Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada," Kate McKinnon in "Ghostbusters," Rebel Wilson in "Pitch Perfect"

The growing gender divide over “Ghostbusters”: Why movies starring women get slimed by male critics

Because film criticism is so male-dominated, men have a disproportionate say—especially on movies about women


Nico Lang
July 13, 2016 2:59AM (UTC)

After months of fanboys arguing over a movie no one has even seen, critics finally got a peek at Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” reboot, in which comedians Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, and Melissa McCarthy suit up to fight the supernatural. And much to the relief of everyone who has spent months preparing themselves for the worst, the consensus is mainly positive: The film currently holds a 77 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

There is, however, a growing gender divide over the film’s reception. As of the time of writing, the film’s scores from female reviewers are considerably higher, with 84 percent of women giving the movie a thumbs up. Time’s Stephanie Zacharek comments, “The movie glows with vitality, thanks largely to the performers, who revel in one another’s company.” Meanwhile, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis writes that it’s “cheerfully silly” and Kate Muir of U.K.’s The Times says it’s a “rollickingly funny delight.”

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On the flip side, 77 percent of the critics who gave the film a thumbs down are male.

Roger Ebert’s one-time sidekick, Richard Roeper, called it a “horror from start to finish,” while David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter referred to “Ghostbusters” as a “bust.” That disparity has hampered the film’s reception: Currently, there’s a 10 percentage point difference between male and female opinion on the movie. If reviewing were left up to male critics alone, “Ghostbusters” would have a 74 percent approval rating.

What gives? As Meryl Streep pointed out in a 2015 speech, this discrepancy is likely due to the fact that in a way, these critics are watching two different movies.

“Women are so used to that active empathizing with the active protagonist of a male-driven plot,” Meryl Streep said during a 2015 panel. “That’s what we’ve done all our lives. You read history, you read great literature, Shakespeare, it’s all fellas. But they’ve never had to do the other thing. And the hardest thing for me, as an actor, is to have a story that men in the audience feel like they know what I feel like. That’s a really hard thing. It’s very hard thing for them to put themselves in the shoes of female protagonist.”

Because men are commonly treated as the default in movies—the everyman who stands in for the audience—they rarely are forced to empathize with others’ perspectives. If cinema does not reflect men’s experiences, it can, thus, be difficult for male audience members to see themselves in the picture in the way women are forced to. That affects not only the way that men interact with movies but also how they review them.

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Currently, men make up an estimated 76 percent of registered film critics on Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates reviews from across the country. They are most likely to review science-fiction films and genres dominated by men—and least likely to voice their two cents on a movie with a woman protagonist. According to the San Diego State University study “Thumbs Down 2016: Top Film Critics and Gender,” female critics write 34 percent of the reviews when a movie stars a woman in the lead role.

If all things were equal, men and women would then approve and disapprove of movies at roughly equal rates. Thus, 76 percent of positive and negative reviews should be expected to come from men.

That, however, is rarely the case. A survey of Meryl Streep’s films showed that men were disproportionately likely to give them a negative review, no matter the quality of the film.

In the cases surveyed, men accounted for the vast majority of unfavorable notices, even as female critics remained roughly in line with the Tomatometer (if slightly more favorable than the average). When “The Devil Wears Prada” debuted in 2006, 80 percent of female critics liked it, while 82 percent of bad reviews came from men. Overall, David Frankel’s fashion industry satire, starring Streep as an Anna Wintour-inspired ice queen, scored a 75 percent.

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The case was even worse for other Streep vehicles like “Ricki and the Flash” (67 percent overall), “August: Osage County” (64 percent), and “The Hours” (81 percent). Eighty-five percent of those who disliked Jonathan Demme’s “Ricki and the Flash,” in which Meryl appears as an aging rocker trying to mend fences with her estranged daughter, were male. That number was even higher for “August: Osage County” (86 percent) and highest for “The Hours” (an overwhelming 97 percent).

These gender gaps were static across the board: On average, men were overrepresented in negative reviews by a six percentage-point margin—with 82.1 percent of “rotten” ratings coming from male critics. These films include “Suffragette” (78 percent of negative reviews came from men), “Julie and Julia” (80 percent), “It’s Complicated” (76 percent), “Hope Springs” (78 percent), “Mamma Mia” (80 percent), and “The Iron Lady” (79 percent). The latter was the only film to receive harsher reviews from female critics, in which Streep played Margaret Thatcher. Just 43 percent of female critics liked it.

