Reading Film Reviews While Female

The violent subjection of women in Hollywood—and the fears, threats and deep sycophantism that shroud it—might just have begun its decline with revelations about Harvey Weinstein and multiple others. What will this mean for film critics, who are still players in the success or failure of an actor’s career? The most influential among them have helped create a popular film consciousness and language.

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Some of the same writers I’ve read and loved for decades in mainstream publications have indulged in semantic leering and the feitishizing of female bodies. They’ve made the blunt appraisal of women’s beauty and desirability a part of film critique, extending to the arts pages a strain of the degradation we now know many women endure behind the scenes.

In a 1993 New York Times review of Guncrazy, Vincent Canby describes Drew Barrymore’s pubescent character as “astonishingly pretty with her short blond hair and her cherry-red lipstick. She’s 16 and has no idea of the power her beauty might giver her.” Canby insists that Guncrazy “is beguiled by the looks of Ms. Barrymore’s Anita,” rather than the actor’s interpretation of the role—”an important part of the way the movie works.” It’s a prophecy borne of a middle-aged man’s titillation at the sight of an adolescent girl, and describes the oldest falsehood around about the rewards of male sexual attention for girls and women.

No man ever made such a statement about me as a kid or later, though this is exactly the prophecy I would have wanted. A man once did stop me on the sidewalk while I was riding my red bike with streamers on the handles near my home in Caracas, Venezuela, and pulled out his penis. I was nine. He walked right up to me and stroked it and asked in a kind voice if I knew what it was and did I want to touch it. Technically I knew what it was but had imagined it to be smooth and tubular. What he showed me looked like some sort of moldering evisceration. Also, I felt the man attached to this thing might kill me, though he made no such threat. I threw my bike down and ran for my life back to my house.

In a 1993 review of Body of Evidence, starring Madonna and Willem Defoe, Canby dispenses with the mock-avuncular sweetness reserved for Barrymore. The film is a dud, and if Madonna had been more “demanding,” then “perhaps the camera would have been more kind to her. Perhaps not.” It seems the movie’s erotic implausibility is no fault of Defoe, who’s simply too smart for the role. (“He’s an intellectual performer even at the peak of pleasure.”) Little is said of Madonna’s intellect; instead, Canby insists, “Body of Evidence is the kind of dopey movie that might work only with someone as stunning to look at as Sharon Stone, whose beautiful face in repose is sullen and sexy and not simply blank.” My face in repose showed its slack, even back then.

Canby asks, “What to do about poor Madonna?” with her “engagingly naked ambition.” His final blow? That for his taste, she is physically ill-suited to cinema. “The terrible truth: Madonna doesn’t look great in Body of Evidence,” he writes. “The sometime sex symbol is only evident in one quick scene in which she is lying naked on her stomach… Spread out this way, the torso is gorgeous. When she stands up, the torso seems to collapse into itself. The camera makes her appear dwarfish.”

Dwarfish. I had an a-ha moment upon reading this: Dwarfish is how I appear in most photographs. Dwarfish is how I probably appear walking on the sidewalks of New York to the one man who calls me Ugly Cunt, the other who says I Want To Eat Your Fish Pie and the other—dressed in a suit and so tall I have to strain my neck to look up at him, who orders me to Step Aside, though I don’t know how I’m in his way. Dwarfish is exactly the word for my own torso.

I read this review over and over. I wanted to feel Canby’s contempt for the star who redefined pop fame, made female sexual expression a centerpiece of it—yet, as an actor, failed to satisfy his voyeuristic appetites. I wanted to remember that any woman whose appearance doesn’t sate a man has no raison d’etre. It was an early lesson in my own life, though one I couldn’t quite swallow. I admired female actors who barely registered on the dick radar and who bucked norms. This means I watched every Amanda Plummer flick I could find.

Despite the death knells for film criticism in the digital age, with aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes, reviews and critics’ circle prizes remain a vital part of the machinery of film promotion. But like much of the media and film industry, it’s a male-dominant gig, with women making up fewer than a quarter of the membership in groups like The National Society of Film Critics, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle. According to research from the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, women wrote under 30 percent of “top critic” reviews on Rotten Tomatoes in the spring of 2016.

In his book The Complete History of Film Criticism, Jerry Roberts writes that, in its early days, film criticism was once considered a “soft” subject suited to women writers. This helped usher in the age of Pauline Kael, whose verdicts on films were feared by the top movie moguls making them. More recently, film criticism was also conjoined with feminist thought. But digitalization, layoffs and the growing prestige of films as a playground for high-brow observers of culture—like Leslie Fiedler, who wrote that only women are capable of writing Fabulous Books (read that piece several time to make sure I understood it, and until his disdain sunk in)—led to the genre’s consolidation around male bylines, despite important exceptions like Manohla Dargis, Stephanie Zacharek and other critics tracked by sites like Screen Queens. Male protagonists are written about far more frequently than female ones, and old sexual tropes remain.

