Thumbs Down - Representation of Women Film Critics in the Top 100 U.S. Daily Newspapers - A Study by Dr. Martha Lauzen
By Dr. Martha M. Lauzen
Center for the Study of Women In Television and Film
San Diego State University
Contrary to the myriad prognostications of media observers and writers, film criticism is not dead. It is, however, hurtling into a new era in which professional critics share space with amateurs, and credentialed journalists find multiple platforms for their reviews. Through web sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, formerly print-only film critics and writers now supplement their traditional audience with a whole new generation of on-line readers.
A number of these critics have noted the incredibly low numbers of women filmmakers and female protagonists in major studio films. Commenting on the dearth of women directors and lead characters in films released during the summer of 2008, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis opined, “Welcome to the new, post-female American cinema” (“Is There a Real Woman in this Multiplex?”, May 4, 2008, p. 3).
The fact that males dominate the business and art of filmmaking is well documented. According to the latest Celluloid Ceiling report, women comprised a scant 15% of all directors, writers, producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 films of 2007 (“The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Representation of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2007,” Martha M. Lauzen). In addition, female characters comprised only 28% of all characters in the top 100 films of 2002. However, little is known about the sex of those writing reviews and whether this influences the nature of their reviews. This report seeks to fill this void by asking some basic questions about women’s representation in the ranks of those individuals who write about film in the United States.
This study examined film reviews for theatrical releases written in the top 100 U.S. daily newspapers (by circulation) from October 22, 2007 through December 25, 2007. A list of these newspapers can be found in the Appendix.
The sample included reviews written by film critics; other types of critics including those for television, music, and popular culture; staff reporters; and
freelancers. In addition to tracking the overall numbers of reviews written by these individuals for the top 100 newspapers, one randomly selected review by each individual who wrote during the study period was chosen for additional analysis. These reviews were analyzed for length (number of sentences) and nature of the review (number of positive, negative, or mixed/neutral sentences).
During the fall of 2007, 186 individuals wrote 2,365 film reviews for theatrical releases appearing in the top 100 daily newspapers in the United States with a combined circulation of approximately 28,215,000 readers. However, because the majority of these reviews also appear on the Internet, the reach and influence of the writers included in this study are far greater than the circulation numbers indicate. According to the Rotten Tomatoes website, over 7 million readers visit the site each month.
Approximately one-quarter (26%) of the newspapers in the study had no women or men writing film reviews during the study period. It is not known whether the absence of film reviews in these newspapers is the result of recent budget cuts or long-standing policies regarding news content. Numerous media reports have documented the recent cutbacks at newspapers nationwide.
Writing for Variety, Anne Thompson noted, “Over the past two years, newspapers have forced out or pushed into early retirement some 28 critics” (“Crix’ Cachet Losing Critical Mass,” April 7-13, 2008, p. 12). Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein observed, “Seeing their business model crumble, many newspapers simply have decided they can’t afford a full range of critics anymore” (“Are They Still Relevant? Everyone’s a Critic,” April 8, 2008, pp. E1, E4).
Of the newspapers featuring film reviews in the fall of 2007, 47% had no reviews written by women critics, writers or freelancers. In contrast, only 12% had no reviews written by men critics, writers or freelancers. Overall, 70% of the individuals reviewing theatrical film releases in Fall 2007 were male and 30% were female. In addition, men wrote significantly more film reviews than women. Men wrote an average of 14 film reviews. Women wrote an average of 9 film reviews.
These imbalances may be slightly tempered by the fact that women critics, writers, and freelancers wrote for newspapers with marginally higher circulations. The average circulation size of newspapers with women writing reviews was 348,530. The average circulation size of newspapers with men writing reviews was 294,760.
In addition, women and men wrote reviews of equal length. Reviews written by both women and men averaged 23 sentences.
In sum, more men than women write film reviews in the nation’s top circulation newspapers, and men write more reviews than women on average. Women work for newspapers with slightly larger circulations and their reviews are the same length as men’s.
Overall, these findings suggest that film criticism in this country’s newspapers is largely a male enterprise, echoing the heavy male dominance behind the scenes and on screen in the film industry.
