Why diversity in film criticism is essential

A recent American study confirmed what we all knew: film criticism is dominated by white men. It's well beyond time the playing field was levelled

Feature by Katie Goh | 11 Jul 2018

In a not so shocking turn of events, last month the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism published a study showing that film criticism is dominated by (surprise!) white men. The research found that 82% of reviews for top-grossing films in 2017 were written by white people and 77.8% of reviews were written by men. That’s a ratio of 3.5 men to every female film critic. Even female-centric films, like Wonder Woman and Girls Trip, are being largely reviewed by men – the study found that women wrote only 30% of the reviews of the 36 biggest female-centric films in 2017. For films with underrepresented leads (for example, Moonlight or Hidden Figures), the statistics are even worse, with critics from underrepresented backgrounds writing only 20% of those reviews. The study proves what many people of colour and women within the industry have been saying for years: criticism – particularly film criticism – is very male and very pale.

While on-screen representation has been increasingly scrutinised (and improving at a snail’s pace), the imbalance of who gets to write about what’s happening on screen has largely been ignored by the industry until now. When the recently released Ocean’s 8 was poorly received by critics, the cast pointed to gender biases as the cause. To an extent, they had a point. In the UK, most of the film’s reviews in mainstream publications – The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times, Little White Lies, Empire, The Independent and here at The Skinny too – were by men. Of the most well-read publications in the UK, Violet Lucca, for Sight & Sound, and Simran Hans, for The Observer, were the only women afforded the chance to opine on the film. While Lucca and Hans’ reviews were no less negative than the men’s – and it’s a sexist mistake to think a female critic will give a female-centric film an easy ride – a two to nine ratio speaks volumes about who is given a platform to express their opinions.

Despite the general public’s frequent bemoaning of critics, they play an essential role within the film industry. These are the people who can make or break a filmmaker’s career and the people we entrust to tell us whether it's worth forking out a tenner to see Deadpool 2 (FYI: it’s not). For indie filmmakers, positive reviews can be a lifeline, encouraging distributors to pick up their films. But more importantly perhaps, criticism plays an integral role within our wider culture, historicising film by creating a canon. If white men are the dominant voices in criticism, then they are the gatekeepers of the industry and the tastemakers of film history. As Hannah Woodhead, who works for independent film magazine Little White Lies, told us: “Film criticism should reflect society – [the critic’s] job is to talk about why films are relevant, why films are made, why films are important. For decades white men have held the work of men who look like them in high esteem […] as historically film has been the reserve of straight, white, middle-class men, they have favoured art that speaks to their experience and viewpoint.”

Simran Hans is a rare example of a young woman of colour writing about film for a broadsheet newspaper. The Observer has four main critics: two men, two women – again, a rare example of a mainstream publication with a 50/50 gender balance. Speaking about why film criticism has a diversity problem, Hans says that one of the issues is that “the economy of film criticism is shrinking. With fewer paid jobs in the field than ever, there’s no real historical precedent for authoritative voices that don't belong to straight white cis men of a certain age and background.” In other words: the lack of paid work within film criticism means fewer editors are willing to take a chance on new writers.

As a result, an abundance of new platforms for film criticism have appeared in the last few years, particularly feminist publications such as Another Gaze, Seventh Rowcléo and Much Ado About Cinema, for whom many emerging female critics are choosing to write, as well as alternatives to print, such as podcasts. Freelance film critic Rhianna Dhillon regularly reviews for BBC Radio, and says broadcasting is potentially easier to break into than print criticism. “With a rise in freelancers, there's more of a turnover, producers come and go, along with their personal preferences and there are more opportunities for myriad people to review on the same programme," she says. "For print, it seems as though the same men are still writing at the same publications as they always have. Men at the top have jobs for life and are more unwilling to evoke a change.”

Looking through any British newspaper or mainstream magazine, Dhillon’s point becomes clear. Due to shrinking budgets, there often isn’t room for more than one or two critics, who also tend to be men. For example, The Scotsman’s Alistair Harkness is the sole voice in the paper’s film section and Robbie Collin and Tim Robey review the majority of films for The Telegraph. As a result, broadsheets’ review sections often become homogeneous and stale, composed of one or two viewpoints. In May, only one review out of 45 was written by a woman in The Telegraph. At The Skinny, we don’t get off the hook either. So far in 2018 (not including this current issue), three print issues out of six have had no women reviewers for the film section. Only two women – myself included – have reviewed for The Skinny’s film section this year in comparison to 16 men.

Diversity in film criticism isn’t about quota filling or tokenism. Commissioning female critics to only review female-centric films or Asian critics to only review Asian films is just as harmful as an all-white and male film section. Hans told me that earlier in her career, she was often asked to review films tagged to race or gender – something I’ve also experienced as a bi-racial female critic. While my background occasionally informs how and what I write about (for example, I suspect it was the reason behind why I was asked to write this), you need more than lived experience to be a good critic. As Hans explains, diversity in film criticism means “less of a consensus [which] means sharper criticism. If all critics are the same, then criticism – a work of record about the films – ends up being a closed loop of confirmation biases, meaning only a certain type of movie becomes canonised. While it's neither fair nor accurate to make the assumption that 'diverse' critics are always operating from a totally different paradigm, hopefully having a plurality of voices opens up that canon a bit more.”

While we need to show caution while addressing gendered and racial differences of critics which can easily fall into essentialism – not all women or people of colour have the same experiences or opinions and gendering film criticism into male and female 'takes' is problematic in itself – it’s the industry’s elephant in the room that needs to finally be confronted.

So, how do we diversify film criticism? The most obvious first step is for editors and publications to actively seek out and commission new talent and new perspectives. However, that’s only a drop in the ocean. Accessibility is often at the root of emerging critics being dissuaded to pursue a career in criticism – whether that’s financial concerns or physically being unable to access cinemas and press screenings. As Woodhead commented, “it’s no good being offered a place at the table if you can’t get to the table to begin with.”

Speaking at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards last month, American actor Brie Larson passionately spoke about the need for diversity within criticism and announced that Sundance and Toronto film festivals plan to support underrepresented critics from next year. Closer to home, this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival ran an expenses paid Student Critics Competition to give emerging writers a stepping stone into the industry (for which Hans was a mentor). Established journalists within the field have a responsibility to support the next generation of critics coming up behind them. While there are several female-led mentorship schemes, such as The Second Source, more established male critics need to be encouraged to share their wealth of knowledge.

Despite pretences of objectivity, there’s a wonderfully subjective component to film criticism – something that should be embraced rather than ignored – and at the end of the day there are zero cons to diversifying the profession. As Woodhead says, “representation is about affording everyone the same opportunities to see and write about films, and that will likely start to change the discourse around cinema and the sort of filmmakers and films we hold in high regard.” The call to diversify film criticism isn’t about doing away with white male critics or about tokenism, it’s about levelling the playing field to ensure we don’t watch films through a single lens.

Ocean’s 8 is currently on general release
The Skinny's film section is actively trying to diversify its pool of writers, and would encourage all emerging female film writers interested in contributing towards the magazine to contact our Film editor, jamie@theskinny.co.uk