White, male critics dominate field, face backlash from diverse community

Becoming a White Man in the Theatre,” published by HowlRound’s director and co-founder P. Carl, describes a community that many of us don’t ever experience. A transgender theater critic, Carl shares his realizations and experiences of what it was like to gain the majority privilege.

As a man, Carl found that being “one of the guys” was not what he expected. He was finally a member of an exclusive club that only being a specific gender and race can grant access. “It’s so many small privileges that you would never notice… unless you never had them before,” he wrote. “This is called structural bias, and if you’ve benefited from it you are unlikely to know it because it’s not a privilege you’ve personally asked for, it’s just been handed to you as you move around the world.”

He argues that the privilege of the white male critic is being challenged by people of different gender, race and background. Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones defensively responded to HowlRound’s criticism, “Alas, this new radical democratization threatens critics, just as it does well-paid artistic directors, executive directors, curators and all kinds of other gatekeeper types in the cultural universe, which explains why some say we/they react defensively…to any grass-roots rebellion,” Jones wrote.

Carl believes that acts of consciousness are often mistaken for acts of rebellion, reminding readers to simply be aware. FF2 Media, an online company highlighting the worldwide work of women in film, is aware. Every week, our team of writers (scattered across the United States, United Kingdom and most recently, Israel) screen and review films written and/or directed by women. Whether behind the camera or behind the computer, we promote their work, because men more frequently dominate these jobs, and unfortunately, sometimes even if a female is a part of the process, she can be eliminated when it comes to giving credit.

In a 2015 interview with The Daily Beast, actress Meryl Streep called out Rotten Tomatoes after she discovered that the ratio of male to female film critics is 760 to 168. “I submit to you that men and women are not the same, they like different things. Sometimes they like the same thing but sometimes their tastes diverge,” she said. “If the Tomatometer is slighted so completely to one set of tastes, that drives the box office in the United States, absolutely.”

Although hundreds of films written and directed by women are released each year, many are excluded from awards consideration and have low box office turnout – even the best of them. Why?

From the day a film premieres at a festival to the night of the Academy Awards, it endures a large sieve of male critiques. Like Rotten Tomatoes (which is composed of roughly 17% women and 83% men), many critics’ associations across the country have a disproportionate percentage of female voices.

For example, of the 54-member Chicago Film Critics Association, only nine are women. The percentage of women in New York is slightly higher. With approximately 600 films released annually, the voting system is neither objective nor balanced.

On June 2, 2002, New York Times Editor Dana Kennedy published an article titled, “An Impatient Sisterhood.” She tackled the issue of women in Hollywood, documenting how director Callie Khouri, an Academy Award winner for Thelma and Louise, was turned down repeatedly for 10 years before directing The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

FF2 Media Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner responded to Dana Kennedy in June of 2002:

In seeking explanations for the career frustrations of prominent female directors, why not try looking closer to home? Who reviews films, on staff, for The New York Times? Three men. Who reviews films for The New Yorker? Two men. When the National Society of Film Critics published its recent book of 100 ”essential films,” how many of the contributors were women? Four out of 41.

I’m willing to bet that if more major publications hired more female film critics, then more films by women (which, surprise, surprise, are often films about women) would get the kind of critical buzz that leads to box office clout.

Fifteen years later, Huttner is still fighting the same fight. The FF2 Media team reviews films of all genres and in all languages, at festivals and private releases. We conduct interviews and write editorials and features each week. We talk about our favorite films and our least favorite films and always explain why we felt the way we did. Our main goal is to make sure that films don’t die after they’re released – we get the word out loud and proud.

There are hundreds of films by women released every year with a large percentage passing the Bechdel-Wallace Test. Yet, these films are continuously excluded from awards consideration. At FF2 Media, we work toward breaking down these barriers and giving women credit. We work against the decompartmentalization of the female gender while highlighting hard work and celebrating the diversity of the film industry.

©  Lindsy M. Bissonnette and Brigid Presecky

Photo: From P. Carl’s HowlRound article, “Becoming a White Male Critic”

Photo credit: Olga Berrios.

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