A Feminist Film Critic in the Age of Weinstein (Guest Column)

Harvey Weinstein 1 - 2015 Finding Neverland Press Preview - Getty - H 2017
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Critics calling out misogyny in movies may incur the wrath of readers, but refusal to do so enables the Harvey Weinsteins of the industry, one reviewer writes.

It's been a tough week to get my reviews done. I'm too busy marinating in white-hot rage over the Harvey Weinstein stories and the other recent revelations about smaller-fish sexual predators in the film media world: Harry Knowles, founder of Ain't It Cool News; Devin Faraci, writer at Alamo's Birth.Movies.Death blog; and Andy Signore of Screen Junkies. All have since been removed from their positions. But collectively, they're a snapshot of what many in the entertainment industry still believe they are entitled to do to women.

I have never been physically assaulted by a man in my industry, never been harassed to the point where I worried for my safety (not since I've been a critic, anyway; we all have a story somewhere). But I am reminded, every day, that I work within a system largely made by and for men like this. Where female performers are primarily regarded as eye candy and afterthoughts, as damsels in distress, not heroes. (The box-office success of Wonder Woman and Charlize Theron's emergence as one of film's reigning action leads are undeniably paving the way for progress, but they are still outliers.) And it is communicated to me on a regular basis that calling attention to the sexist status quo in my reviews is unnecessary and unwanted, with responses ranging from my reviews being irrelevant to that I should just die already.

"You are a feminazi bitch who likes to bash movies without actually understanding them. Fuck you bitch, you should keep yourself to licking pussy and going all bonkers about feminism (which is bullshit anyways). Bitch you should be killed and then burned."

I've been a film critic for six years, which makes me a relative newcomer within the New York ranks. As I've gotten more comfortable, my willingness to call out sexism has increased; as our culture has backslid and a sexual predator was elected president, it seems more necessary than ever to name it. The vitriol I get, in email and on social media, has likewise increased. I try to let it roll off — I often read these notes to my husband, we roll our eyes, then move along — but it sinks in anyway, pooling in a little black pit in my stomach. Every critic gets hate mail. It's part of our feedback culture. But I remember showing one vile email to a male colleague — a thick-skinned one — and his being shocked at how personal and gender-specific it was.

The most sustained hate-mail campaign I got was for looking back at '80s classic Sixteen Candles (an old favorite, I admitted) and finding it disturbingly racist and date-rapey. Those screeds are still rolling in.

"Why don't you get that stick out of your ass? And isn't there anything you can do to improve your looks?"

I even got backlash for my critique of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, a movie so dreadful I felt we, critics and readers alike, could all get on board with hating it together. But since my review alluded to recent allegations of Johnny Depp's abuse of Amber Heard, as well as the film's jokes about ugly women, I still got skewered — from the vaguely polite, if poorly spelled, "Mam in your review for dead men tell no tales you say that it is sexist, however in that time period women were not treated equaly to men they are simply making it more accurate to the time period" to the more routine, "From the very first line it was quite clear that you were going to bash Depp because you are feminist cunt."

Not too long ago, I was harangued by the publicist of a famous actor, whose alleged sexual harassment had resurfaced. She kept me on the phone trying to convince me, first, that no one cared; then, that the column I was writing — about my own response to these allegations about the star of a film I loved — was old news; and, finally, that because a financial settlement had been reached, it was basically like nothing had ever happened. I wrote it anyway, but her first take was right: Nobody really cared, the actor continued being celebrated on the awards circuit and the subject was quietly dropped without the actor's ever acknowledging it or, god forbid, publicly apologizing to the women.

"Most of these chicks are women who went with an asshole then became lesbians & decided to hate all men & label anything Sexist."

Here is what I wish I could say: At least I work in a supportive community of critics who get that misogyny and rape culture pervades the mainstream film industry and regularly say so. Here is what I can say: When I saw the overwhelmingly positive reviews of Blade Runner 2049 last week, calling it "brainy" and "philosophical" and "breathtaking," I scanned them, in vain, for at least a mention that its female characters are insultingly two-dimensional, all sex toys and sexist cliches, sliced and diced with gory aplomb.

This is part of the problem. It's not as immediate a concern as rapists holding high-powered jobs in the industry, but it's a contributing factor. If critics fail to notice when women are not being depicted as human beings rather than sexy props, then "Weinstein culture" wins.

In six years, it's been incredibly rare for anyone from the critical community to simply say to me, "You know, that's a good point about women." It seems to me that, when it comes to reviews, voicing concerns about representation is often seen by my peers as an abdication of one's pure love of filmmaking — a prioritizing of activism over criticism. I disagree. Misogyny in film should be pointed out as plainly and as often as possible. I try to support and promote other writers who do so. Because what message does our collective embrace, or enabling, of onscreen objectification send to the predators still out there?

This is a lonely job. I still love going to the movies, but it is not a friendly business for uppity feminists. I wish it were. I would love to have more allies, both male and female. Until then, I'll be the one yelling about it in print, and getting called a "feminazi cunt" in return.

Sara Stewart is a New York film critic and features writer. You can troll her @sarafstewart.