“Cineaste” and “Sight and Sound” Polls: Why So Few Women’s Voices? – Jennifer Merin comments

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Few pollsters rise to the rigorous standards set by Dr. Martha Lauzen in her Thumbs Down survey about stats on women film critics. Unfortunately neither Cineaste nor Sight and Sound make the grade in their recent studies about film criticism.

In their opinion polls, both of these well-respected and serious cinema publications investigate the Internet’s impact on film criticism and its future, film criticism as an art in its own right, and differences between professional film critics and bloggers. Cineaste‘s ““Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet: A Critical Symposium” samples 23 critics, while Sight and Sound‘s “Who Needs Critics? – Critics On Critics” has 21 critic participants.

The panels selected by both publications consist of critics who are unquestionably qualified to comment: They’re experienced, credible and credentialed, and their responses to the questioned posed are serious, sincere and insightful about the currently critical condition of film criticism–in print and online.

So, what’s the rub? Of Cineaste’s 23 invited commentators, only four–Karina Longworth, the “Self-Styled Siren,” Amy Taubin and Stephanie Zacharek–are women. There’s only one female–Kim Newman–among Sight and Sound’s 21.

Of course, Cineaste and Sight and Sound are free to pick their panels as they see fit. But only five women included in the collective 44? As they say in bloguage, OMG!

As Dr. Lauzen’s well-researched stats irrefutably establish, women penned 30 percent of all reviews in the top 100 U.S. newspapers during Fall 2007. Women‘s voices are seriously underrepresented in the public discussion of cinema, one of the world’s strongest cultural formatives.

It’s disappointing that the unquestionably respectable and serious Cineaste and Sight and Sound so closely align themselves with mainstream print media’s stats in choosing their panels–only worse. It’s unlikely either publication sought to prop up of the disparity between men’s and women’s voices. Neither offers much of an explanation about how or why their panels were selected.

In a comprehensive essay that serves as introduction to the Sight and Sound survey, Nick James offers nothing to explain the exclusion of females, but when disapproving the dwindling numbers of critics in print, gives women a nod by noting, “If a critic is surpassingly insightful and entertaining, you’d hope a publisher would still want to keep her (the itals are mine).” Thanks.

James also refers to the famous difference of opinion between two women reviewers, C.A. Lejeune, who in 1947 declared categorically that “films are not an art,” and Penelope Houston, who two years later proclaimed that “No amount of debasement can alter the fact of art: if any film ever made can be called a work of art, then we are dealing with an art form.”

The Sight and Sound survey asks leading critics to specify the writing of other critics who’ve inspired them. Of the numerous names that are dropped–including those in Kim Newman‘s response–most are men. Only Armond White hails a woman’s influence–that of Pauline Kael.

The editors of Cineaste, by way of explaining their panel selection, write, “We believe that we’ve assembled a lively and erudite (if far from comprehensive) group of seasoned critics, young bloggers, and writers who continue to oscillate between traditional and newfangled venues.”

And, well they have. Collectively, the Cineaste participants represent a fair mix of print and online outlets, of critics and bloggers. But where are the voices of prominent female film commentators such as Maitland McDonagh, MaryAnn Johanson, Kim Voynar, Carrie Rickey, Anne Thompson, Christy Lemire and others.

And what about the future of film criticism? Both Sight and Sound and suggest–and most of us acknowledge–that Internet film writing is the wave of the future. But are women’s voices to be ignored, bypassed or marginalized on the Web as they have been in print media?

With that gauntlet tossed, it’s important to acknowledge that the women on Cineaste‘s panel are well-established film journalists and excellent critics. All enjoy loyal readerships and extensive influence and none presents herself as a chauvinistic, bra-brandishing, platform-pushing panderer, nor seeks to single herself out as a critic who is ruled by gender. Nevertheless, they do, by virtue of their gender, represents women’s perspectives on film, and on the cinema’s aesthetic and social impact. And they have interesting things to say.

