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

The “Silo” effect

The issue of female voices finding a wider audience is not as straightforward as it may seem. A prevalent issue found in this kind of writing is the unfortunate possibility of being siloed or boxed in, due to gender or ethnicity. Hunter Harris has personal experience with this.

“I feel like something that happens a lot, which I feel as a woman in the industry, but also as a person of color, it’s always like we want to hear a woman talk about Lady Bird, or a black person writing about Moonlight. Which I think is completely fair, and very important,” Harris said. “But also, it should be just as important for these voices to be writing about movies about white men and movies about white people.”

Harris expresses the need for genuine equality in criticism. She should not be tasked with writing about a film with feminine or black themes strictly because she happens to be a part of that intersectional spectrum. Rather than view her through her gender or race, she should be able to write about any film, no matter what the movie is about. Criticism succeeds (and readers of criticism get more out of it) when multiple perspectives can be presented.

In the same vein, Monica Castillo has faced the editors who only contact her to work on stories about Latino issues in films.

“I can get boxed in and not write about general releases because they only think that I have something to say about movies with Latino characters, directors, or talent,” Castillo said.

More recently, though, Castillo has had less trouble with being boxed in. She, like Erin Trahan, gets to choose which films to cover. 

The earliest film critics — women

Louise Brooks as Lulu in “Pandora’s Box.” Courtesy of Janus Films

Back when film was in its infancy, it wasn’t regarded as an art form. There were no dedicated critics to cover the newest multi-reels in the local nickelodeon, so the task of writing about moving pictures was handed down to the lower level journalists: women. One wouldn’t find the original, now archaic, writings about movies anywhere but the “society” sections, which were almost entirely written by women. These sections included “puff” pieces, and stories about fashion.

Ty Burr is a staff film critic at the Boston Globe, and a film historian who wrote “Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame” which traces the notion of stardom all the way back to the advent of moving pictures.

“It was the arts and leisure section that had the women writers. Men worked on sports and news,” Burr said.

He also explained how around the 1920’s and 30’s, when film was beginning to be taken seriously as an art form, male writers largely took back the job of film writing.

There were some women who wrote, like Judith Crist, a film critic and reporter for the The New York Herald Tribune for 22 years, or the previously mentioned Pauline Kael. But similar to today, the vast majority were men.

When film was unimportant and trivial, it was handed to the women to write about; but when film was taken seriously, men took possession. 

Moving forward

Today, the playing field is slowly being leveled. Ty Burr, who has been in the industry for over 20 years, thinks that it’s now easier to get involved in writing criticism, thanks to the internet. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be easier to find jobs in the field. 

“Ten years ago, so many people I knew your age were just writing for free, because it was the only way to do it and they were being taken advantage of,” Burr said. “Now, the boats are rising very slowly, and I know people who are freelancing for as many outlets as they can, and they’re still holding down a day job, but they’re starting to get paid.” 

That’s just referring to film journalism as a whole. It doesn’t take into account the several levels of representation that need to be brought to the forefront, along with the primarily white male critic. This story focuses mainly on the gender gap between male and female writers, and only hints at the role that race plays. Further, it lacks commentary on LGBTQ voices in criticism, and what their experiences mean in the scheme of criticism.

In all, like journalism itself, criticism has a problem with broadening it’s perspective. If the recent movements in Hollywood are any indication of the future of the industry, film criticism should follow suit. 

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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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