Study: Men Who Dominate Movie Reviewing Shortchange Women Directors

Hollywood Sign - Getty - H 2017
Getty Images

Male reviewers outnumber female reviewers by two to one, and that affects how women directors and films about women are perceived, according to a new study from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

Movie reviews are far from gender neutral. Male reviewers not only outnumber female reviewers by two to one; they’re more likely to review movies featuring male protagonists rather than female ones, and when they review movies directed by female directors, they are less likely than female reviewers to mention the director and to offer positive comments about her work.

Those are the major takeaways from a new report, Thumbs Down: Female Critics and Gender, and Why It Matters, released today by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, headed by Martha Lauzen.

The latest edition of the study, which was first conducted in 2007, focused on U.S.-based writers working for print, broadcast and online outlets whose reviews are aggregated on the Rotten Tomatoes website, and it looked at 4,111 reviews written during the spring of 2018.

The study found that the majority of the reviewers — 68 percent — were men, and that they were slightly more prolific than women, with the average man writing 13 critiques to the average woman’s 11. That meant men ended up writing 71 percent of all the reviews to women’s 29 percent.

The men dominated in every job title category. They comprised 77 percent of film critics and 68 percent of freelancers. They also dominated the various types of media, making up 68 percent of newspaper reviewers and 70 percent of trade reviewers. Additionally, they dominated the reviews' various genres — for example, men wrote 78 percent of the reviews about horror movies and 70 percent of the reviews about dramas. Women commanded their largest share of the pie when it came to comedies, where they reviewed 41 percent of the total, but even then men scored higher with 59 percent.

Those statistics might not be surprising, but the study went on to document how male and female reviewers differed in their treatment of films centered around women and also of women directors. “These gender imbalances matter because they impact the visibility of films with female protagonists and/or women directors, as well as the nature of reviews,” Lauzen noted.

Female reviewers were more likely to mention the name of a woman who’d directed a film and to use exclusively positive comments when talking about her work. Fifty-two percent of the reviews written by women, as compared to 38 percent of those written by men, included complimentary comments about the woman director. In contrast, when talking about a male director, male reviewers were more likely to offer up complimentary words than their female counterparts by 32 percent to 23 percent.

“Something as simple as the mention of a director’s name in a review and labeling that individual as a ‘master’ of the filmmaking craft can shape the narrative surrounding the director,” Lauzen said.

In other findings, the study reported that women reviewers were more likely than men to write about movies with female protagonists. Fifty-one percent of the reviews written by women, but only 37 percent of those written by men, looked at movies that contained at least one female protagonist. Women reviewers also watched a higher percentage of films directed by women. Twenty-five percent of the films they reviewed were helmed by a woman, while only 10 percent of the films reviewed by men were. 

Female critics were also slightly more diverse than male critics. The women’s group was 83 percent white, 14 percent of color and 3 percent of unknown racial or ethnic identity. In the case of the men, 82 percent were white, 9 percent were of color and 9 percent of unknown racial/ethnic identity.