women working on screen and behind the scenes in film and television. You can read the full Thumbs Down report right here.