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Everyone's a critic, unless you're a woman 

by Marrit Ingman

My friend, former professor, and film-critic colleague, Gerald (Gerry) Peary, wrote an interesting feature last February for the Boston Phoenix: “After Pauline: Where are the women film critics?” The article’s thesis is that with Pauline Kael and Janet Maslin absent from the New York Times due to death and retirement, female reviewers are painfully absent from daily newspapers’ mastheads.

An organization called Women in Film and Video/New England (WIFV/NE) held a panel on this topic at the Boston Public Library. Gerry, who is a big thinker about the state of arts criticism and its role in the entertainment marketplace, was there. He wondered, “The pool of women desiring to be critics is far smaller than that of men. Is it because females are socialized not to be confrontational? Is criticism easier for guys after a geeky childhood of horror movies?” Ultimately “nobody on our panel came up with an answer.”

I have an answer, and it’s nowhere in the essay. It's motherhood.

Well, that’s part of the answer. The other part is that the Kael-era halcyon heyday of female critics has ended for women, in part because the newspaper business is different than it was four decades ago (according to Gerry, all the major critics in Boston during the 60's were women, and now none are). It’s harder for anyone to become a staff critic anywhere, let alone at a daily. Newspapers don’t hire people anymore. Film critics -- like myself --  dwell in a murky state of semi-employment. We are “regular contributors.” We are like the contract hires, consultants, and part-timers in other industries. It’s a change in America’s business culture, and it affects women disproportionately because most of us place a higher premium on flexibility, either by choice or by necessity. Especially when we have family obligations.

In the article, Gerry quotes Kathleen Carroll (a reviewer for New York’s Daily News for thirty years) in describing staff critic Loretta King, who published as “Kate Cameron.” King was a “spinster” who lived with her sister, a widow. These facts are pointed out as some kind of nostalgia trip—“These were the days when women wore hats to work, and gloves!” Carroll pines—but they actually contain the answer to the question posed in the essay. If you’re not a spinster, you can probably forget about having any kind of real employment as a journalist, especially in the extremely closed world of arts criticism. You’re a mommy. Maybe you can write a column for the lifestyle pages or pick up a screening of Chicken Little nobody else wants. You can review a book in your spare time -- perhaps a nice but literary “women’s book” --  Alice Hoffman, for example. You won’t have time for anything else, and none of the senior staffers want to deal with it anyway because they’re real writers.

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Whenever we examine an area of life in which women do not seem to participate, the reasons for these conditions have little to do with personal preference or a lack of ambition, no matter what Lawrence Summers suggests. They are thornier matters of economics, unpaid and paid labor, and the workplace’s demand for “zero-drag” employees. There is sexism, but it is institutionalized, not merely interpersonal. I, for example, am not individually oppressed by the editors for whom I write. On the contrary, they are extremely supportive. But I cannot attend a screening at a moment’s notice: I have a preschool child in half-time day care, and I am married to a spouse with a full-time job. I can’t always roll with the punches when a print doesn’t show up or UPS is late with the 3-D glasses for Shark Boy and Lava Girl. When my son was an infant, I couldn’t spend all day reporting from the set of the remade Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When I have a screening in the evening, I have to make sure my husband won’t be running late at a faculty meeting. The only assistance I have in raising our son is the help I pay for. When I was little, I could go down the street and chill with my neighbors if my mom needed to run a complicated errand or go to a PTA meeting. Those were different times -- people were more compassionate and helpful -- and more to the point, American workers were salaried then. My father brought home a consistent paycheck from his work in road and bridge construction (he was not, as I am, paid for each contribution after the work was finished), and when 5:00 came, he didn’t have a pager turned on or IM or e-mail.

My career as a female film critic, if we are to call it that, happens in fits and starts during the day and overnight. While I am playing in the backyard with my son after school is out, an e-mail could be landing in my inbox asking me to attend a screening that evening. It’s more than a request. It is my work life. It’s money to pay for preschool tuition, it’s help with the mortgage. It’s my answer to the question, “So what do you do?” It is the professional identity I have been building over the course of my formal education. And it is extremely unstable. The e-mail might arrive or it might not. I might miss it or I might catch it.

It is also the extension of my lifelong love of movies. I can’t quit it, as much as I long to. I care about movies. I have studied them for ten years. I have taught film to college undergraduates and eighth graders in an after-school program and everyone in between. Movies are my passion. I have absolutely no fear of being confrontational about them. I will stay up hours after my family has gone to bed, after our housework is done, raving about World or Before the Fall in print. I will get up in my pajamas and call a filmmaker in Zurich for an interview while my son is eating his oatmeal. I will take any assignment and hand it in early. I care deeply about my profession, and it hurts like hell that I can’t participate in it. But women have to choose between movies and life. Just as movies have been dumbed down for thirteen-year-old boys, the industry of writing about them has turned to piffle. Critics aren’t critics anymore. Where once we were scholars and writers, we’re turning into swag whores and podcasters—and the more free time you have for that, the more you’ll work.

I’m surprised anyone is a daily staff critic anymore. But I’m not surprised that women aren’t.
 About the Author:
Marrit Ingman
is a freelance writer, film critic, occasional educator, and constant mother. She is a frequent contributor to the Austin Chronicle, and her writing on popular culture has also appeared in Brain, Child, Fertile Ground, Alternet.org, Clamor, and Venus. Her first book, Inconsolable: How I Threw My Mental Health out with the Diapers, describes her experience with postpartum depression and was published in 2005 by Seal Press.


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