Two distinctly different big-screen films now showing—a raucous reboot of a male-dominated comedy classic (Ghostbusters) and a hot mess based on a British sitcom (Absolutely Fabulous)--have one thing in common: fearlessness. Neither is a perfect movie, but both are significantly better than much of the testosterone-driven drivel filling cineplexes of late.
Ghostbusters is the much-anticipated reimagining of the 1984 blockbuster, and it suffered, even before its official release, from derision by fanboys. Soon after its release, Ghostbusters was ripped, sad to say, by a number of male critics. According to Salon, 77 percent of critics who gave the film a thumbs down on Rotten Tomatoes are male.
David Rooney, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, panned the movie as "a bust," while Time Magazine's Stephanie Zacharek countered that it "glows with vitality." For every negative review from a male critic, there might be a positive review from a female critic; but, a closer examination reveals things are far from equal when it comes to film criticism in America. A new study by San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film reveals "in every type of U.S. publication, male reviewers dramatically outnumber female reviewers," usually by a 3-1 ratio. Additionally, the study reveals, the vast majority of "top critics" on Rotten Tomatoes—the popular aggregate of U.S. critic and audience reviews—are men (again by a 3-1 margin). Another interesting finding: editors tend to assign a larger proportion of films featuring female protagonists to female critics but, because the overall number of the nation's "top" critics on Rotten Tomatoes are male, many positive reviews written by women about female-centric films have been diluted in the website aggregate score. As examples, Salon reports last summer's Spy—starring Melissa McCarthy, who also stars in Ghostbusters—received all of its top-critic negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes from men; and last fall's female-centric Suffragette (starring Meryl Streep) garnered nearly 80 percent of its negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes from men. Streep, speaking at an April 2015 panel discussion on women in film, said, "The hardest thing for me, as an actor, is to have a story that men in the audience feel like they know what I feel like. That's a really hard thing. It's very hard for them to put themselves in the shoes of a female protagonist."
That wasn't always the case in Hollywood. Through much of the 1940s and 1950s, scores of films were released featuring strong female protagonists portrayed by Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne... the list goes on and on. But, for nearly 50 years, female roles in American movies have diminished to those of a girlfriend, mother or wife, who looks on adoringly from the sidelines.
In a Variety story, Dr. Martha Lauzen, co-author of the San Diego State analysis, wrote, "There is a growing disconnect or gap between what we might perceive as being the current status of women in film and their actual status."
Following back-to-back screenings of Absolutely Fabulous and Ghostbusters, I was struck by how rare an experience it was to watch two different but equally funny films featuring empowered female protagonists. I was also struck by how much I would like to see a steady stream of female-centric films.
As for the expensive but entertaining Ghostbusters, the gigglefest won't solve our problems with ISIS or the possibility that Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump could be our next commander in chief. But watching McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and, especially, Kate McKinnon was 110 minutes well spent and worth the price of full admission. As for McCarthy, She isn't given nearly enough credit for delivering joyous entertainment and nearly single-handedly rescuing the comedy genre.
Yet, somehow, it's still a hard slog to get female-centric films produced. Another study by San Diego State, this one in September 2015, revealed only 12 percent of the top grossing U.S. films featured female lead protagonists and during the 2014-2015 television season, women made up only 27 percent of creators, directors, writers and producers of prime-time TV shows.
To be clear, film and television criticism written by men or women should be uncompromised when it comes to quality, no matter the subject—but the system that determines which stories get told is rigged. Way too many men are driving the product a select group of other men, as critics, have become the arbiters of. For years, Hollywood has stoked the embers of racial inequality by not showcasing minority storytelling—particularly African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans—and it is abundantly clear Hollywood's lack of opportunity for women storytellers has been sustained by an influential group of male critics with their ongoing, measurable derision for female-driven films.