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Thursday, 9 December 2010

In The Company Of Men: professional film reviewing in Melbourne


(warning: this column contains no mention of the film In The Company of Men. Which is a shame as it's a great film)


Who knew that seeing movies for free and then getting paid to tell people what you thought about them was a job that required a penis? Okay, maybe it doesn’t (unless you’re reviewing the films down at the Shaft cinema), but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you’re getting your reviews from the Melbourne media.

Some context for this outlandish statement: at The Age, of the five regular (well, four and Craig Matheson, who’s the regular fill-in) film critics, one (Phillipa Hawker) is a woman. At The Herald-Sun, the two critics – the omnipresent Leigh Paatsch and Sunday’s McEachen , who is based in Sydney - are male. At the two street papers, the film critics – Greg King at Beat, Anthony Carew at Impress – are male. The host of RRRs Film Buffs Forecast is male, as is Thomas Caldwell, the reviewer on RRR’s The Breakfasters. Triple J’s film reviewer until the end of 2005 was the (mostly) Melbourne-based Megan Spencer; she was replaced by the Sydney-based Marc Fennell (who also reviews on the Melbourne-based morning show The Circle). Luke Buckmaster writes about film for Crikey.com; Sean Lynch reviews for Web Wombat.com. As they say, the list goes on

[In the interests of full male disclosure, I review films for Fairfax website The Vine.com, The Big Issue, and the Geelong-based street paper Forte; the other Geelong-based film professional critic is The Geelong Advertiser’s Guy Davis]

Thankfully, the Melbourne reviewing scene isn’t entirely devoid of women; my co-blogger Rochelle Siemienowicz is the film editor at The Big Issue, where Melbourne-based reviewers Tara Judah (who’s also appeared on Film Buffs Forecast) and Carly Miller also appear, while Clem Bastow has proven to be a passionate advocate for film at The Vine. But Rochelle’s day job has reduced the amount of time she’s had to write reviews in recent years, Tara recently returned to Melbourne after a number of years overseas, and Clem only started reviewing films in 2010. That’s right: this is what a good year looks like when it comes to female film critics in Melbourne.

[despite my best efforts, no doubt I’ve overlooked some female critics, including Sydney-based Big Issue regular Alice Tynan. So for balance I left a few males off the list as well.]

What makes this imbalance even harder to explain (unlike, say, the gender imbalance in sports reporting) is that pretty much every single job related to that of film reviewer seems to have a far more equitable gender balance. Obviously, plenty of women are actors (not as many are directors, but they’re there too), and loads of films are aimed primarily at women. Beyond that, film publicists are almost always women; in my 15 plus years of reviewing I can count the number of male publicists I’ve dealt with on a regular basis on one hand.

Entertainment editors are often women: at the moment I work with female editors at all three venues I regularly submit film reviews to, and at The Big Issue the other three arts editors (I handle DVDs; they cover books, film and music) are women. The current editor of The Age’s EG is a woman, as is the entire editorial staff of that paper’s Saturday supplement A2 (books editor aside); for many years Claire Sutherland was the editor of The Herald Sun’s Hit section.

Out in the writing world, entertainment writers across the board can be and frequently are women: Stephanie Bunbury writes pretty much all the Schembri-free in-depth film stories in the A2, EG and elsewhere in The Age, while Neala Johnson has moved across from music writing to handle film interviews at The Herald-Sun. Music is slightly more male dominated, but even there high-profile women aren’t hard to find: the current writer of the EG’s Sticky Carpet column is a woman, for one.

Even in reviewing that other realm of images on a screen, television reviewers are often women. The editor of The Age’s Green Guide is a woman; of that paper’s three television columnists (Green Guide, A2, Sunday Age), two are women. While the Herald-Sun’s daily television reviewer is male, as is the editor of the Herald-Sun’s TV guide, that guide’s sole television columnist and reviewer is Diane Butler.

[In fact, the only area of television reviewing that is male dominated are the movie reviews: Leigh Paatsch does them for the Herald-Sun, and when Scott Murray isn’t providing them in the Green Guide, Craig Matheson steps in.]

