Defining Feminist Film Criticism – MaryAnn Johanson comments

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EDITOR’S NOTE: MaryAnn Johanson participated in an informal survey about feminist film criticism for an article published on RogerEbert.com. She’s quoted in brief in the article, but her responses were so complete and compelling that they constitute a personal feminist film critic’s manifesto, of sorts. They should be read in their entirety. Here they are:

How do you define feminism and the feminist point of view in film criticism?

A feminist perspective on film MUST acknowledge and grapple with the dominance of the male perspective and the male gaze onscreen (and in the culture at large!). It cannot just be “Hey, I’m a woman and here’s what I think about this movie.” (If a woman wants to do that, that’s fine. But film criticism by a woman is most definitely not *automatically* feminist. Which isn’t to say, either, that we shouldn’t have more women who don’t overtly embrace feminism working as critics.)

‘Feminist’ film criticism must actively and constantly recognize those things, even when a feminist critic enjoys and positively reviews a film that is not feminist, one that wholly embraces the male-POV status quo. And of course, yes, it is absolutely possible for a feminist film critic to enjoy a film that is not actively feminist (though perhaps less so with a film that is actively and overtly misogynist, which of course is not the same thing as simply lacking active and overt feminism); we’d have few films to enjoy if we limited our enjoyment to movies that are actively and overtly feminist. So it is also the responsibility of the feminist critic to express that dichotomy: that there can be films that work for us and that entertain us even if they might be problematic in their depiction of women, or in their dismissal or erasure of women.

This can be a burden: it’s often difficult for us feminist film critics to turn off our brains and just enjoy a movie. We need to be saying this all the time! That we would like to be able to brainlessly enjoy a movie, but that it’s a lot more difficult for us to do so. (I am going to start saying this more.) Turning off one’s brain at the movies is a privilege that, for the most part, only straight white cis hetero able-bodied men can enjoy! It can be really difficult, sometimes, considering the abuse that feminist film critics can come in for, but we should consider it our duty to make that very narrow slice of humanity (straight white cis hetero able-bodied men) uncomfortable, should they read our criticism. Perhaps the great duty — and, heh, privilege — of feminist film critics is to make uncomfortable that audience that Hollywood and our culture perceives as the human norm (straight white cis hetero able-bodied men). If we cannot be 100 percent brain-switched-off entertained by The Movies, neither should they get to enjoy that.

I guess, in short: A feminist perspective should not be limited to any given individual film but should deal with the zeitgeist at large… which, honestly, I don’t see male critics confronting very often. We feminist critics should embrace and welcome the fact that we have a wider perspective than male critics do! Films don’t get conceived, produced, release, marketed, or consumed in a vacuum, though those straight white cis hetero able-bodied men (which is how most critics are defined, too) may think it does. We need to be constantly pointing that out.

What Toni Morrison said about racism applies to sexism as well: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. [snip] It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”

Alas, we women do need to keep explaining, over and over again, why we matter, why we are human. It’s exhausting. But we need to keep doing it.

Morrison reminds me, too, that we *white* feminist critics need to try to be as intersectional as possible, need to try to acknowledge that nonwhite women — whether as filmmakers, the protagonists of cinematic stories, or as film critics — face even steeper battles than white woman do.

What critical criteria are established by your feminist approach to film criticism?

I’d rather see a movie that excludes women entirely rather than one that treats women as eye candy, sexual rewards, motivation for male protagonist, or anything else that diminishes women’s agency or humanity and treats them as nothing more than supporting players in men’s stories. I’ll definitely go easier on the former than the latter.

I’ll also go easier on a film that is pretty clichéd and conventional if it centers a girl or a woman… because the fact that it *does* center a girl or a woman automatically makes it less clichéd and conventional! I gladly look forward to the day when such movies can be dismissed as tedious tripe because we’re inundated by such stories about women. We’re nowhere near there yet.

Does your feminist point of view, as you define it, influence your preference in film genre, style and story and, if so, how?

I tend to presume that I’m going to hate any movie deemed a “romantic comedy” because of how Hollywood has shaped the genre, at least since the 1980s, when I came of age and had my fundamental shaping on film. Even rom-coms of late made by women tend to be so reductive of women’s lives and women’s realities! I’m open to feeling better about a rom-com, but on the whole, The Movies have not convinced me yet that I shouldn’t be wary of the genre.

On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy, and I will go into any new SF/F movie hoping that it’s going to satisfy this girl nerd, and I still continue to experience that hope even when most films of that genre fail to be very feminist, or at all feminist. I’m still clinging to Ripley-in-*Alien,* 40 years ago (and Ripley-in-*Aliens,* 35 years ago) and hoping I’ll see more like her. I rarely do.

