Women in Criticism, and Sexism

Criticism, contrary to what many people seem to believe, is an art. It’s not something that people do because they fail at doing something (in fact, some of the most famous critics are also experts in the body of work being discussed as active participants in it — well-regarded authors, for example, routinely review books). It takes time, and practice, and training, along with the development of a personal aesthetic, an individual skillset, and a personal impression of an industry. It can take decades to become a good critic and gain the respect of the critical community, let alone larger society, and while critics are often positioned as arbiters of taste, their role is much more complicated.

It’s not simply about what’s good or ‘bad.’ It’s about the ability to contextually evaluate work, considering who made it, when, and where. What sorts of goals were established at the start of the project, and whether they were realised. How it fits into the larger body of work in that field and genre. When someone writes a review of the latest Stephen King novel, it’s not just an assessment of whether the book is worth reading. It’s a complex cultural discussion, and one that interacts not just with other King books, but also with the horror genre, with criticism in general, with contemporary politics and society and culture.

While critics come from very diverse backgrounds, they share an intense love of one or more mediums, whether they be food, film, theatre, art, fiction, or something else entirely, and they want to play a role in shaping those mediums. They do so through discussing them and contributing to a larger conversation about them. And, as is the case with essentially any form of public discourse, female critics are not taken as seriously, and their work is not respected. Outside of the critical community, female critics tend to be less known despite the quality or size of their body of work, and within the community, they’re often dismissed.

Why should women, who can be perfectly good critics alongside their male counterparts, be singled out like this? The short answer, of course, is sexism, but it’s a specific kind of sexism that bears closer examination — and one that should encourage self-reflection on the part of male critics as well as people who engage with criticism on a high level. Because it’s their responses that determine how women critics are perceived, and how people interact with them.

First of all, women are commonly perceived as ‘having no taste.’ It’s expected that they be silent and allow men to choose for them; a very literal example involves restaurant ordering, where the idea that men should order for their female companions, while antiquated, is still present in society. Some men continue to do it, sometimes against the wishes of the women they’re eating with, because it’s so engrained that men are in a better position to pick for women, and will have a better knowledge of what their tastes should be.

The same holds true for criticism, where anything that women like and critically engage with is treated as something ‘for chicks,’ rather than a legitimate work of art or culture. Thus, when women like an author, a particular painter, or another creator, their positive discussions and critiques are dismissed, and so, too, is the creator. After all, if, say, a filmmaker is appealing to women, clearly that filmmaker is making ‘special interest’ work that isn’t designed with universal appeal for everyone; men are the arbiters of taste for all, and women can merely talk about what women should like.

There’s also the attitude that women who speak up are being shrill, whiny, or unreasonable. When a woman criticises or dislikes a piece of pop culture, it’s not because her discussion is legitimate or she has real concerns, but because she just wants attention, is looking for something to be offended by, or can’t engage with the work on the level that men can. She doesn’t ‘get it,’ as they say — if a woman deplores a film for ultraviolence, for example, male critics are quick to jump on her to set her straight, informing her that she doesn’t understand the art and the intention behind the world.

The thought that women’s voices might actually add value to conversations is still largely novel for many, and this holds true in criticism as well. Women critics aren’t trusted or respected because it seems ludicrous to believe that they might have something to bring to the table — that, perhaps, the woman who doesn’t like intense violence in films is speaking from an experience that men have never had and don’t understand. Her voice may be invoking the issues women face vis a vis violence and how they relate to it on a personal level, and could in fact be bringing an entirely new dimension to the discussion.

For women working in criticism, getting noticed, respected, and taken seriously takes much more effort than men. Relatively new male voices in the critical world are accorded far more respectful treatment than women — and in metacriticism, female critics are often treated especially harshly. It’s troubling that few seem to be able to make the connection between the treatment of female critics and sexism, and that few male critics are interested in engaging with the role of sexism in criticism and the treatment of women in the field. Any field without women’s voices is missing something vital, and the same holds true here.

Image: METRO ADLABS, Ajay Gowal, Flickr.