“Suffragette” (73 percent Tomatometer):

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Negative reviews that came from men: 78 percent
Female critics who liked it: 82 percent

“The Devil Wears Prada” (75 percent):

Negative reviews that came from men: 82 percent
Female critics who liked it: 80 percent

“Julie and Julia” (75 percent):

Negative reviews that came from men: 80 percent
Female critics who liked it: 85 percent

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“It's Complicated” (57 percent):

Negative reviews that came from men: 76 percent
Female critics who liked it: 60 percent

“Hope Springs” (75 percent):

Negative reviews that came from men: 78 percent
Female critics who liked it: 79 percent

“Ricki and the Flash” (65 percent):

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Negative reviews that came from men: 85 percent
Female critics who liked it: 76 percent

“The Hours” (81 percent):

Negative reviews that came from men: 97 percent
Female critics who liked it: 97 percent

“Mamma Mia” (54 percent):

Negative reviews that came from men: 80 percent
Female critics who liked it: 60 percent

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“August: Osage County” (64 percent):

Negative reviews that came from men: 86 percent
Female critics who liked it: 68 percent

“The Iron Lady” (51 percent):

Negative reviews that came from men: 79 percent
Female critics who liked it: 43 percent

Streep isn’t the only one to get continually dinged by male critics. Looking at female-driven vehicles released over the last decade, it’s rare to find one that received equal appraisals from both men and women. Female critics were overwhelmingly positive about “Pitch Perfect,” the 2012 sleeper hit starring Anna Kendrick as a reluctant member of a ragtag female a cappella group. Ninety-three percent of women reviewers liked it, but their male colleagues were less enthusiastic: 94 percent of thumbs-down scores came from men.

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Since 2000, the biggest gender discrepancy in film reviews was over Paul Feig’s “Spy,” which received a perfect 100 percent score from female critics. That means every single reviewer who didn’t like the Melissa McCarthy action-comedy was a man. Other female-centric comedies showed lower ratios of male disapproval (with “Bridesmaids” and “Mean Girls” faring better with male critics than women).

"Pitch Perfect" (80 percent Tomatometer):

Negative reviews that came from men: 93 percent
Female critics who liked it: 94 percent

"Pitch Perfect 2" (66 percent):

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Negative reviews that came from men: 75 percent
Female critics who liked it: 66 percent

"Mean Girls" (83 percent):

Negative reviews that came from men: 75 percent
Female critics who liked it: 82 percent

"Bridesmaids" (90 percent):

Negative reviews that came from men: 78 percent
Female critics who liked it: 88 percent

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"Spy" (94 percent):

Negative reviews that came from men: 100 percent
Female critics who liked it: 100 percent

"Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" (77 percent):

Negative reviews that came from men: 77 percent
Female critics who liked it: 83 percent

"In Her Shoes" (75 percent):

Negative reviews that came from men: 78 percent
Female critics who liked it: 76 percent

"The Intern" (61 percent):

Negative reviews that came from men: 81 percent
Female critics who liked it: 70 percent

A May study from FiveThirtyEight noted a similar gender bias when it comes to reviewing female-driven television shows. Men tend to rate programs like “Sex and the City,” “Switched at Birth,” and “My Mad Fat Diary,” which center the lives and experiences of women, well below average—which has a way of tanking user reviews. Although the median score for television shows is 7.3, “Sex and the City,” which won seven Emmys and eight Golden Globes in its extraordinarily successful six-year run, boasts just a 7.0. On average, men give the show a 5.8 rating, and they account for 41 percent of IMDb voters.

As the website points out, this is par for the course. While women rarely take their time to review male-marketed programs like “Sportscenter” or the Discovery Channel’s “Wheeler Dealers,” very few shows are predominantly reviewed by women. More men chimed in on “United States of Tara,” “Broad City,” “Murphy Brown,” and “Orange Is the New Black,” and they rated each lower than female viewers did.

The problem is, thus, not just that men do not like female-driven movies and television shows as much as women do but that they have a disproportionate say in how such entertainment is received. According to the San Diego study, women account for just 20 percent of film reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. That means their opinions hold a lot of weight.

With little opportunity to counterbalance ingrained bias against female-driven films, the large volume of male voices will continue dragging down the overall scores of films that star women. In the eight films cited directly above, male critics brought down the Tomatometer by an average of 5.25 percentage points. Streep fared even worse: Her scores would have averaged six points higher if men’s reviews weren’t factored in. Her average Tomatometer over those 10 films is a 67. It would have been a 73.

The female “Ghostbusters” might be busy fighting the undead, but their biggest foe won’t be so easy to vanquish.


Nico Lang

MORE FROM Nico Lang

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Criticism Female Ghostbusters Feminism Film Gender Ghostbusters Movies Women

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