To be fair, perhaps all this (clearly anecdotal) evidence means nothing. Perhaps there is no real overlap between those positions and film reviewing and I might as well be discussing the gender of the projectionists and popcorn sellers. But let's pretend all this does mean something: so where are the female film reviewers?

Part of the problem is simply that there aren’t many film reviewers full stop: in Melbourne – and therefore all of Victoria – you’d be lucky to find five people making a full-time living from reviewing at any one time. And since at least the turn of the century three of those people are Tom Ryan, Jim Schembri and Leigh Paatsch.

Film reviewing is not a job that has a high turnover either; critics are generally seen to get more authoritative as they age (unlike, say, music writers, where youth is often an advantage), so once someone scores a good job, either they leave in a hurry (upon discovering it’s not for them), or they don’t leave at all. So unless some new high-profile positions are created, or someone (God forbid) falls under a bus, there isn’t going to be a shift at the top of the ladder in Melbourne any time soon.

That said, this is an issue that extends all the way down the line. There simply aren’t that many women turning up to media screenings to review films in a paid capacity. So what might be the factors that are keeping women away?

It could just be the obvious: film reviewing is poorly paid, often erratic work that requires you to be available at short notice to attend screenings at inconvenient times. But wouldn’t that keep men away as well? In the wider scheme of things, that kind of job description would make it more likely for women to be involved, not less. Maybe it’s the reverse: film reviewing is seen as a fun, glamourous, cushy job that everyone would grab with both hands given the opportunity. But if that’s the case why aren’t more women going for it, considering their prevalence in related fields and seemingly similar fields of review?

Let’s take a different tack. Based on my half-arsed observations, “film critic” doesn’t seem to be a job for the young – while there are a number of reviewers for community radio and small publications on the far side of 50, reviewers under 30 are pretty rare (I started when I was 22; to the best of my knowledge, I was the youngest regular professional film critic in Melbourne until I was well into my 30s, though there are more reviewers under 30 now). I have no idea why: maybe they have to go through an academic career studying film before they can review Jackass 3D; maybe they need to spend five years as an accountant before realizing film is their one true love.

Based on that, here’s a supposition: if film reviewing is a job that, with notable exceptions, requires an age with at least a “3” at the front, maybe the reviewing door is opening just at the time when wanting to have a family might come to mind? Obviously not for every woman (it’s a pressure that would apply to men too, and there have been stay-at-home dads who’ve juggled reviewing careers), but it could make the numerous downsides to reviewing loom large – and in a field as small as professional film reviewing, if it puts one or two people off, that could make a big difference.

Film reviewing is fairly unfriendly to family commitments in general, what with odd working hours, often last-minute deadlines, low pay, and so on. Running all over town catching movies while pregnant wouldn’t be fun, and with a child it would be all but impossible to go to screenings on a regular basis without some serious child care (I do remember one female critic who used to bring her baby to screenings years ago… that didn’t really work out ). Not to mention that other media jobs – television reviewing, for example – can be done from home, while movie reviewers actually have to physically go to the movies. So perhaps for women working inside a large media organization a film reviewing job just doesn’t look as enticing as covering other forms of media - especially if the jobs just aren't available in the first place.

After all, the current chances of getting to the top - “the top” being a living wage - are pretty slim whatever your gender. Schembri’s been at the Age for over 20 years now, with no sign of leaving (and if he did, he might not be replaced: four reviewers at one newspaper is a lot), and Paatsch could easily be at the Herald-Sun for another thirty years. hanging around waiting for someone to step aside to make a living wage at reviewing is a pretty thankless prospect whatever your gender: any additional pressure finance-wise certianly wouldn't encourage women to stick around.

But why stop there with the wild theories. Most of the current crop of reviewers, even the ones in steady work, started off freelancing. Could it be that freelancing itself isn’t female-friendly? Well, it does have crap hours and low pay, but so do a lot of other writing gigs that seem to attract women just fine. Freelancing is competitive, but one way to get started in the reviewing field in the past was to work in PR and make enough contacts so that the move to freelancer came with a certain amount of locked-in work. Film PR is a field dominated by women, yet none of them seem to want to (or be able to) cross the street.

