The fight for visibility on screen and off: Women in film criticism

By Casey Campbell

It was 1968 when Pauline Kael started writing for The New Yorker as a staff film critic. She had previously freelanced for the prestigious magazine and published the now-famous defense of the, at the time, critically misplaced crime thriller Bonnie and Clyde. Penelope Gilliatt, another writer at The New Yorker, had already published a review of the film, but when Kael submitted a hefty 7,000-word defense of the crime thriller, not only did she get published, she made a name for herself. Now, the film is a classic, a veritably timeless story of American crime told with an unflinching portrayal of violence — thanks, in large part, to Kael’s review.

Kael’s writing was imperative to the blossoming of film criticism as an endlessly readable, delightfully pulpy artform on its own. But despite this, it’s tough to find many other female film critics writing for major magazines or papers. Female critics are out there, for sure, whether writing for their own blogs or as low paid staff writers, but they aren’t traditionally the ones getting salaried positions. The discrepancy between the number of male and female critics is, and seemingly has always been, skewed.

As of Spring 2018, men outnumber women in film criticism 68% to 32%.

Thumbs Down 2018

This vast discrepancy, where there are approximately 2 men for every one woman, has been corroborated not just from the anecdotes of many writers, but also in the “Thumbs Down 2018” report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. As of Spring 2018, men outnumber women in film criticism 68% to 32%.

Three voices, a similar problem

Hunter Harris interviewing comedian and director Bo Burnham. Courtesy of @hunterh on Instagram

In 2016, Hunter Harris attended the Sundance film festival through a program with IndieWire and rogerebert.com. It was there that she fell in love with film journalism. Before covering Sundance, Harris had never thought of covering film in her journalism program at Emerson College in Boston. She had her sights set on criminal justice reporting, as seen from her stint as an intern at Boston.com, where her beat was reporting on local crime.

She graduated from Emerson in May 2016, and accepted a position at Refinery29 as an editorial assistant, where she was able to write about movies in a professional setting. Then, later that year, Harris took on her current full-time position at Vulture, where her beat is covering movies. Now, she has been writing professionally for almost three years.

What’s special about Harris, other than her tremendous writing and often hilarious musings about A Star is Born, is that she managed to break through despite the glaring number of men working in the entertainment sector, and in so short a time. She soon found that the world of film criticism was nothing but a “boy’s club.”

“It’s really, really shocking,” Harris said. “I feel like every screening I go to, there are mostly men. And even just looking at the major critics, I mean like critics at major papers and magazines, they’re mostly men.”

In fact, according to the “Thumbs Down 2018” study, the amount of reviews written by women is even lower than the number of women writing reviews. Seventy-one percent of all reviews are written by men, where the remaining 29% are written by women. When your body of women writers put out less articles than there are women who actually write the reviews, you know there’s a problem.

Monica Castillo, a freelancer for many popular publications. Courtesy of IndieWire

While studying biochemistry and molecular biology at Boston University, Monica Castillo was introduced to the college’s culture magazine, “The Quad.” It was at “The Quad” that she began writing criticism. That was in 2010, and it was entirely by accident.

Since then, she received her M.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California where she was the first winner of the “Film Criticism Fellowship” in USC’s Annenberg School. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Village Voice, DigBoston, and NPR, among others. Her varied views on film, from mainstream to obscure, inform her intellectual, yet easy to read voice. Unsurprisingly, she too, has noticed the lack of female voices in criticism.

“I was either a student, or very young reporter or critic, and I could see I was maybe one of two, or one of three women, [and] one of the only women of color. The only person of color in the room sometimes,” Castillo said. “It was really kind of disconcerting. It kind of made me feel like ‘did I accidentally fall into this space that I’m not supposed to be in?’”

Erin Trahan, critic for NPR with a focus on female stories.
Photo by Christine Piper, courtesy of erintrahan.com

Erin Trahan is a film critic at WBUR, one of Boston’s two NPR stations, and a professor at Emerson College. With over fifteen years in the field of professional journalism, Trahan has written for The Boston Globe, Women’s Review of Books, The Independent, and New England Film, as well as several non-profits. But before she wrote about movies, she tried her hand at actually making them.