Sex of Reviewers and Job Titles
Men outnumbered women in every job title category considered in this study. Seventy seven percent (77%) of film critics were male and 23% were
female. Sixty eight percent (68%) of staff writers were male and 32% were female. Eighty four percent (84%) of other types of critics (e.g., television,
theatre) writing film reviews were male and 16% were female. Sixty one percent (61%) of freelancers were male and 39% were female (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Job Title by Sex of Reviewer
Women were most likely to hold the job title of staff writer, whereas men were most likely to hold the job title of film critic. Women writing reviews were most likely to hold the job title of staff writer (35%), followed by film critic (29%), freelancer (29%), or some other type of critic (8%). Men writing reviews were most likely to hold the job title of film critic (37%), followed by staff writer (29%), freelancer (18%), or some other type of critic (16%). These findings indicate that men hold the higher status titles of film critic or critic in categories other than film including television critic, music critic, theatre critic, pop culture critic, and media critic. Individuals with these titles are assumed to have expertise in their given area. In contrast, the women in this study were more concentrated in the staff writer and freelancer categories. These job titles imply a jack-of-all-trades or part-time status.
In every job title category, men wrote more film reviews than women. Men film critics wrote an average of 25 reviews whereas women film critics wrote an average of 19 reviews. Men staff writers wrote an average of 10 reviews and women staff writers wrote an average of 6 reviews. Men critics in areas other than film wrote an average of 6 film reviews whereas women with this job title wrote an average of 3 film reviews. Men freelancers wrote an average of 7 reviews and women freelancers wrote an average of 4 reviews.
Sex of Reviewers and Film Genre
Men wrote more reviews of films in all genres than women. Men wrote 77% and women 23% of reviews about dramas. Men penned 55% and women 45% of reviews about comedies. Men wrote 57% and women 43% of reviews about romantic comedies and dramas (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Genre of Films Reviewed by Sex of Reviewer
Romantic comedies and dramas constituted a larger proportion of the reviews written by women than by men. Sixteen percent (16%) of the reviews written by women but only 9% of the reviews written by men were about romantic comedies and romantic dramas. Twenty seven percent (27%) of the reviews written by women and 14% of the reviews written by men were for non-romantic comedies. Fifty six percent (56%) of the reviews written by women and 77% of the reviews written by men were for non-romantic dramas.
It is unclear whether women chose to review romantic comedies and dramas or if editors were more likely to assign films with romantic themes to women writers. Informal interviews with a number of the critics included in this study suggest that the ratios are a likely result of reviewer choices and editorial assignments. The individuals interviewed described the assignment of film reviews as a highly collaborative process, involving input from both reviewers and editors.
Sex of Filmmaker and Sex of Reviewer
This study considered whether women were more likely than men to review films featuring a female director. However, the number of films with female directors during the study period was so low that it prohibited statistical analysis. Thus, we combined women directors and women writers to create a women behind-the-scenes variable.
Of the reviews written by women, 22% were for films with at least one woman director or writer and 78% were for films with only men as directors and writers. Of the reviews written by men, 14% were for films with at least one woman director or writer and 86% were for films with only men as directors and writers. In other words, films with women filmmakers constituted a larger portion of the films reviewed by women than by men.
It is not clear whether women chose to write reviews of films with women directors and writers or if editors assigned these films to women writers. Informal interviews with film critics included in this study indicate that reviewer choices and editorial assignments produce the reported percentages.
Sex of Protagonist and Sex of Reviewer
This study also considered whether women were more likely than men to review films featuring a female protagonist. However, the number of films featuring a clearly identifiable female protagonist was so low that films falling in this category were combined with films featuring ensemble casts in order to conduct the statistical analysis.
Of the reviews written by women, 33% were for films featuring a female protagonist or ensemble cast and 67% were for films featuring a male protagonist. Of the reviews written by men, 18% were for films featuring a female protagonist or ensemble cast and 82% were for films featuring a male protagonist. In other words, a significantly higher percentage of films reviewed
by women than men were for films featuring female protagonists or ensemble casts.
Once again, it is likely that these findings are due to a combination of reviewer preferences and editorial assignments.
Editors of Film Critics, Writers, and Freelancers
This study identified the sex of the editor of the section containing film reviews. Forty nine percent (49%) of these editors were female and 41% were male. Ten percent (10%) had no section editor or the gender of the section editor was unknown.
Nature of Reviews and Sex of Reviewer
Whereas the numbers of women versus men who write reviews and the number of reviews that they write are decidedly unequal, the nature of the reviews written does not appear to differ by sex of the reviewer.
This study analyzed one randomly selected review by each of the 186 individuals writing reviews during the study period. We counted the number of positive, negative, and neutral/mixed sentences in these reviews. Positive sentences praised some aspect of the film including performances, cinematography, pacing, and storylines. Negative sentences noted poor performances, disjointed plots, and overly pedantic or frenzied pacing. Mixed or neutral sentences included both positive and negative comments or offered plot descriptions.
On average, women and men wrote equally negative reviews. Both women and men wrote reviews with an average of 4 negative sentences. On average, women and men wrote equally positive reviews. Both women and men wrote reviews with an average of 5 positive sentences. The remaining sentences in the average 23-sentence review offered either mixed or neutral observations. In addition, women were not more likely than men to write significantly more positive reviews about films with at least one woman director and/or writer or featuring a female protagonist or ensemble cast. Similarly, men were not more likely than women to write significantly more positive reviews about films with only men filmmakers or featuring a male protagonist.