Maybe film reviewing is seen as the province of creepy male nerds, thus putting off women? Probably not – there are plenty of female film bloggers out there and they don’t seem deterred by howls of outrage over the latest Spider-Man casting decision. Maybe men have more free time to go to media screenings? Well, having a supportive partner (or family) is pretty much vital if you’re not making a living wage (which again, most people don’t) as a full-time critic. Are women more likely to support their men in their crazy dream of telling the world what they thought of Love and Other Drugs? Could be.

Maybe it’s a top-down problem. Perhaps film reviewing is seen by the (always male) chief editors at major newspapers - or was seen a decade or more ago, when the current lot of big names started work – as “man’s work”. That is to say, film is a proper artistic field that demands serious consideration from a serious (read: male) writer, unlike frivolous entertainments like television or pop music. This seems the most stupid theory, so there’s probably some truth to it.

If that theory was true in the past (surely it couldn’t be true today?), maybe it’s simply a matter of attitudes not shifting far enough in time? Could the only real difference between film reviewing and television reviewing in Melbourne’s daily newspapers in 2010 be that the old film critics moved on or died in the early to mid 1990s, and so were replaced by the men who hold those jobs today, while the old long-time television writers (Ross Warneke at The Age, Robert Fidgeon at The Herald-Sun) held on until the 21st century, and so were replaced by women when they finally shuffled off?

Clearly I have no real idea. And obviously whether any of this is a problem depends on whether you think the gender of a critic is important. If it’s not, sorry to have wasted your time. If it is, is it more important than experience? Can an experienced reviewer transcend gender to write reviews that see past those issues, or will they always have blind spots they can’t address? Is it a problem when only male voices are reviewing the latest chick-targeted Katherine Heigl rom-com, or does that film’s sheer awfulness transcend gender? And is it ironic that a man wrote this article, or does my girlish figure make up for it?

Anthony Morris

10 comments:

  1. Tee hee! Thanks for including that final line :)

    Female film critics who immediately spring to mind:
    Sydney Morning Herald's Sandra Hall
    Urban Cinefile's Louise Keller
    Filmink's Annette Basile
    And of course we can't overlook Margaret Pomeranz!

    But I agree, the overwhelming majority are male, which is indeed odd. Perhaps most women are far too sensible to sign up for such a terribly paying profession (!)? - ahem, not me. Obviously.

    I sure hope it has nothing to do with men being perceived as more inherently critical or 'rational' - please dear god tell me we've evolved past the Dark Ages!

    And the post-modern historian in me doesn't think we can or should 'transcend' our gender (or context in general) when it comes to reviewing - instead we should be aware, and engage with it. After all film is such a subjective experience, so the critic's context (just like the film's and the filmmakers') is inescapably present in our analysis.

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  2. Urban Cinefile's Louise Keller isn't so much a critic as a quote machine.

    To add to your list though, I'd like to add Cerise Howard, who reviews films on my 3RRR program, and blogs at www.alittleliedown.blogspot.com.

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  3. I probably should have made it clear(er) that the list of who does what where was researched entirely by me thinking about who I see at screenings on a regular basis - not any kind of actual research or effort. So any omissions are entirely due to my slackness - this is only meant to be me thinking out loud about an issue that's been on my mind for the last decade or so.

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  4. Anthony,

    Thanks for an engaging read; you raise some very interesting points. Whilst it would be impossible (& extremely contentious) for me to speak on behalf of "women" as a gender, I would like to offer some of my own, personal views on the matter.

    One of the reasons I personally decided to start writing about film was because it seemed very much to me that with the exception of some very talented academics and Amy Taubin (who writes regularly for Sight & Sound and The Village Voice) that a majority (please note I do not say all, but use the word "majority") of female "voices" as they pertained to film "criticism" were poorly informed and overwhelmingly unintelligent.