At one end of the spectrum, Amy Taubin (an AWFJ member) pretty much eschews Internet criticism, writing: “I am shocked at the conformity of style and content on most of the blogs I’ve looked at. As someone who read The Village Voice regularly in the Sixties and early Seventies, when first-person journalism was the rule, I find the use of the first person by bloggers nothing more than a self-aggrandizing reflex. As far as I can see, there isn’t a fledgling Jonas Mekas or Jill Johnston among them. I don’t participate in the message boards you mention. I have to admit to being unaware of their existence. On the rare occasions I’ve read blog postings, I’ve noticed how insular bloggers’ “conversations” are and how overwhelmingly the subject is blogging and bloggers (rather than whatever film or event is supposedly the subject of their writing.) It’s like an extension of the old-fashioned film-buff conversation. Where film buffs define themselves through the factoids they possess, bloggers define themselves by their instantly formed opinions (this year at Cannes, bloggers were filing columns on their Blackberries during screenings-a new low) and by access-to celebrities, behind-the-scenes news, festivals, etc. Ideas and analysis are notable for their absence from the blogging conversations I’ve observed, although this may not be the case at academic film blogs.”

At the other end of the spectrum, The Self-Styled Siren is all about being online. As do many bloggers, she writes under a pseudonym– Campaspe, a feminist icon of sorts–and chooses to keep her actual identity unknown, even to the extent that her photo reveals only her eyes. From that self-burqa-ed place, she speaks of Internet community and the open exchange of ideas: “In terms of critical interaction, we are living in a golden age,” Campaspe writes. “Criticism at the big media outlets usually has been release-driven, geared to reviewing a new movie in theaters or on DVD. Bloggers write about whatever we please, which I assume is why some professional critics blog on the side. In my case, the movies I care about are long, long past their release date. At the moment there’s no mainstream print publication that will pay me to write about Jean Negulesco or three Titanic movies because I happen to feel like it. They probably wouldn’t even let me do it free. That’s the whole point. Good blogging should offer you something you can’t get from the mainstream.”

Stephanie Zacharek and Karina Longworth opine that if the present is a defining moment in film criticism’s future, the pressing issues have less to do with the distinction between print and online platforms with their formative space limitations and templates, than with professionalism, editorial credibility and quality of writing.

According to Longworth, print and online platforms are necessary–for both critics and for the movie going public. “Internet film culture needs mainstream/print culture to survive. We need something to push and pull against; we need the established media to set the words for our conversation. The best hope of the online film community is not to replace traditional film criticism, but to eventually earn enough respect from that establishment to be seen not as upstarts, not as a nuisance, not as a threat, but as partners in the common goal of keeping a public conversation about cinema alive. Every time either side drops a “vs.,” an us-or-them binary opposition, we waste time and weaken both sides,” writes Longworth.

Zacharak’s concerns are about professional critics and the profession itself getting their due. “Internet criticism has made a significant contribution to film culture in that it’s opened the door for a wide range of voices. But as we’re all seeing, it’s opened the door too wide: There are so many film enthusiasts-if not actual professional critics, either former or current-writing on the Web that now we’re faced with a great deal of noise,” writes Zacharak. “Many of the people writing about film on the Web are knowledgeable and have pretty interesting ideas. Unless you’re really systematic about checking up on all of them regularly, there are too many to even read, so good people get lost.”

There’s something else, too,” she continues. “Even the smart bloggers, the ones who are potentially good writers, often don’t shape their pieces. That’s the nature of a blog: It’s a quick take, a reaction. I don’t know that the Internet has done much to destroy the process of thinking seriously about film, but it’s had very grave consequences when it comes to writing about film.

There’s a lot of “weighing in” going on, but not so much actual thinking. That’s what I find tragic and disheartening. We have a lot of “information” out there. But information doesn’t equal knowledge. And it doesn’t equal good writing.”

Longworth, who’s done much to advance online critics’ credibility and influence, recalls that initially she and other ‘upstart’ film bloggers were inherently aligned with high brow print critics who preferred to cover independent or obscure films and were given space to develop well articulated arguments about the virtues and meanings of movies. But such print media film critics were often inaccessible to average movie fans, while Internet critics were not only accessible, but interactive.

At present, however, both print and online are awash in ‘corporate noise’ that tends to drown out serious critical voices. Celebrity profiles and gossip, first weekend box office predictions and totes, news from set visits promotional interviews and use of trailers as content really constitute marketing that’s presented as criticism. Public perception of the distinction between corporate marketing and critical voice has become as blurred as the distinction between print and online criticism. The volume needs to lowered on marketers and raised on critical voices–both online and in print.

