The disappearing movie critic

A study finds fewer women writing about film for top newspapers. But the big news isn't the gender of critics -- it's the poor health of the profession.

Topics: Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

Martha M. Lauzen, director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, has just released a study revealing that most of the film criticism appearing in the nation’s top newspapers is written by men. In the fall of 2007, Lauzen’s study notes, men wrote 70 percent of all film reviews in those papers; women wrote 30 percent. Moreover, 47 percent of those publications had no reviews written by female critics (either full-time writers or freelancers).

I’m not surprised by Lauzen’s findings, and I doubt that anyone is, at least among those who pay even the remotest amount of attention to film criticism. Every January, when I get together with my colleagues in the National Society of Film Critics, there are certainly more men than women around the table. (There are 55 men and 10 women in the NSFC.)

But I’ve stopped asking myself why there are so few women film critics. Forget the gender breakdown: The bigger crisis is that film criticism, as a viable profession, is dying. The big news isn’t that daily newspapers aren’t hiring women as critics; it’s that many of them have ceased caring whether they have a full-time movie critic at all. Over the past five years, daily newspapers have been letting longtime, experienced (and thus expensive) critics go and either failing to replace them or filling their jobs with freelancers or less experienced newcomers. I don’t believe film criticism overall is dying — it thrives, in many different forms and at many different levels of quality, on the Web. But the chances of being able to make a living at it are growing increasingly slim.

As far as the male-female breakdown goes, I offer these two small nuggets of anecdotal evidence: In the years since I’ve been working for Salon, I’ve been courted by two major daily newspapers looking to hire me as a full-time film critic. The first paper actually offered me a job, but I declined because the salary was so laughably low. The editor who interviewed me for that job had made no secret that the paper wanted to hire a female critic, but clearly, what the joint really wanted was a cheap date. At the second paper, talks broke down when the organization was hit with some daunting financial problems. The paper ultimately chose a film critic — for what it’s worth, a man — from within its own ranks.

My own experience suggests that right around the time major newspapers (other than the New York Times, which has a better track record than most in this area) began expressing a willingness to hire women critics, they also began to realize that maybe they didn’t have enough money — or enough faith in the idea of criticism, period — to support having full-time critics of either gender. It’s true that the world of working film critics, such as it is, is filled with middle-aged white guys, and supposedly, we’re not supposed to feel bad when a middle-aged white guy loses a job. But in the past five years, I’ve had to watch too many colleagues — male and female — fall by the wayside, and it has been painful. The numbers in Lauzen’s study don’t trouble me as much as the pervasiveness of the idea that critics — the last line of defense between moviegoers and studio-generated hype — no longer matter. And that problem has little to do with gender bias.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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