Does your feminist point of view set or influence your standards for rating a film as good or bad? If so, how and what is the reason why?

It can. Again, given two films of genuinely equal merit otherwise, I will tend to rate higher the film that centers men and completely ignores women over one that centers men and features women only in horrid ways as sidebars. Not that I’ve never overlooked horrid treatment of women if the story about men has something to say that is new, different, interesting, or the like. It’s rare, but it does happen. But in an ideal, genuinely diverse film ecology, that wouldn’t be necessary.

Do you think only women are feminist in their film criticism?

Mostly, yes. Occasionally a male critic might dip a toe into complaining about how a woman is treated onscreen, but for the most part, I don’t think male critics can truly understand what it means to be marginalized as a woman. At least, I haven’t seen it yet. I haven’t seen a male critic who is able to authentically express how, overall, the depiction of women onscreen is mostly appalling.

I think we can rest assured, however, that if a male critic somehow managed to get really outraged and mouthy in a feminist way about film, he’d be celebrated in a way that no female feminist film critic so far has been.

Name one film that satisfies your feminist criteria and explain why.

An example from 2018: Mary Magdalene, which got a UK theatrical release last year but is caught up in the collapse of The Weinstein Company and so hasn’t seen a US release yet. (I hope it gets one, because everyone needs to see this movie.) It’s directed by a man but written by two women — Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett — about the putative female apostle to Jesus, Mary of Magdala (played, beautifully, by Rooney Mara). It is *powerfully* feminist in a way that isn’t just about centering a woman — though it does — but overtly about how the perspective of women has been downplayed in our culture precisely because men’s voices have been so dominant, and about how men have been able to suppress women’s voices. This is a movie about how one of the foundational stories of Western civilization — that of Jesus of Nazareth — is the way it is because the voice of a woman was sidelined. This movie is feminist in the widest, most all-encompassing sense. It moved me to tears with the power of how it depicts how very different a woman’s perspective on the world can be from the male-centered norm we have been inculcated to access as normal.

Name one film that you’ve refused to review –even with a complete pan and slam — because it offends your feminist sensibilities and why.

Well, I might still review these, but I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to write about — recent examples — Suspiria or You Were Never Really Here, even though the former has been hailed by many as feminist and the latter is the product of a female filmmaker — Lynne Ramsey — whose work I have loved in the past. It enrages me that both films feel like they are reinforcing pernicious stereotypes about women (and men’s relationship to women!) that I wish would die. And not just because they have already been well covered onscreen before. I simply do not see the freshness in these movies that other critics and moviegoers have seen. Which is, why, I do think I need to review them, to counter that dominant perspective on them.

Are there any filmmakers and actors who consistently meet your criteria for excellent feminist production? Who exemplifies this?

I don’t know that there is! I might have said “Lynne Ramsey,” but then You Were Never Really Here disappointed me so deeply. Part of the problem with the male dominance of Hollywood — and the film industry beyond Hollywood — is that it’s so much more difficult for women to build a body of work.

Maybe I’ll say Ava DuVernay, though she still has only a few projects under her belt. I thought her A Wrinkle in Time was one of the best movies of 2018 – not top 10 but certainly top 20 — not just for its centering of a female protagonist (and a black girl teen at that!) but for its utter shutdown of SF/F tropes about violence and battle and war and the like; a movie can be sci-fi without all that. (I have no doubt that the fact that her film lacked the clichés of the genre is why it confounded so many [male] critics and [male] moviegoers.) Her doc 13th is essential to understanding why America is the way that it is today. Her Selma has, in some moments, a focus on the domestic that is stunning, connecting the political to the personal in new ways. (I mean: MLK taking out that garbage? That is *amazing.* And more profound than some might think, in what it says about taking out the garbage being the same sort of mundane reality as FBI surveillance.) I haven’t seen her TV show Queen Sugar (I really do need to), but the fact that she, as producer, committed to hiring only women directors? Feminist hero. That is using one’s privilege — and DuVernay’s is hard earned at that — to pay it forward.

Have you been assigned to review a film that you found unacceptably anti-feminist in approach and felt that you must self-censor your comments to conform to the expectations of your editor and/or fit the profile of the platform and its readers? Do you think this happens with other feminist film critics?

This does not apply to me as I run my own site and review (or don’t review) what I want. I do syndicate some reviews to alt-weekly newspapers, and very occasionally an editor at one of them will ask me to cover something that I have not already reviewed, but I cannot recall a single instance of being asked to cover a film that I felt I could not, nor have I ever encountered an editor who has asked me to tone down a review or go easier on a film.

