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Why Must Male Critics Muddy Feminist Conversations?

Why Must Male Critics Muddy Feminist Conversations?
Courtesy of Atlas Entertainment.

Why must male film critics muddy feminist conversations by holding women-driven movies to different standards? I’m looking right at you, Peter Rainer, of the Christian Science Monitor!

Mr Rainer, you gave Manchester-by-the-Sea an A on Rotten Tomatoes, but called Hidden Figures “resistably unorginal.” You gave a C+ to Arrival, and a B to Moonlight, but tan A to La-La Land. More to the point, you gave recent smash box-office hit, DC’s Wonder Woman, a B-, and last summer’s all female Ghostbusters reboot a D. Of Ghostbusters, about which you said, “as is so often the case with special-effects-heavy movies, the character comedy quickly gets trampled by the effects (in this case, not special).” Wow, sick burn, Peter.

As for Wonder Woman, the highest praise he has is that it’s “not half-bad,” for a superhero film. He also calls it “frisky,” which is kind of a weird word, and says it has “too much origin story exposition,” which makes me think he missed the point, because the literal entire plot of the film is Wonder Woman’s origin story. It’s an origin movie. Would you say Wolverine: Origins had too much origin exposition, Peter? No, you wouldn’t, and I know this because I read your review of it from 2009.

Now, Mr. Rainer notwithstanding, Wonder Woman has been getting great reviews almost across the board, and its $100 million opening weekend and $500 million gross to date speak for themselves—critics who apply transparent double standards to women-driven films are thankfully not the majority these days. However, I was still more than a little apprehensive in the lead-up to Wonder Woman’s release, because “not the majority” definitely doesn’t mean “not a thing anymore at all.”

Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

You know how it happens: a film about and by women is made in a major typically male-dominated genre (so, all genres except “chick flicks” and rom-coms), and is immediately met with criticism just for having the defining aspects of that genre. For instance, hit female centered comedy Bridesmaids garnered reviews critiquing it for the exact same stylistic hallmarks producer Judd Apatow spent a few years being worshipped for. Leonard Maltin of IndieWire said Bridesmaids “might as easily bear the title Women Behaving Badly,” which misses the point both of feminism and of Judd Apatow’s comedic style, which Bridesmaids draws from. Our Mr. Rainer critiques the gratuitous use of CGI in Ghostbusters, an action movie which will obviously involve CGI, due to the copious ghosts that need to be rendered onscreen. If this same standard were held to all genre movies, there wouldn’t be any genre movies anymore.

To clarify, I’m definitely not saying Wonder Woman and Ghostbusters are perfect films: Melissa Anderson of the Village Voice felt that Diana’s family friendly “love trumps hate” style politics weren’t going far enough for her—she wished for Diana to bring more of Themiscyra’s “appealing misandry” into the real world instead of leaving the Amazons and barely passing the Bechdel test for the whole rest of the film. Other critics, such as IndieWire’s Jude Dry and Camilla Long of the UK’s Sunday Times also find Wonder Woman too moderate; reminding us that one of the main writers of the Wonder Woman comics has confirmed Diana to be bisexual, a fact the movie didn’t even touch.

I, along with seconding the above (especially the “Make Wonder Woman Queer Again” bit), had a problem with how tacitly accepting Diana was of Victorian-era sexism and gender roles—instead of trying on hundreds of unwieldy outfits looking for a dress she could fight in, why doesn’t Diana insist on going over to the men’s section? She has a firey confrontation with some top British war officers, but she ultimately lets Chris Pine (as Steve Trevor) remove her from the room. I also had hoped that a movie already breaking so much ground might finally see fit to let a female superhero fight in armor that doesn’t leave her legs totally bare under a miniskirt. What kind of defense does that miniskirt provide? Is it made of Kevlar? Maybe she has on invisible leggings to match her plane? I also find it suspect that she goes into battle with her hair down—that would never have flown in my high school martial arts classes.

Re: Ghostbusters, I, like many, fell in love with Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann, and Thor’s Manic Musclebound Dream Boy character, but was pretty weirded out by the fact that the three white Ghostbusters are all clearly genius scientists, but then Leslie Jones’s character just works in a train station?! Why is the—“the” meaning “the only”—black character less educated and from a different socio-economic class than all the others, and also why are so many of her jokes based on laughing at various aspects of black culture? #Yikes.

Not to toot my own critical horn, but my criticisms above are way more constructive to the feminist project than critiques saying the CGI was overdone in a big-budget fantasy action movie, or that the characters didn’t act polite in a raunchy comedy. They start conversations about the shortcomings feminist cinema still has, instead of stopping conversation in its tracks with disingenuous criticism that’s really a thinly veiled refusal to be pleased.

The reason film criticism exists is as a venue for the kind of discussions that can lead to better films, and more informed film watchers. I don’t want to stop anyone from criticizing women-driven films—the exact opposite! I don’t want Wonder Woman to get its good or bad reviews for having a woman lead, I want its bad reviews to be related to how the movie furthered feminist aims. I want film criticism that elevates both our discourse, and our expectations.

© Giorgi Plys-Garzotto (6/20/17) FF2 Media

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.