GUEST POST: Critically minded? The problem of diversity in film criticism

Engender and the Equal Media and Culture Centre for Scotland have hosted student placements from the MSc in Social Research at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Strathclyde Applied Gender Studies and Research Methods course. As part of their research outputs, the students have produced a series of blogs.

In this post, Alex highlights the need for an intersectional approach to examining our cultural data and why we need more diverse voices in film criticism.

 The graphic shows a dark blue background with white left-aligned text quote that reads "Whether or not the critics are men or women, an almost entirely white perspective on film keeps our Scottish film-reviewing culture pale and stale, if not wholly male.". The quote is attributed to Alex Davies, Student Placement, University of Strathclyde. In the top right-hand corner of the graphic there is the Equal Media and Culture Centre logo.

Film criticism fulfils multiple purposes. People read film reviews for suggestions on what to watch, and whether it’s worth shelling out to go to the cinema.

As a result, film reviews are also tied to a film’s financial success, its consideration for awards and whether it gets a wide release at all. Thus, critics can become “gatekeepers,” defining what counts as “good” art.

And with all that knowledge and expertise, part of a critic’s job is also “explaining culture to those who are part of it,” according to Kelsey Whipple, a journalism scholar at the University of Texas. This might mean pointing out the obscure reference to French New Wave Cinema, or it could mean helping audiences process and connect with a film’s messages and themes, especially the emotionally thorny or politically sensitive ones. But if a critic’s job is to interpret “culture,” doesn’t it stand to reason that as creative industries (slowly) diversify, “culture” is going to change? And if so, don’t critics need to keep up?

Unfortunately, progress on that front seems slow, according to a report published by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in 2018. In its survey of the top 100 critical reviews posted on Rotten Tomatoes in 2017, Critics Choice? found that almost 78% of its critics were men, while only 22% were women and 18% were from “underrepresented” groups. A follow up report surveying the top 300 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes broke its figures down further, specifying that less than 4% of its critics were women of colour.

This is a problem since critics have the power to make or break a filmmaker's career, and they can help to cement a film’s place in history for its artistic merit or cultural significance. As Katie Goh puts it, “If white men are the dominant voices in criticism, then they are the gatekeepers of the industry and the tastemakers of film history.” So what happens if a critic lacks the cultural knowledge or sensitivity to appreciate films made by women or people of colour?

Rashid Shabazz is the executive director of Critically Minded, a US activist group promoting the work of critics of colour. He has commented that white men “often miss the mark,” adding that “(they) don’t have the cultural and historical reference points to assess and interpret the work (of artists of colour) in complex, honest, and nuanced ways.” This is partly due to a history of the monopolisation of cultural criticism by white men. “The absence or underrepresentation of cultural critics and writers of colour too often leaves us with a narrow worldview mostly shaped by white men and how they feel about each and every work of art and cultural production,” Shabazz concluded. In other words, the definition of “good” art is often dictated by the values of a narrow, homogenous group of people.

I was curious to see how the critics of Scotland fared in comparison. Using the Glasgow Film Festival’s Audience Award backlog as a sample, I researched reviews for the 73 films nominated between 2015-2022. I found 211 reviews, and of these, 191 reviews were written by reviewers whose genders could be identified. Superficially, the gender breakdown of reviewers seems very equitable.

A pie chart showing the gender of reviewers with a ratio of 50.3% men to 49.7% women

This impression changed once race was factored into the equation.

A pie chart showing gender and race of audience award reviewers, breaking down to: 49.7% white men, 44.5% white women, 4.7% women of colour, and 1% men of colour

While white men and white women continued to publish a fairly equal share of the reviews, less than 5% were written by women of colour and only 1% by men of colour. In fact, only one man of colour reviewer was counted in the whole sample, and he only wrote two reviews! Out of the total 211 reviews, only 11 were written by people of colour.

Clearly, it’s important to keep an intersectional lens in analysing Scottish cultural data. Without considering race and gender simultaneously here, the marginalisation of people of colour would have disappeared entirely. And, clearly, Shabazz is right; whether or not the critics are men or women, an almost entirely white perspective on film keeps our Scottish film-reviewing culture pale and stale, if not wholly male.

Engender occasionally works with students as part of their placement requirements for university or college courses - this allows students to work with Engender on specific areas of our work for women's equality. Student blogs form part of their course assessment, and they do not receive payment from Engender.

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