I do know for a fact that there are outlets that do ask critics to temper reviews — positive ones as well as negative! — though not necessarily because of feminist issues — such as with a blanket policy that limits how many five-star ratings they will give, or flat-out refusing to give zero stars to a film. Considering the vitriol I often receive in response to my overtly feminist reviews, I would not be at all surprised to learn that big outlets are leery about publishing overtly feminist reviews.

From your feminist perspective, what fits the overall progressive objectives of feminist film criticism? Please rank the following in order of importance to you, and list last and separately those that you don’t agree with at all.

Agree:

  • We need more female film critics’ writings on major media platforms
  • Feminist film critics have to work harder to make their opinions, points of view known
  • Gender parity should be measured not only by numbers/percentages, but also by the presence of feminist themes, stories, aesthetics and technical accomplishment.
  • Greater numbers of women writing about a film impacts/boosts audience awareness about that film and its audience appeal
  • Equal opportunity and exposure are the primary goals of feminist film critics
  • We need more female-centric blockbusters to reach gender parity in filmmaking
  • The opinions and recommendations of feminist film critics should be considered by film festival programmers.
  • Gender quotas in film festival programming are drawing attention to otherwise overlooked films that meet feminist criteria and standards.
  • Re-structuring male-centric plots with female characters counts towards gender parity in moviemaking

Disagree completely:

  • All female film critics should be considered feminists simply because they are women
  • Studies revealing Hollywood’s static gender percentages accurately reflect the breadth of feminist concerns about today’s cinema production
  • Gender parity by numbers and percentages would sufficiently fill feminist expectations and satisfy feminist demands for change in today’s cinema scene.

At present, are narrative films or documentaries most effective in delivering diverse and laudable women’s stories to the movie-going public?

I’m not sure either is doing a great job. Certainly there do seem to be more women making documentary films than before (though still nowhere near as many as men; just more than there are women making narrative films), but those films are seen by almost infinitely smaller audiences than narrative films. And even the narrative films made by women tend to get only tiny releases, if they get any theatrical release at all. (Movies by women getting big VOD pushes, as with major Netflix-only releases, such as Bird Box, are a good thing. It remains to be seen what sort of impact Netflix will have, long-term on the cinema scene, for movies by men and women alike. It’s too soon to tell what sort of impact on the zeitgeist a movie released only, or primarily, on Netflix will have.) We need women filmmakers behind the camera as writers and directors and women’s stories in front of the camera across the entire spectrum of cinema, from huge blockbusters to docs to little arthouse narratives. Films by and about women CANNOT be considered niche or be rare outliers. They need to have the same outsized impact on the larger culture that films by and about men have had and continue to have.

Assuming that greater exposure of your feminist critical writings — and those of others whose approach rises to your definition of feminist film criticism — can and will effect change in film production, what would you like to see changed in the industry — other than the requisite gender parity?

I would very much like to see an acknowledgment that women’s stories and women’s perspectives *matter,* that they are important aspects of our larger cultural understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to be alive and in the world. It absolutely infuriates me that a movie like Green Book — which I liked a lot, though I don’t think it deserves the Oscar for Best Picture — is considered a big prestigious film worthy of a wide release and industry plaudits and critical acclaim while a movie like Woman Walks Ahead gets relegated to a tiny niche release and ends up almost ignored and all but unseen. Both films are highly conventional stories told in highly conventional manners, and both feature big-name marquee stars. In a Hollywood — and a larger world — that was not absolutely rife with misogyny, that was not so dead set on ignoring women’s stories to the point where they are literally not seen, Woman Walks Ahead would be spoken of in the same breath as Green Book. And it would even be fine if some of that discussion was about debating whether the white protagonists in each film are white saviors, whether or how racist either film is, and so on! And it’s utterly impossible to see that it is anything other than pure, unadulterated sexism that saw one of these movies earn a bundle at the box office and go all the way to the Oscars, and saw the other almost completely ignored.

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MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is a freelance writer on film, TV, DVD, and pop culture from New York City and now based in London. She is the webmaster and sole critic at FlickFilosopher.com, which debuted in 1997 and is now one of the most popular, most respected, and longest-running movie-related sites on the Internet. Her film reviews also appear in a variety of alternative-weekly newspapers across the U.S. Johanson is one of only a few film critics who is a member of The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (the Webby organization), an invitation-only, 500-member body of leading Web experts, business figures, luminaries, visionaries and creative celebrities. She is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. She has appeared as a cultural commentator on BBC Radio, LBC-London, and on local radio programs across North America, and she served as a judge at the first Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Festival at the 2003 I-Con, the largest SF convention on the East Coast. She is the author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride, and is an award-winning screenwriter. Read Johanson's recent articles below. For her Women On Film archive, type "MaryAnn Johanson" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).