Even with growing awareness of women’s objectification in pop culture, it’s hard to find more expansive views of actresses and their corporeality. In The Body and The Screen: Female Subjectivities in Contemporary Women’s Cinema, Kate Ince writes of British director’s Andrea Arnold’s film Fish Tank:

To anyone on the lookout for innovative filming of the active, mobile female body, the opening shot of Fish Tank is electrifying. Mia, the fifteen-year-old girl at the centre of the film’s story line, is leaning over to get her breath after an evidently heavy exercise session. The shot is frontal, and although Mia’s body …… fills only the bottom half of the frame, the heaving of her shoulders and torso and the sound of her breathing instantly grab and keep our attention….the only image of her face viewable in this opening scene is riveted to her breathing, exercising body. This opening scene of Fish Tank could serve as a model to both women directors and theorist-critics of how to approach the screening of embodied female subjectivity – head-on, with attention to activity, effort and movement, and without fetishistic fragmentation of the female body.

How many girls might be spared a life of self-loathing at their own unfuckable image if Ince’s broad framework—we are human bodies moving on a life continuum—were to prevail one day?

It’s revealing (and depressing) to read and re-read reviews in light of Kate Ince’s vision. In a 2007 New York Times review of Things We Lost In The Fire—with Halle Berry as Audrey Burke, a new widow coming to terms with her husband’s murder, and Benicio del Toro—Stephen Holden wrote: “Ms. Berry essentially reprises the kind of hysterical meltdown she performed in Monster’s Ball, which won her an Oscar as much for her nerve in becoming unstrung during sex as for her acting.”

Ms. Berry, in 2002, was the first black woman to receive an Oscar for Best Actress.

The fraught, cathartic scenes of intimacy in Monster’s Ball form part of the characters’ transformation, but Holden only sees a black woman having unhinged sex—the right black woman, and one whose success in the role he attributes to this “meltdown” eroticism, something he tells us is quite separate from the craft of acting.

In Things We Lost In The Fire, Audrey Burke and del Toro’s character—Brian, a recovering heroin addict—navigate the implications of her husband’s death. There’s a pained attraction between them that remains just that. But Holden writes with the bitter disappointment of a certain kind of massage client denied his happy ending. “Ms. Berry’s beauty is at odds with her character’s seeming asexuality,” he explains, “which is why Audrey’s lovey-dovey moments with Brian feel perfunctory.” If only Ms. Berry had just taken her clothes off and done her thing! Perhaps then he’d have given the film a better review.

Few critics seem to have as much fun sizing women up than The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane. (If you grumble about him, you’re not nuanced enough in your thinking, we’re told. He’s an Oxford-educated badass with an Englishman’s love of women and a scorched-earth wit.)

Lane’s gems are many: Out of Sight, he said in 1998, “confirms Jennifer Lopez’ status as a qualified voluptuary,” though Lopez—one of the few Latinas ever to become a major celebrity—is not “plausible” in her role as a U.S. marshall. Julia Roberts was “not sexy” and “more lovable than desirable” as of 2001—and will she “get married again and raise a little Bratt pack?” Whatever the case, she’s one “stoned foal” whose mouth Lane wants to “climb into.”

In Baby Mama, Tiny Fey, Lane noticed in 2008, wears a skirt so short “that Christy Turlington would struggle to carry off.” In the late 80s, my college roommate and I had pictures of the brat-pack supermodels on our dorm wall. As a child, I ripped out pictures from a Playboy I’d found stashed somewhere and taped them to the outside of my bedroom door for all to see. It was a matrix of eyes, hair, breasts and legs. Why did I do this at six years old? I don’t know. The bodies fascinated me. It was the 70’s. My parents decided the best thing to do was allow it, so they did, showing all visitors to our home my exhibit. Apparently, though, Fey “isn’t big enough to make a joke of her ripeness” but “she’s no Lily Tomlin.” She’s in between! Like Lucille Ball—and unlike “poor pokey Gwyneth” Paltrow, no match for a “bronzed, strolling” Jude Law in 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.

In the Sex & City movie from 2008, Kim Cattrall just won’t conform to acceptable norms of female sexuality and behavior—she does too much “slurping” and (gasp) “swallowing” with caricatured gusto and in close-up shots Lane found grotesque, as he did the film’s “blunt-clawed cattiness” and “bitch” sensibility, something he also refers to as “hormonal hobbits…all obsessed with a ring.” A male colleague of mine looked on in horror once as I wolfed down a sandwich, then expressed his disgust; another man accused me of “gobbling” with my “head in the plate” then broke off our date.

Then there’s the infamous treatment of Scarlett Johansson—who, in 2014, Lane remembered for her “backside barely veiled in peach-colored underwear,” “the honey of her voice,” for being one who “looks tellingly radiant in the flesh” as though “made from champagne.” It drew a sharp reaction from women in media, but Lane is apparently worth the website traffic and liquid brilliance. Even in woke times, feminist complaint is considered the stuff of censoring vulgarians—so Lane keeps ogling, as in his recent “top 10” reasons to see Wonder Woman. Seventh on this list is Gal Gadot’s beauty. “It may be skin-deep, but so is a reel of film.” This apparently is her weapon, one that hints at human depth and mystery, Lane says, trying for gravitas. Wonder Woman’s looks “flusters” men and leaves them “unmanned.”

