With the post-Academy Awards discussion around what voices are written and represented by whom in Hollywood, here’s another important point to consider: Men outnumber women in film criticism at a rate of 68 percent to 32 percent.
This vast discrepancy, where there are approximately two men for every one woman, has been corroborated not just from the anecdotes of many writers, but also in the “Thumbs Down 2018” report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
The paper shows that the number of reviews written by women is even lower than the number of women writing reviews. Seventy-one percent of all reviews are written by men, where the remaining 29 percent are written by women. In other words, there’s a problem.
I spoke with three women working in film criticism—Hunter Harris, Monica Castillo, and Erin Trahan—about their stories. Each has braved an industry in which not only journalism, but the niche side of arts journalism seems to be on its last leg. With dwindling audiences and difficult to monetize platforms, it’s a world that’s tough to enter, and Harris, Castillo, and Trahan have found success.
“It’s really, really shocking,” said Hunter Harris, a film writer at Vulture. “I feel like every screening I go to, there are mostly men. And even just looking at the major critics, I mean like critics at major papers and magazines, they’re mostly men.”
Harris has been writing professionally since graduating from Emerson College in 2016 and isn’t shocked by the barriers inherent in film journalism. She still finds them frustrating, especially when reasoning with the current state of the media.
“I feel like the barriers for women in criticism are the same as the barriers in media and journalism, but just on a smaller scale,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of jobs, and it’s hard to find something stable that will pay you to write criticism full-time.”
In other words, the issues facing women in criticism are largely the same as women in journalism; the former is a microcosm of the latter.
According to “Thumbs Down 2018,” she’s right: “Men outnumber women writers in every type of media outlet considered. Men account for 79 percent of those writing for radio/TV, 70 percent for trade publications such as Variety and The Wrap, 70 percent for general interest magazines and websites, 69 percent for a news website or wire service such as the Associated Press, 68 percent for newspapers, and 68 percent for movie or entertainment publications.”
Monica Castillo received her M.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California, where she was the first winner of the “Film Criticism Fellowship” in USC’s Annenberg School. She has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Village Voice, DigBoston, and NPR, among others.
“I was either a student, or very young reporter or critic, and I could see I was maybe one of two, or one of three women, [and] one of the only women of color. The only person of color in the room sometimes,” Castillo said. “It was really kind of disconcerting. It kind of made me feel like, ‘Did I accidentally fall into this space that I’m not supposed to be in?’”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only time she doubted her presence in the theater or among other critics. A writer she described as “older” and whom she looked up to once got in the way of her finding a voice. He said that her feminism was getting in the way of criticism. That she was, somehow, doing it wrong.
Castillo also said that, when she was just getting into the business, she would be mistaken for the publicist at screenings, and that critics would go to her with questions regarding the film.
“No, I’m like you,” she would have to say.
Erin Trahan is a film critic at WBUR, one of Boston’s two NPR stations, and a professor at Emerson College. With more than 15 years in the field of professional journalism, Trahan has written for the Boston Globe, Women’s Review of Books, the Independent, and New England Film, as well as several nonprofits. While studying at the University of Notre Dame, Trahan found herself in largely “boy-centric” film-studies classes. She noted a stifling and ever-present sense of masculinity in discussions.
“The conversation, the feel of the place, what they liked, and what would then be discussed. It always came back to them, [to the] young male experience of the world,” Trahan said. “It felt hard to deviate from it, and it felt strange to be female in those classes.”
At the time, Trahan was also trying to make films, though her passion for that side of the business dwindled to the point where she “worked in production and hated it,” all as her love of watching and writing about film grew more prominent. These days, Trahan’s main focus within film is on female-driven stories, both behind and in front of the camera.
Generally speaking, these women say, it can be hard to find a wider audience, largely due to certain people being siloed or boxed in due to gender or ethnicity.
“I feel like something that happens a lot,” Harris, the Vulture writer said. “As a woman in the industry, but also as a person of color, it’s always like we want to hear a woman talk about Lady Bird, or a black person writing about Moonlight. Which I think is completely fair, and very important. But also, it should be just as important for these voices to be writing about movies about white men and movies about white people.”
Harris expressed a need for more equality in criticism. She says that she should not be tasked with strictly writing about film with feminine or black themes just because she happens to be a part of that intersectional spectrum. In the same vein, Castillo has faced editors who only contact her to work on particular stories.
“I can get boxed in and not write about general releases because they only think that I have something to say about movies with Latino characters, directors, or talent,” Castillo said.
More recently, Castillo said she has been able to break out of that box. As a freelancer, she pitches original ideas, and ultimately has more say in what she’s assigned. Similarly, Trahan picks the films she covers.
“Part of the barriers is my own tastes, which have never been mainstream, and have never been celebrity driven,” Trahan said. “I don’t attend press screenings regularly. … The truth is, so much of what I’ve done has been focused on independent filmmaking and filmmakers.”
Interested in this topic? Check out “5 Women Filmmakers” at the Museum of Fine Arts from March 3–20. Includes new films by contemporary women filmmakers including Cristina Gallego, Lynne Ramsay, Debra Granik, Josephine Decker, and Lucrecia Martel. More info at mfa.org/programs.