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Does the gender of a film reviewer matter?

The women behind CherryPicks plan to take on Rotten Tomatoes, where around 70 per cent of the “top critics” reviewing are men. It’s about time, says Kate Muir

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By Kate Muir on

Who decides what’s good at the movies? That’s the question asked this week by CherryPicks, a new film website that will only champion reviews by female critics. The women behind CherryPicks plan to take on that other fruit-based aggregator site, Rotten Tomatoes, where around 70 per cent of the “top critics” reviewing are men.

Does the gender of a reviewer matter? Well, as I write, Rotten Tomatoes has a green-splattered “Rotten” rating for the new Lara Croft Tomb Raider film, starring a kickass Alicia Vikander. But the boos are mostly from the 61 male critics so far; of the 22 female critics, 14 gave the Lara Croft reboot a positive review. From a female-only perspective, that film would have had a “Fresh” rating on the “Tomatometer”. And “Fresh” translates into cinema ticket sales, influenced by a site that gets 26 million hits a month.

In these revolutionary days of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, as well as the UK’s 50:50 campaign for Equal Representation for Actresses on screen, it is no surprise that this hegemony of male criticism has met with… criticism. Plans to launch the CherryPicks website were announced this week at the SXSW film festival in America by director and producer Miranda Bailey and digital entrepreneur Rebecca Odes.

“The timing is perfect,” said Odes. “The male-dominated culture of Hollywood has reached a breaking point. It’s time to start building the Hollywood of the future – one that recognises the multi-tiered problem of gender bias – and corrects it every step of the way.”

Bailey added: “For years now, our industry has been proclaiming that we need change to include more minorities and females on both sides of the camera. How can we possibly change what consumers consider good and worthy content if the majority of critics who tell them what to want are predominantly older white males?”

Derogatory labels like “chick flicks” and “chick lit” belittle women’s stories, yet their performance at the box office is often exceptional – top 10 mainstream hits like Wonder Woman and Beauty And The Beast prove that, while indie film Lady Bird was recently nominated for an Oscar. Women cinemagoers vote with their feet, often against the critical consensus.

CherryPicks wants to be in the vanguard of changing the consensus by offering reviews and content from exclusively female critics in film, television, music and other arts. An email subscription, Cherry Bites, will also spotlight female perspectives on media. With slightly more subtlety than Rotten Tomatoes, the ratings will be four-tiered:

Bowl of Cherries: Great. Must see.

Pair of Cherries: Good. Recommended.

Single Cherry: Mixed. You might like it; you might not.

The Pits: Self-explanatory.

The dominance of the male gaze has blinded us to female stories for centuries, allowing them to be dismissed as domestic or sentimental.

Of course, we all have favourite critics we trust, male and female, and we are smart enough to distinguish between them, but the landslide of mansplaining is hard to ignore. The opinions often could not be more different

Here’s Nigel Andrews, of the Financial Times, on Tomb Raider:

“If I see this silly woman clambering through jungles once more – formerly Angelina Jolie, she is now Alicia Vikander – I'll go stark, napalm-wielding mad.”

And here is Anne Cohen, of the Refinery 29 website:

“The physical and emotional toll of being Lara Croft is more evident in this film than it ever was before: watching Vikander heave herself up onto the wing of a rusty World War II plane perched over a waterfall is to feel your own biceps burn.”

While female critical voices can be heard online, there is near silence from women in the mainstream media, particularly in the UK. Before becoming a screenwriter last year, I was the chief film critic of The Times and was often the only woman in a dark screening room filled with men. Now, with the exception of Larushka Ivan-Zadeh at Metro, all the chief film critics on UK newspapers, from The Guardian to The Sunday Times, are men.

Obviously, it is impossible to call for “inclusion riders” to bring in more diverse and female critical voices, in the way that best actress winner Frances McDormand suggested at the Oscars for the film industry. But clearly a tipping point has been reached and sites like CherryPicks will allow women to search more easily for the opinions they trust.

Many women are exhausted and exasperated by the endless fawning over the work of male “auteurs” and “geniuses”, particularly when those include directors of dubious repute like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. The dominance of the male gaze has blinded us to female stories for centuries, allowing them to be dismissed as domestic or sentimental.

In fact, as American media critic Lili Loofbourow wrote recently, we hardly even merit the male gaze. It is more a “male glance” of dismissal: “We all do it, and it is ruining our ability to see good art. The effects are poisonous and cumulative, and have resulted in a huge talent drain. We have been hemorrhaging great work for decades, partly because we are so bad at seeing it.” Time to CherryPick our critics, then.


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