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From the Wire: Sundance Film Critics Accused of Anti-Female Bias

by Matt Singer
February 25, 2013 5:20 PM
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"In a World..."
"In a World..."

This year's Sundance Film Festival was hailed by many as a step forward for gender equality in the world of independent cinema. For the first time ever, the U.S. Dramatic Competition featured an equal number of male and female directors, and outlets called 2013 the year that women filmmakers were "poised to make their mark" at the festival. But a new article in The Nation by Roya Rastegar claims that the only mark to be found was a black one -- on the records of film critics, who she accuses of bias against those women filmmakers. Rastergar claims that Sundance film critics "almost exclusively eviscerated" their work, and that their reviews complained about the lack of compelling male characters and the wealth of "unlikeable" female characters, were shorter in length than the reviews of movies by male directors and generally:

"Paid less sustained and thoughtful attention to the films’ craft (visual style, narrative structure, character development). Storylines were characterized as “shallow,” “naggingly lightweight” and “desperate“ -- in contrast to the descriptions of male-directed films, which were lauded for their lyricism, “feminine…sensibility” and “complex symphonic framework.”

Rastegar concludes that "this highly gendered evaluation is a deeply embarrassing reflection of the current state of film criticism and bodes ill for the future of independent film and popular culture at large." 

I didn't attend this year's Sundance Film Festival, but I must confess this wasn't something that caught my eye as I was reading and compiling reviews for Criticwire's daily Sundance Review Reports. I heard a lot of good buzz about a couple of movies from women filmmakers, including the comedy "In a World..." from writer/director/producer/star Lake Bell, which was featured in one of those aforementioned Review Reports, and currently sports an impressive A- average on the Criticwire Network. All but two of Rastegar's examples are from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter -- the other two are from the website -- which is not exactly a wide-ranging sample of "the current state of film criticism." Nonetheless, I'd be interested to hear how critics and editors who were on the ground in Park City feel about this categorization of their work and their coverage.

Read more of "Sundance, the Oscars, and the Decline of Film Criticism -- Not Just a Lady Problem."


  • Bryan | February 25, 2013 7:22 PMReply

    One way to look at it, is what has and hasn't been acquired for distribution.
    five of the six films from the US Dramatic section yet to secure US distribution were directed by women. Since there were equal numbers male and female representation this is an alarming disparity.

  • AMill | February 26, 2013 11:40 AM

    Hardly "alarming", unless you want to live by quotas,

    Even assuming this Nation writer is correct, which is doubtful, naybe the films made by women were less commercial than those by men, or were judged to be so by the men buying them. Or, since there are far more men making movies than women, maybe Sundance implemented affirmative action, to obtain equal numbers of male and female directors. In that case, the films by women are likely to be worse than those made by men, thanks to the smaller pool of them to draw on -- just simple arithmetic.

    Or was the average female submission far better than the average male submission, and that accounts for the equal numbers of male and female directors; in which case, we had better decry that inequality and start up a remedial program for men to redress this structural inequality?

    Why does the left always have to dig this hole? If we're all equal, nobody will be famous, and that's the end of the movie business.

  • Jordan Hoffman | February 25, 2013 6:15 PMReply

    The Lifeguard is awful. Truly awful. There's no other reading of that film.
    The Square, also directed by a woman, was one of the best things I saw there and I'm pretty sure it received nothing but remarkable reviews.

  • Brian Tallerico | February 25, 2013 5:44 PMReply

    I would think that an article that incendiary -- to imply that a majority of male film critics are approaching female-directed films from such an overly-critical, sexist viewpoint that it can be reflected in all Sundance -- would be required to include more than three sources to make that case or to speak to someone who was actually there and reported on Sundance. I was on the ground in Park City. I read dozens of reviews of male and female-directed films and had many conversations with critics there. I never sensed any bias. In fact, there has been notable excitement about the number of female-directed films both during the festival and as these films come into the market. In fact, I would go as far as to say this statement - "Critics almost exclusively eviscerated the feature films directed by women that premiered at Sundance this year" is patently false. Yes, Austenland and The Lifeguard were generally dismissed but In a World... and Concussion have some notable fans. Whether or not there is bias by male critics against female directors is a subject certainly worth investigating but to make such blanket statements about the entire critical form by using one review from Variety on Concussion, for example, while ignoring the A- grade from 7 male critics on Criticwire is just bad, bad journalism.

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