MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Male vs. Female? On Double Standards in Film Criticism

A comment on a post over on Glenn Kenny’s blog got me pondering: Do the mostly male, mostly heterosexual writers who dominate the business of reviewing films have two standards — one by which they review films aimed at women, and another by which they judge films aimed at men — and does such a double-standard go beyond the men who write those reviews to permeate the comments sections of blogs dominated by men?

Is there, as the commenter suggests, a subtle form of sexism inherent in the way in which these men give a hall pass to fantasy-fulfillment male-bonding flicks featuring guys buddying around, playing a lot of poker, and drinking a lot, and banal escapist action crap (see: Transformers and anything with the words “Fast” and “Furious” in the title) while gagging over films aimed at the more emotional, romantic sweet spot that films marketed to a female audience target? Or are those critics just writing based on their own visceral response informed by what they’re relating to in their own lives?

Sexism? Well, yes … and no.
I suppose you could call me sexist for not generally being a fan of “guy flicks,” but I swing both ways … I don’t like rom-coms much either. Film criticism is not and never will be an objective science, it’s a purely subjective art that’s influenced very much by who the writer is as a person, and even what’s going on in that person’s life at any given moment. We can try as hard as we like to judge a film purely on its objective merits, but what we respond to or don’t in a film is a very personal thing, and the job of a critic is to tell his audience not just what he liked or didn’t about a film but why, thereby giving his readers some perspective by which to judge whether to see it (or, if they’ve already seen it, whether they agree with the reviewer’s take on it).
For instance, as a mother of five I probably have a higher tolerance for family fare than some other writers might, and when I review a film like Percy Jackson and the Olympians, while I’m judging the film on its merits as film, I’m also taking into consideration the audience at which the film is aimed (my kids) and whether I think it does a good job of meeting their expectations. I’m not judging Percy Jackson against Citizen Kane or Vertigo, I’m contrasting and comparing it to other like fare aimed at the same demographic.

Which isn’t to say I think kids flicks should get a free pass on stupidity because they’re aimed at younger folk — I don’t. But I do take into account that those films are not made for the type of person who lives for seeing the latest Harmony Korine or Jim Jarmusch film at the hipster arthouse cinema. Of course you don’t have to be 13 to enjoy a Harry Potter flick, or wear a pocket protector to see the merits of the newest Star Trek, but if you’re not a 13-year-old girl you’re unlikely to find a lot to respond to in Hannah Montana: The Movie.

Take Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel which, thanks to “date nights” with my kids I got to sit through three times. Did I particularly enjoy the film on any of those outings? Nah. I paid attention to it and rolled my eyes a lot through the first viewing, dozed off and on through the second, and spent most of the third pondering how many meetings took place discussing the issue of animated animal characters running around with shirts and dresses on and no underpants, and whether the addition of girl chipmunks in minidresses with no panties underneath added any interesting layers to the discussion.

Should the girl chipmunks wear undergarments? But what kind of undergarments? White cotten granny panties? Girly day-of-the-week panties? Hipsters? Thongs? And wouldn’t some feminist writer be likely to get up in arms if the studio decided that girl chipmunks had to wear panties when the boy chipmunks don’t? These are the kinds of things you think about when you’re sitting through a film like Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel for the third time.

I’m also a fairly feminist female critic, and I have practically zero tolerance for most of the  “chick flicks” that are made because women of my age, education and income bracket supposedly swoon to see them. How many films do we need to see about the ways in which people fall in love? The ways in which they fall out of love are a million times more interesting. I guess a lot of women do really get into films like The NotebookBride WarsConfessions of a Shopaholic and Dear John, but I am not among their number. Does it make me sexist that I think chick flicks generally suck, or does it merely reflect that if I didn’t like banal rom-coms before, I’m even less inclined to like them or even want to see them at all in my current, in-the-middle-of-divorce, I-never-want-another-relationship-as-long-as-I-live state of mind?

I should pause here to note that I’m not speaking here of all male film critics or bloggers, or even every male-dominated film site; I’m friends with many male critics who could be said to be as feminist as I am, and if they do actually harbor misogynistic notions, they’re at least smart enough to keep the lid on it when chicks are around. But the thing is, what happens on some of the male-dominated sites is these men all get to talking about what they think about these films and there’s this locker-room mentality, and they tend to forget there are women present as well. They talk like they would if they were sitting around a poker table on guys’ night, and misogynistic as the chatter gets sometimes, it’s also kind of fascinating, in a morbid curiosity sort of way, to get a peek at what men (or at least these particular men) really think and say when they think no women are listening. It’s like they let their inner adolescents out to play there, and it’s not always a pretty sight.

I’ve gone back and forth on whether it’s beneficial for women, particularly feminist women, to read and comment on male-dominated sites. At the moment, I’m on the “yes” side of that question, because I really do think it’s helpful for the men who are commenting there to get a female perspective — even the occasional feminist bitchslapping — to remind them it’s not just a boys’ club, and to perhaps give them something to think about.

But I guess I don’t really think there’s such a double-standard among white hetero male film critics, or if there is, I think you could equally make the case that other groups — feminist women, writers for religious publications, gay and lesbian writers, what have you — could all be said to each harbor their own prejudices. There are some femme-oriented film sites out there, for instance, that seem to go out of their way to find sexism in everything; while I think it’s a good thing for women writers to call men on their bullshit when necessary, I’m not particularly in favor of spinning every story in a search of the sexism bullseye.

The real question is … is it a good thing that there are so many perspectives out there to read? Or a bad thing that some of us might find the opinions of others distasteful?
– by Kim Voynar

March 1, 2010

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“I’m an ardent consumer of Fassbinder. Years ago, when I heard that he was a big admirer of Douglas Sirk, I went straight to the source — to the buffet Fassbinder dined out on — and found that there was plenty more. And what palettes! I love the look of Fassbinder movies. Some of them are also hideous in a way that’s really exciting. When you go to Sirk, it’s more standardized. The movies produced by Ross Hunter — those really lush, Technicolor ones. I know Sirk was a painter and considered himself a painter first for a long time. He really knew how to work his palettes and worked closely with whatever art director he had. I was a guest speaker for the Technicolor series at TIFF Bell Lightbox and we screened Magnificent Obsession. To prepare for that, I watched the movie with a pen and paper. I wroteto down the names of the palettes. Soon, I realized those general color terms weren’t good enough. I used to be a house painter and I remembered the great names of the 10,000 different colors you could get in a paint chip book. So, I started to try to name the colors. Sirk used 100 different off-whites, especially in the surgery scenes in Magnificent Obsession!”
~ Guy Maddin On Sirk And Fassbinder

“I’ve never been lumped in with other female directors. If anything, I’ve been compared way too much to male filmmakers whom I have little to nothing in common with except visual style. It’s true that women’s filmmaking is incredibly diverse, but I am personally interested in how female consciousness might shape artwork differently, especially in the way female characters are constructed. So I actually would encourage people to try to group women’s films together to see if there are any threads that connect them, and to try to create a sort of canon of women’s films that critics can talk about as women’s films. One reason I want to be thought of as a female filmmaker is that my work can only be understood in that context. So many critics want to see my work as a pastiche of films that men have created. When they do that, they deny the fact that I am creating my own world, something completely original. Women are so often thought of as being unable to make meaning. So they are allowed to copy what men make—to make a pastiche out of what men have created—but not to create original work. My work comes from a place of being female, and rewrites film genres from that place. So it’s essential for me to be placed into a history of female-feminist art-making practice, otherwise it’s taking the work completely out of context.”
~ Love Witch Writer-Designer-Director Anna Biller