Film Forward

When Discussing Diversity In Entertainment, There's One Group We Shouldn't Overlook

If you ever read movie reviews, you can make a difference.

While it's always a good time to discuss the need for diversity in all aspects of the entertainment world, there's one group in particular that is frequently left out of the conversation — critics. As we continue the discussion and seek solutions to problems of representation among the people who create films and television programs, we should be careful not to overlook the people who review them.

Just last month, actress Jessica Chastain told Variety that critics are "a group that still remains quite from one perspective," an issue she's touched on previously. Chastain added how important it is that the people who tell moviegoers "what is worthwhile" represent many different voices. This could make a big impact on creating a more inclusive industry as a whole.

"It's really quite a simple formula," Jennifer Merin, president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists (AWFJ), told A Plus. "Audiences listen to critics, and the industry listens to audiences. A more diverse field of film critics addresses the interests of and curates films for a broader range of moviegoers, who will, in turn, drive the market for a more diverse range of films." 

Unfortunately, we're still waiting for that happen. A 2016 study by San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, for instance, found that only 27 percent of the "Top Critics" on Rotten Tomatoes were women. Interestingly, a greater proportion of the movies reviewed by women featured female protagonists than those reviewed by the men, hinting at the impact more female critics could have on which films receive attention.

Several months before the San Diego study was released, actress Meryl Streep spoke about conducting her own analysis of Rotten Tomatoes, as well as the New York Film Critics Circle, calling the numbers she discovered "infuriating" during a press conference for Suffragette in 2015. "If the Tomatometer is slighted so completely to one set of tastes, that drives box office in the United States, absolutely," she said.

A similar study hasn't yet looked at how Rotten Tomatoes stacks up in terms of racial diversity, but an examination similar to Streep's of the New York Film Critics Circle members, lists such as Complex's "25 Best Movie Critics of All Time," or a simple Google search for "top film critics" show that the group isn't just overwhelmingly male, but overwhelmingly White as well.

"Entertainment can be a very subjective industry; often TV shows and films resonate with people because something in their background or personal experience is reflected in the program," NPR TV critic Eric Deggans told A Plus. "So it's important to have a wide range of people evaluating the arts so that there is a wide range of life experiences and backgrounds used to conclude whether something is artistically successful or not. Often, I think the boundaries of success are a bit too limited in pop culture because there isn't a wide enough diversity of people among the critics evaluating the work."

It's important to include critics in the conversation about entertainment diversity, and the fact that high-profile stars such as Chastain and Streep are using their platforms to raise awareness is promising. But the next question we must ask is how to effectively push for change, both inside and outside of the industry.

Organizations such as the African American Film Critics Association and the Women Film Critics Circle — as well as the aforementioned Alliance of Women Film Journalists — are working to support voices that are frequently ignored in mainstream media, and call attention to a more diverse group of creators through annual awards.

"AWFJ amplifies the voices of women who write about film — a group still very underrepresented in all forms of media — and focuses film industry and audience attention on the work of women behind and in front of the lens," Merin said her organization, which was founded in 2006. The AWFJ website highlights feminist Movies of the Week, with reviews written by women, as well as spotlighting a female creator once a month. "Raising awareness through these ongoing AWFJ projects opens opportunity for women in film and hopefully will lead to a gender-equal playing field."

There's also progress being made in more general critics' organizations. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Online Film Critics Society announced its inaugural members, noting in a press release that diversity was a priority  — the 20 members include eight women and six men of color. "When I came up with the idea to start LAOFCS, I knew that I wanted our group to accurately represent the city of Los Angeles and the people who make up the city's culture," said founder Scott Menzel.

But you don't have to be in the field of entertainment journalism to make a difference. As a consumer, being conscious of which reviews you read can be just as important as which movies and TV shows you choose to support with your viewership. 

"Read a wide array of critics and support those who do a good job," Deggans suggests. "Let them know on social media when you appreciate their work, both by passing it along to others in your circle and by messaging the critic directly. Pay attention to the diversity level of organizations covering pop culture and entertainment, and let them know that you value diversity among the journalists pursuing this work." 

Once you're done reading and sharing the reviews, make sure you're voting with your wallet at the box office by supporting inclusive projects, before returning to an online or in-person community to continue the conversation.

"AWFJ invites all to join our THE FEMALE GAZE FORUM group on Facebook, where they can post information and recommendations about 'feminist' films and projects, applaud special achievements by women in film, and engage in substantive discussions about how to equal the playing field for women in film," Merin suggests, in addition to creating viewing clubs and supporting the films recommended on the organization's website. "Women represent more than 50 percent of the movie-going population. We want to see films that tell our stories and reflect our interests."

Diversity in entertainment goes beyond just the faces on our screens. All aspects of the industry should reflect the people who consume its media. Chaz Ebert, widow of film critic Roger Ebert and publisher of RogerEbert.com, put it simply in The Daily Beast in 2015: "It is critical that the people who write about film and television and the arts — and indeed the world — mirror the people in our society."

As more individuals in powerful positions speak out on the issue, and as filmgoers and television viewers show their support for inclusive projects and diverse perspectives, we move closer to that reality.

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

Cover image:Casimiro PT/ Shutterstock.com

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