While studying at the University of Notre Dame, Trahan found herself in largely “boy-centric” film studies classes.

“The conversation, the feel of the place, what they liked and what would then be discussed. It always came back to them, [to the] young male experience of the world,” Trahan said. “It felt hard to deviate from it, and it felt strange to be female in those classes.”

Though her passion for making films dwindled to the point where she “worked in production and hated it,” her love of watching and writing about film has never been more prominent. Her main beat within film is that of female driven stories, both behind and in front of the camera. At WBUR, she gets the chance to choose what films or shows she can watch and review. Sometimes, she’s even asked to write stories like “the role of women in shows like Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Barriers to entry, the “boy’s club”

Each woman has braved the industry, one where not only journalism, but the niche side of arts journalism seem to be on their last leg. With dwindling audiences, and difficult to monetize platforms, the world of arts journalism is tough to enter in general. The women presented here have not only made it in the industry, but are successful. Despite their success, however, each have their own stories to tell of the gender disparities found in film journalism.

Hunter Harris isn’t shocked by the barriers in film journalism, but she still finds them frustrating, especially when reasoning with the current state of the media.

“I feel like the barriers for women in criticism are the same as the barriers in media and journalism, but just on a smaller scale,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of jobs, and it’s hard to find something stable that will pay you to write criticism full-time.”

In other words, the issues facing women in criticism are largely the same as for women in journalism; the former is a microcosm of the latter.

Courtesy of Thumbs Down 2018

According to “Thumbs Down 2018,” she’s right: “Men outnumber women writers in every type of media outlet considered. Men account for 79% of those writing for radio/TV, 70% for trade publications such as Variety and The Wrap, 70% for general interest magazines and websites, 69% for a news website or wire service such as the Associated Press, 68% for newspapers, and 68% for movie or entertainment publications.”

Harris also mentioned the lack of jobs as being a part of why there are so few female voices being heard.

“A lot of women work as freelancers and many don’t have full time criticism jobs, so sometimes its harder to find that writing,” Harris said.

Courtesy of Thumbs Down 2018

By either not being able to, or not wanting to, write for one specific publication, it requires the reader to follow the author directly. Monica Castillo is a successful freelancer who  has made a career out of pitching stories to different publications.  She said that she follows her friends personally rather than the publications they write for, because oftentimes, they write for several at a time.

Earlier, Castillo was said to have had doubts about entering the film criticism fray. She didn’t feel comfortable as the “other” in the theater. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only time she doubted her presence in the theater, or amongst other film critics. A male critic she described as “older” and whom she looked up to, once got in the way of her finding a voice. He said that her feminism was getting in the way of criticism. That she was, somehow, doing it wrong. 

She also remarked that, when she was just getting into the business, she would be mistaken for the publicist at screenings, and that critics would go to her with questions regarding the film.

“I would say, ‘No, I’m like you.'”

Courtesy of Thumbs Down 2018

When Erin Trahan was going to college for film studies, she remarked on the stifling and ever present sense of masculinity in discussions. When it comes to her journalism, she makes it a point to stay true to herself, and avoid any hyper-masculine confrontations whenever possible. She does this with having her own specific tastes.

“No, I’m like you.”

Monica Castillo

“Part of the barriers is my own tastes, which have never been mainstream, and have never been celebrity driven,” Trahan said. “And so, the truth is, so much of what I’ve done has been focused on independent filmmaking and filmmakers, and so in the course of my career, I don’t attend press screenings regularly.”

Continued on the next page.

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2 comments

  1. Is “beat” a word commonly used in this industry? Also, when a woman is afforded the opportunity to share her opinion, are her words taken less seriously than they would be if a male counterpart expressed the same criticisms?

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    • Beat refers to the specialized segment someone reports on. Like if someone’s beat is the downtown area, or crime reporting, it just means that’s what they typically report on. As for the other comment, that’s either a case by case basis, or determined on what they’re saying. For example, “Star Wars” was brought up in the interviews, and how female views were taken less seriously. On that same token, the notion of the “boy’s club” does come into play. But for me to point blank determine their views to be taken as less serious would be unfair, and inaccurate.

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