The San Diego Union-Tribune found itself apologizing to readers last week for running a review of The Other Boleyn Girl whose first sentence was a disparaging remark about Natalie Portman’s lack of cleavage. The review was written by a male critic, prompting the section editor to wonder why there aren’t more female film critics (including at his own paper — the review was a syndicated article written for a wire service). It’s a good question, but it should be part of a bigger question.
A diverse set of viewpoints is good, but do male and female critics see films differently? I’m glad we have both Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum here at EW, but when it comes to so-called “chick flicks” or more male-oriented action fare, both of our film critics are able to see past gender and review them positively if they’re good, negatively if they’re bad. Their differences in taste seems (to me) to have more to do with who they are as individuals than with sex. Still, the film industry is more clearly male-dominated than any other realm in showbiz (quick, how many female directors, screenwriters, and studio executives can you name?) and caters more blatantly to male ticket-buyers. So I’m glad there are women writing about film who’ll take notice of that imbalance, who’ll recognize the way the camera often objectifies women (and sometimes men), and who’ll argue that a more varied and well-rounded set of female characters would be good for movies in general, so that the other half of the population can find someone on screen to identify with. Of course, I’d like to see more men arguing these points as well.
The larger problem here isn’t just that there aren’t enough women critics — there aren’t enough critics. I’ve been writing for some time in this space about the war on film critics, the campaign by many publications to fire their local critics and build their coverage from syndicated reviews. The Union-Tribune situation shows why this is a bad idea. I don’t know whether readers in other cities where the article ran complained as loudly, but clearly, this review didn’t serve the needs of the San Diego paper’s hometown readership. The ongoing conversation about film isn’t served by having only a handful of critical voices who are unaccountable to moviegoers. Among critics, there should be a diversity of gender (and ethnicity, and sexual orientation, etc.), but right now, I’d be happy to see some geographical diversity.