That said, extremely limited opportunities in print media seem–for the present, at least–to give extra cache to critics whose work appears as hard copy. But that’s a false measure of worth. Some hard copy colleagues are quite frivolous, silly, self-aggrandizing and ill-informed, constructing critiques without much consideration and expressing them in lackluster language.

On the other hand, the limitless proliferation of blogs and film sites stimulates the sort of intense competition that, unfortunately, has more to do with numbers than with excellence. Most online film writers–whether they’re employed by others or helming their own sites–seem pressed to scramble to beat each other at the posting of trailers, factoids and gossip. That burden weighs on serious commentators, too, who feel they must follow along lest their sites fail to rate.

Hopefully, in the long run, excellence–in ideas, expression and innovative presentation–will prevail. The only way that can happen is if critics prioritize wisely. We no longer need permission to have a platform–we can make our own. Can we make a living that way? Not easily, but probably so–there are sponsors and advertisers who appreciate and are willing to support quality film criticism. Or we can, like so many artists–the actors, directors and script writers we write about–have day jobs, and still hold to and be held to professional standards in writing about film.

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  • http://www.heroesarehardtofind.blogspot.com John Demetry

    You write: “Only Armond White hails a woman’s influence–that of Pauline Kael.”

    Although this is somewhat off-topic, I thought it was interesting to note that Cineaste’s ““Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet: A Critical Symposium” — while referencing an Armond White essay as its counterpoint — did not include Armond White as a participatant in that “critical symposium.” That should act as an alert to readers, just as your above quoted statement should.

    Your work here helps people to understand that in the world of film journalism, there are gatekeepers who control the discourse. These gatekeepers support a system of cronyism and propogate ideology.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hmshultz/movies Nora Lee Mandel

    I thought the Cineaste piece mixed up the medium with the message – internet seemed to variously mean reference archives, bloggers, infotainment news/gossip, interactive message boards or reader responses. Apples and oranges to compare that noise to serious film criticism in any format, let alone compared to print. That jumble probably favored techie early adaptor boys who still dominate the medium.

    The responses also showed that there’s a wide generational gap in the use and expectations of use of the medium, particularly against those who are perceived as gatekeepers, as mentioned above, whereas I think of myself as a guide. The piece also didn’t discuss who the audience is other than other film critics for any of this writing – the site I write for http://www.film-forward.com presumes its audience is Netflix subscribers looking to expand their queue.

    But I also realized that women commenters online may not be in the “traditional” film places that are cited. Looking for a “safe” place to discuss films, I find that women are on film-related sites where other women are in the majority, such as fan sites of a particular actor or type of film, where they won’t be the victims of snarky sarcasm about liking, say, chick flicks or costume dramas or appealing stars, though I find they are serious about film and looking for objective criticism even of their favorites. That doesn’t mean they are writing like OMG-”Gossip Girl” style (I may be agist in that comment). For example, I participate on intelligent sites that discuss Russell Crowe’s films, as I find that participants’ interests have extended to other Australian/NZ films and the work of the directors, actors and even other artists he has worked with.

    So maybe if the male-set definitions and parameters are changed, more women critics can be found.

  • http://www.coffeecoffeeandmorecoffee.com Peter Nellhaus

    I feel bad mentioning this, but Kim Newman is a guy. Here’s his website. Please don’t kill the messenger!

  • http://documentaries.about.com Jennifer Merin

    With apologies to Mr. Kim Newman (whose work and site, I confess, I did not know) for my error, I thank the messenger, Peter Nellhaus, for his correction-–which, indeed, underscores the point. The roster of women critics who were selected to participate in these critical surveys is now down by one.

  • Nick James

    Hi

    Thanks for raising this issue. I’m the editor of Sight & Sound and I just want to clarify the facts here. Seven women critics were asked to contribute to our survey of critical influences; all declined for various reasons. It’s certainly the case that men are generally much more enthusiastic about this kind of exercise, which may make us the sadder sex.

    Best

    Nick James

  • http://www.brightlightsfilm.com Gary Morris

    Hey, they didn’t even mention my website Bright Lights — which has regular (and new) women contributors all the time, has been online longer than just about any of these folks (’96), and has the second-highest number of hits of any filmcrit site on the Web (after the estimable Senses of Cinema). Is it our fault that we’re more popular than Sight & Sound and Cineaste? No disrespect intended to those fine journals.