Chaz Ebert, the late film critic Roger Ebert’s wife, introduced a new experiment at his eponymous site today: a week of reviews, essays, and dialogues written entirely by women (including yours truly, considering nine of the most memorable performances by women this year). Chaz explains:
Sometimes when I read certain movie reviews I know instinctively that a female critic could have brought something different to the party, a morsel of thought untapped by the male critic. Of course this doesn’t happen with every movie. There is, more times than not, a critical consensus that has nothing to do with race, or gender or age. However, how do we know? Most of the reviews we read are by men, and usually of movies that are about men.
What if we had a week of articles and reviews by women? That’s the experiment I want to try this week at Rogerebert.com. This is something that Roger was also interested in doing, that we discussed several times, particularly when we could see a difference in our own thoughts about a movie, and we could pinpoint it to gender. Men and women are just raised differently in our society and so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we may think differently.
One of the things I think is striking about the experiment is that the ability to fill an entire week’s coverage with work by women is a reminder of just how many women are writing film criticism, and criticism in general. This is not to say that you can’t find female political correspondents, or investigative journalists, or even prominent female sports reporters. But the concentration of women in criticism is higher than in any other area of journalism I’ve worked in, and women occupy an impressively large number of important positions in criticism.
In film, there’s Manhola Dargis at the New York Times, Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post, Betsy Sharkey at the Los Angeles Times, Dana Stevens at Slate, Claudia Puig at USA Today and Karen Durbin at Elle. The concentration’s even more intense in television, where Emily Nussbaum is the critic at the New Yorker, Alessandra Stanley is the chief television critic at the New York Times, Linda Holmes roves across television, film, books, and more at NPR, Maureen Ryan has the top TV job at Huffington Post, and Willa Paskin is the television critic at Slate. When the New York Times, which also has Michiko Kakutani as its chief book critic, announced its new lineup of Bookends contributors, six of the ten were women: Rivka Galchen, Zoë Heller, Anna Holmes, Francine Prose, Slate’s Stevens and Jennifer Szalai. Heller regularly burns up the pages on which her work appears at the New York Review of Books, which also regularly publishes women’s writing on subjects ranging from lesbian sex to sea monsters.
I’m not sure why women have been able to make such inroads on criticism as a profession, while remaining underrepresented fields, even those that involve commentary, like writing opinion columns at major newspapers. Maybe there’s some relationship between the idea that criticism isn’t hard news and women’s success there doesn’t threaten traditional male preserves in hard news. Maybe it’s that there’s some flexibility in many criticism jobs, which means that wanting to spend some time caring for your family doesn’t have to be seen as a dereliction of duty or a lack of commitment to your subject matter. And of course there’s the fact that women are enormous consumers of culture and entertainment, and it makes sense to employ critics who share some priorities and experiences with your readers.
One of the virtues of having women in important critical positions also means that there are a lot of female lenses–and those lenses vary from critic to critic–being cast over works that are, in the case of film and television, primarily produced by men. If culture is depicting us, we’re looking back at that culture and the people who produce it, and we’re in a position to say things about their successes, flaws, and abject failures. Chaz Ebert’s decision to publish a whole week of women looking at depictions of ourselves, and back at the men and women who gave us those depictions concentrates that experience, letting readers marinate in a wide range of female gazes. I don’t expect, as Chaz wrote, that our conclusions will be easily predictive based on our gender. But I do think it’ll be a new experience, and an exciting one, to see the world of art primarily through women’s eyes for a week.