Elizabeth Akass on why the film industry needs more female critics.
In the past year several highly successful female-led films and TV shows have been released and received positive critical acclaim. Think Wonder Woman, Moana, Big Little Lies, and The Handmaid’s Tale, to name just a few. However, despite progress being made in increasing numbers of female-led or female-based films and TV shows, they are still incredibly outnumbered by films where female characters play insignificant roles and can be subject to over-sexualisation and objectification. On-screen female characters often lack the multi-dimensional depth and character development their male counterparts are given, and all too frequently exist only as a romantic or sexual conquest for the male characters, contributing little, if at all, to the overall storyline.
In many films where the protagonist is a male hero, like in James Bond, the female characters are under-developed and exist in such a narrow sphere of beauty and sex appeal that the audience never gets to know or understand them as people in their own right, and subsequently are left unaffected when they are killed off. This murdering of the ‘Bond girls’ is so frequent in the James Bond franchise that audience members fully expect it going into each film, and their killings are structured so similarly film to film that audiences are encouraged to almost see their deaths as a necessary plot device so that Bond can move on to his next sexual partner, supposedly emphasising his masculinity and sexual prowess.
This degrading treatment of women in film and TV does not need to be as explicitly obvious as it is in the Bond franchise for the same derogatory affect to take place; many films and TV shows contribute to this in much more subtle ways. This can be through having only one ‘token’ female main character, or no main female characters, limiting or excluding completely any female voices or perspectives on-screen, or the chance for realistic female friendships and relationships to be explored. It also narrows the spectrum of diversity for women on-screen, as amongst numerous varied and contrasting male characters that portray a multitude of different personalities and viewpoints, when comparatively few female characters are sharing their views or contributing to discussions audiences are denied an accurate representation of what interesting and dynamic female characters can provide a script.
This is evident in the fact that 33% of the films released in 2017 did not pass the bechdel test, where two named female characters have a conversation about anything other than a man, only narrowly improved in the last five years from 2012 when 37% of films did not pass this test. The clothing female characters wear can also limit them on-screen, when regardless of how strong, intelligent, and empowered a female character can be, in many cases what she wears will be a sobering reminder that whatever she is she must also provide sex appeal for her to be included in the story.
So why are female critics important?
Currently the vast majority of film and TV critics are male, and they generally do not take into consideration female representation when critiquing and rating a film, and often do not provide glowing reviews to female-led or female-based films, particularly comedies, even when they are loved by, and successful with, female viewers. Some example of these are Australia rated 6.6/10, Legally Blonde and Trainwreck both rated 6.2/10, Girls Trip rated 6.4/10, and Monster in Law rated 5.5/10 on IMDb. Audiences are more likely to watch films and TV shows with positive reviews, and when female-led content performs less well with critics, the number of people willing to pay to see the film, or tune in to watch the TV show, decreases.
So, the film or TV show performs less well with audiences and makes less money, and this means that moving forward film companies and TV networks are less likely to invest in making female-led content. It’s a domino effect. Critics’ voices matter, and they do have an influence on how well films and TV shows perform. If more women lend their voices to this area and become critics, over time female-led content will be more positively critiqued, it will attract larger audiences and make more money, and better female representation will be provided on-screen as film companies and networks will have evidence that proves that female-led content works and is in demand. It may also impact how films and TV shows with derogatory or limited female representation are critiqued, and the commonality of this content may decrease moving forward as well.
Having more female voices on the larger critic platforms such as newspapers or film company websites is ideal, however even smaller platforms, such as online magazines or individual people’s websites, will contribute a positive ripple effect and can be a stepping stone to the larger platforms. The need for more diversity on-screen is evident, and the more women, LGBTQI+ individuals, and people of colour and different cultural backgrounds get involved in the TV and film industries telling their stories, or as critics who can assess and analyse the content audiences are given from their own perspectives and backgrounds, the better we can all ultimately be represented on-screen.
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter: @ElizabethAkass