Lane is also moved by the beauty-contestant roots of actresses. In the Wonder Woman list, he gives a litany of celebs to emerge from that world: Gadot, Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucia Bose and Sophia Loren—”who made the finals but failed to win, which makes you wonder what the other contestants were like.” In the piece on “Queen Bee” Julia Roberts: “she had already been voted one of twelve finalists in her high-school beauty pageant, which makes you wonder what the other eleven girls looked like.” Lane attempts to pass this off as a scholarly interest in the origin story of celebrities, but his writing suggests he’d rather have been a fly on the wall in those pageant dressing rooms, where body charts hang on the walls and distorted beauty standards are cemented.

Ad executives came regularly to my school in Caracas when I was in junior high. The teachers would line us up in the hallway, and the executives would walk around looking up and down our faces and bodies, up and down, up and down. They picked out blonde, sun-tanned and light-eyed children for their ads. No indigenous-looking Venezuelan kids, and no kid deemed Jewish-looking either. Then the rest of us were dismissed, and weeks later we’d see our schoolmates smiling over the Heinz ketchup or the Kool-Aid on Venevision TV. We were painfully envious, though we pretended not to care.

Some of Lane’s descriptions speak to a quaint aesthetic of women’s beauty and little more. Either way they give scant insight into the film in question, or the character, or woman. More cultural blood sport than serious criticism. As Manohla Dargis wrote recently in the Times: “Cinema has long served as a vehicle for male onanism, a space in which male fantasies about sexual power over women are expressed on screen and enacted behind the camera.” (And published in film reviews, I’d add.)

It’s seriously no wonder so many actresses who manage to make a career in this system are aged out by 40.

It’s too bad more male critics don’t follow the lead of The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, who seems to treat screen performers as fully-dimensional human beings. He appears to understand, in a recent observation about Mother! that now seems tepid, given recent news revealing far worse, the grim purpose women often serve for filmmakers and other artists. Mother!, Brody argues, is “a report from the realm of art, of male artists” and how many of them “draw their artistic and personal sustenance from the blood of young women,” in acts of “virtual vampirizing.”

Critics could resist such vampirizing themselves. But plenty want their actresses babe-fresh and dewy, as in a much-rebuked Vulture review by David Edelstein that insists “the only grace note in the generally clunky Wonder Woman is its star, the five-foot-ten-inch Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot, who is somehow the perfect blend of superbabe-in-the woods innocence and mouthiness.” Like Edelstein, I, too, was mystified by the accolades this film received. Unlike him, Gadot’s measurements were not a redeeming feature for me.

There’s a place for thinking about how bodies take up space on the screen, as Kate Ince argues. It’s especially relevant in physical comedy. But the locker-room dissections here, with their supermodel potshots, are not that. One can only imagine the possibilities that would open up if women, like men, were viewed holistically on screen, and their physicality—their movement and expression, and the camera angles used to show these—were judged for how effectively a character’s experience is embodied, rather than whether or not they turn men on.

One last remembrance of reading the great Anthony Lane: In his review of Showgirls, echoing the titty-bar laureates who made this film, he observed that Elizabeth Berkley’s “breasts are more expressive than her face.” He adds: “I saw to my surprise that even her lipstick was wearing lipstick.”

I supposed we can tell ourselves it’s the very gimmick of objectification in this crap film that’s being mocked. But it brings me to another unsubtle moment of my own: A man on the street was once turned on by my own mildly expressive breasts and shouted it out as though he were talking directly to them. I responded with an expletive and walked on by. He turned around, chased me, kicked me viciously in the abdomen and back, and threatened to smash against my face the beer bottle he held. I was suddenly visible, to him and to the universe. A friend he’d been walking with stood by and laughed. People on the street watched. Apologize, bitch! the man kept screaming as I cowered and he kicked. It was on the same block where I worked. A colleague finally called the police, but by that time the man had run off and they could do nothing. He didn’t leave me broken or bleeding, they said.

By nighttime, the red welts on my body had turned a dark blue. I crossed paths with my attacker many times after that. I never again looked directly at him or said anything, and he didn’t seem to remember me.

I was young when I became a devotee of the male reviewers excerpted here. Back then, I wanted to think like them, write like them and be them in some way. That never happened. But their words are stored in my memory like shards of glass in skin. Having said as much, I still read the champagne-and-honey drenched reviews of certain man-critics now and then, when theirs is the only opinion of a film I want to watch. I just hope for the best—brace myself for the creepiness, for the body memories, for the triggers—and read on.

Tal Abbady‘s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The LA Times, Literary Hub and other publications. She lives in Florida.

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