    Unfortunately, insofar as I can see, the problem is largely cyclical in nature. I venture that it has been historically problematic for intelligent, critical women to have their voices - and here I'd like to differentiate "voice" from "personality" - heard in the public arena. Subsequently the process of "progress" in this area was always going to be a challenge. Further, as is characteristic of any cultural discourse, the standard that exists becomes absorbed into the collective memory of individuals operating within the media but also filtering down to the general public.

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  5. [cont]

    From this it has to some degree become an expectation that women, even in 2010, are guided by passive, emotive, receptive spectatorial positionings, which, for all its untruth causes a problem that is worse still: publications then call upon women when they want/believe they will receive that very viewpoint because the perception is now that this is what female readers also want. The challenge then that this presents for female writers today is that we must constantly prove not only that we are capable of active, cognitive viewing practises which lead to thoughtful criticism and analysis, but also that this is not something anomalous to our gender and that therefore female readers want the same thing.

    The other reasons offered as they relate to a woman’s personal family life or her inclination to take up a poorly paid freelance job, etc, are in essence indicators that can only be attributed to individuals and not the female gender as a whole (these points would be varyingly contributable to male reviewers’ decision to take up the profession also).

    Finally, as to whether or not “an experienced reviewer [can] transcend gender to write reviews that see past those issues” is a entirely separate issue that opens up further questioning of a reviewer’s personal make-up and whether or not that should be, or to what extent that arguably intrinsically is, impressed upon their writing. Either way, as one might posit it to be, this is again extraneous to the discussion insofar as it concerns gender in the first instance. The very problem we deal with is in assuming that gender includes these personal attributes. Therefore the problem remains that the very idea of gender is still historically and ideologically loaded so that a majority of individuals believe it to encompass any or all of these issues. Thus, superfluous and illogical factors are attributed to the female gender and the only apparent difference that gender makes is that ours (the female gender) is still, persisting to and no doubt beyond this day, loaded with negative connotation. Unfortunately, this connotation that we must continue to work tirelessly to escape from is ironically, and paradoxically, fragmented by our very individualities.

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  6. Yes, perhaps I should have made a greater distinction between personal factors and gender-based ones. The number of paid critics in Melbourne (and I don't pretend to know anything about the wider situation) is so small though, an individual's personal factors are always going to play a part.

    Put another way, when Megan Spencer left Melbourne in 2004 for entirely personal reasons (she moved to Sydney to work on the SBS Movie Show), the number of full-time female reviewers under 40 here fell by half.

    I guess on one level another version of this article would simply be me asking every single paid critic in Melbourne: "explain how you got to where you are today". And then from there I would somehow be able to uncover the truth behind each person's employment history to reveal the hidden connections not mentioned in their "official" employment histories (who got the job because they had a mate in the right place, who got the job because someone else got sacked in a hurry and they were handy, who has the job now because they can't be sacked, etc).

    Maybe with all that to hand, we could edit out the individual and begin to approach a more universal understanding of how things have reached this state in this small corner of the world.

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  7. Sorry Luke! (see my earlier comment about making all this up off the top of my head). All fixed now (apart from all the other mistakes, obviously)

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  8. The gender bias identified here is real, but I'd emphasise that "professional reviewing" is a very narrow slice of the broad spectrum of film criticism - and certainly there's been no shortage of notable woman film critics in Melbourne, or Australia, over the past few decades. Among younger writers not yet mentioned are Lesley Chow (3CR, Bright Lights) and more than half the contributors to the excellent website Screen Machine. The long list of distinguished Melbourne woman film scholars includes Felicity Collins, Therese Davis, Barbara Creed, Anna Dzenis, and many more, some of who moonlight as reviewers, or have in the past. And if we're including Sydney critics, let's not forget the great Sylvia Lawson, who was reviewing for Nation magazine in the 1960s, and can now be read regularly online at Inside Story!

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  9. I want it known that at no point has it been confirmed that Marc Fennell is a male.... he does appear on The Circle, after all

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