Annenberg Inclusion Initiative Study Shows Inequality in Film Criticism

Written by Sarah Bakke

There has been much recent discussion of diversity, respect, and representation in the film industry (and in entertainment industries beyond). Over the last handful of years, we have seen necessary change begin to happen, even if only in the public’s consciousness, and we as a collective society have started having a larger conversation about the insidious results that the lack of diversity, respect, and representation in the industry can reap. The world stage has been full of public figures on display for their wrong-doings and their lacklustre attempts at rectifying the damage. And certainly, it is important that the failings of these figures are not kept in darkness anymore; the publicity of the world stage is thus working in favour with the under-represented and the marginalized. We must remain vigilant, however, to ensure that once the publicity dies down, work towards change continues. Thankfully, there are a lot of hard-working people and organizations devoted to changing the film industry for the better.

One such organization, in the US context, is the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, founded and directed by Professor Stacy L. Smith. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s mission is “to foster inclusion and give a voice to disenfranchised or marginalized groups” by compiling and organizing data and theory-based research regarding the entertainment industry’s status quo. Most recently, the Initiative focused on the film critic community; who writes film reviews, and what does this demographic indicate about film criticism and its influence, at large? Professor Smith and associates (in partnership with TIME’S UP Entertainment) put together a comprehensive study (the second of it’s kind, focusing on film criticism’s impact on gender and racial representation/parity) based on 300 film reviews written by Rotten Tomatoes critics over the course of three years, in order to find out exactly what the stats say about gender and race/ethnicity inequality amongst film critics. The results are disheartening, if not unsurprising.

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Infographic from “Critic’s Choice 2: Gender and Race/Ethnicity of Film Reviewers Across 300 Top Films from 2015-2017” — Marc Choueiti, Dr. Stacy L. Smith, & Dr. Katherine Pieper.

According to the study, titled “Critic’s Choice II,” 48.3% of the total 300 films examined did not feature a review written by a woman of colour. Similarly, 45.4% of the 108 films driven by female leads and 35.1% of the 57 films led by under-represented folks onscreen also did not feature a review written by a woman of colour. In other words, an astounding number of top-grossing movies appearing on Rotten Tomatoes have never been reviewed by anyone other than white men. The study breaks these numbers down even further, stating: “only 21.3% of the 59,751 reviews evaluated were written by female critics, with 78.7% crafted by male critics… Critics from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds composed 16.8% of these reviews compared with 83.2% by white critics… White male critics wrote substantially more reviews (65.6%) than their white female (17.6%) or underrepresented male (13.1%) peers. Underrepresented female critics only wrote 3.7% of reviews included in the sample. Across the three years studied, there was no change over time in the representation of critics.”

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Infographic from “Critic’s Choice 2: Gender and Race/Ethnicity of Film Reviewers Across 300 Top Films from 2015-2017” — Marc Choueiti, Dr. Stacy L. Smith, & Dr. Katherine Pieper.

This kind of gendered and racial imbalance is evidence of an obvious problem within the film criticism community which, predictably, is in line with problems of representation and gender/racial parity in the movie business at large. Not to mention, it very likely has systemic influence over the success and/or failure of marginalized filmmaking as a whole. Who knows which films have been glossed over, misunderstood, or forgotten completely because their diversity is not reflected in the pool of critical response? Moreover, what valuable opinions, criticisms, and insights have been lost in the sea of white, male voices? Justin Chang of the L.A. Times writes, “We need more female critics and critics of colour because the diversification of any talent pool is a worthy and important end in its own right. The critical discourse on cinema will naturally be balanced, complicated and enriched in the process, but in ways that are and should be impossible to prescribe or predict.”

Studies like the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s “Critic’s Choice II” help immensely by providing concrete, research-based evidence that other professionals can point to when crafting industry reform from the ground up. These kinds of numbers can, and should, change policy and bring about visible change—especially when change is needed in corners of the film world less widely considered. Though we as a collective society tend to focus our attention on the wrongs of those in the spotlight, this kind of behind-the-scenes work is what truly makes a foundational difference. Organizations like the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and TIME’S UP Entertainment are dedicated to turning that spotlight onto the hidden ills of the entertainment industry, ignoring dramatics in favour of structural transformation.

Famed film critic Pauline Kael once said that “film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply… you must use everything you are and everything you know.” It would thus be fair to say that film criticism as a profession must strive to be as non-formulaic as possible. Out with homogenous points of view; out with one-sided responses. There exists a multiplicity of critics using everything they are and everything they know in order to bring a more nuanced, multi-faceted, and expansive view of film as an art form. Without their expressions and experiences, the true value of film criticism is skewed, and we risk further loss of films which may be just outside the margins of white, male opinion.

Sarah Bakke currently interns at WIFTV, where she gets to write all kinds of film-related material––a cinephile’s dream! When she’s not scribbling film notes or watching movies, Sarah can be found at The Cinematheque as a weekend theatre manager.

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