In summary, women are under-employed as reviewers of film in the nation’s 100 largest circulation newspapers. Not only are women outnumbered as film critics, staff writers, other types of critics, and freelancers, women also review fewer films on average than men. In addition, larger proportions of the films reviewed by women are for films with romantic themes, and those with women filmmakers and women protagonists or ensemble casts. However, the actual reviews written by men and women do not differ significantly in their length or nature. Women and men write equally positive and negative reviews and do not become significantly more positive when writing about films with same-sex protagonists or filmmakers.
Overall, these findings suggest that film criticism in this country’s newspapers is largely a male enterprise, echoing the predominance of men working on screen and behind the scenes in the film industry. In short, men dominate the reviewing process of films primarily made by men featuring mostly males intended for a largely male audience. The under-employment of women film reviewers, actors, and filmmakers perpetuates the nearly seamless dialogue among men in U.S. cinema.
Appendix : Top 100 U.S. Daily Newspapers*
|The Wall Street Journal||2,043,235|
|The New York Times||1,066.798|
|Los Angeles Times||775,766|
|New York Post||704,011|
|The Washington Post||656,297|
|The Dallas Morning News||404,653|
|The Arizona Republic||397,294|
|The Boston Globe||386,415|
|San Francisco Chronicle||373,805|
|The Atlanta Journal-Constitution||350,157|
|Detroit Free Press||345,861|
|The Plain Dealer||336,939|
|The Philadelphia Inquirer||330,622|
|St. Petersburg Times||305,854|
|The San Diego Union-Tribune||304,334|
|The Orange County Register||287,204|
|St. Louis Post-Dispatch||276,588|
|The Sacramento Bee||273,609|
|am New York||266,852|
|The Washington Examiner||260,950|
|The Indianapolis Star||258,696|
|The Denver Post||255,935|
|Rocky Mountain News||255,675|
|The Kansas City Star||254,793|
|The Baltimore Sun||236,172|
|South Florida Sun-Sentinel||235,154|
|Milwaukee Journal Sentinel||230,781|
|San Jose Mercury News||228,880|
|The Tampa Tribune||220,277|
|The Columbus Dispatch||217,291|
|The Seattle Times||212,691|
|Fort Worth Star-Telegram||206,991|
|The Charlotte Observer||206,497|
|The Detroit News||201,482|
|The Cincinnati Enquirer||197,962|
|St. Paul Pioneer Press||184,371|
|The Buffalo News||183,856|
|Investor’s Business Daily||173,169|
|Contra Costa Times||168,689|
|Las Vegas Review-Journal||168,653|
|The Austin American-Statesman||168,569|
|The Palm Beach Post||167,605|
|The News & Observer||165,483|
|San Francisco Examiner||165,183|
|Rochester Democrat and Chronicle||156,129|
|The Providence Journal||152,736|
|The Fresno Bee||149,491|
|Asbury Park Press||148,690|
|The Des Moines Register||147,701|
|The Birmingham News||143,791|
|The Grand Rapids Press||132,214|
|The Salt Lake City Tribune||131,361|
|Dayton Daily News||123,181|
|The Journal News||122,358|
|Akron Beacon Journal||118,771|
|The News Tribune||116,150|
|Knoxville News Sentinel||115,608|
|The News Journal||112,492|
|The Morning Call||108,200|
|Arizona Daily Star||104,731|
*Source: 2007 Editor & Publisher International Yearbook
About the Center
The mission of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film is to celebrate the accomplishments of television and film directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, and editors – who happen to be women. The Center’s programs encourage more women to pursue careers as storytellers, and its research agenda documents trends in women’s employment, the impact of their employment on television and film content, and factors influencing the under-representation of women’s voices in television and film.
About the Author
Dr. Martha M. Lauzen is founder and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. A nationally and internationally recognized expert on the employment of women on screen and behind the scenes, her research has been widely published in scholarly journals, trade publications, and the popular press. Dr. Lauzen directs research at the Center and teaches classes including The Women of Prime Time: From “That Girl” to “Saving Grace” and Film Directors: When Women Call the Shots in the School of Theatre, Television and Film. She holds a doctorate from the University of Maryland, and M.A. and B.A. degrees from the University of Iowa.
The author wishes to thank the following individuals for their important contributions to this project: Mary Long, M.A. Candidate, Department of Women’s Studies, SDSU, and Douglas M. Deiss, Jr., M.A., School of Communication, SDSU.