Tom Hyde responds to Brie Larson’s recent acceptance speech at the Crystal + Lucy Awards, and considers what role criticism must play in the film industry.
Brie Larson may not hate white dudes, but it’s fairly evident that she does hate criticism — not merely personal, that which targets one of her dramatic performances, nor in lieu of her more recent controversial statements about the film industry at large, but the very concept itself. This comes after her newest film, Marvel’s first female-lead superhero blockbuster Captain Marvel, has hit theatres to mixed reviews but an impressive (and anticipated) box-office performance.
Larson had previously made waves back in 2018 with her comments regarding the critical reception of Ava DuVernay’s future-fantasy A Wrinkle in Time, after it scored a meagre 53 percent on the critical aggregation website Metacritic (I’m personally of the disposition that a film rated 53/100 isn’t bad but middling, because, well, definitions…but each to their own). She spoke at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards in LA after receiving the titular Crystal Award for her outstanding work in supporting the roles of women within the entertainment industry. Her speech focused on diversity in film with a notable, and notably new, intersectional slant. It was a sentiment shared with Frances McDormand’s Oscar acceptance speech for best actress of that year, closing off with the puzzling phrase: “I have two words for you: inclusion rider”— simply meaning a contractual clause an actor can insist on that requires certain diversity quotas be met. It’s a term derived from the work of social scientist Stacy Smith and her think tank the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (AII). In 2015, Smith gave a TED talk simply titled “The Data behind Hollywood’s sexism”, with the aid of “really depressing” statistics in the form of exhaustive tables and graphics. Larson quoted the organisation’s data in her Crystal acceptance speech: “67% of the top critics reviewing the highest grossing movies in 2017 were white males, less than a quarter were white women, and less than 10% were unrepresented men…only 2.5% of those top critics were women of colour.”
The issue of minority representation in film (and indeed other) industries is a socio-economic mire into which I’d rather not wade for the moment. I instead want to focus on the confusion born from its laudable mission and the resulting collateral fallout affecting film criticism and by extension, art in its entirety. Larson’s reactionary stance to industry and identity biases bleeds over to the universal, uniting faculties of human reason and creativity; her claims are flimsy at best and should be dismissed as such, but are likely the sign of a larger cultural zeitgeist that threatens much more than just our institutions of aesthetics.
When Larson says “I do not need a 40 year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work for him about a Wrinkle in Time — it wasn’t made for him!” she’s not only advocating for the diversification of film critics, the emboldening of minority voices and the dismantling of systemic structures of oppression; she’s making assumptions about the content of specific criticisms based on group identities alone. To take the Metacritic pool for A Wrinkle in Time, she’s chalking up the content of some 52 professional reviews to shared biases based on gender and race identity. To break this down: 34 of these reviews were written by white men (65%), 3 by men of colour (6%), 14 by white women (27%) and 1 by a woman of colour (2%) — remarkably close to the AII statistics. Indeed, 8 of the 10 most negative reviews were written by white men; and 6 out of the top 10 reviews were written by women. So, Larson is right? This proves that the shared, internalised biases held by men — and disproportionately white men — create a negative skew against minority oriented films. Right?
Fortunately not. We’re ignoring something pretty crucial here: the reviews themselves — the words and arguments critics are actually payed to create. Five-star ratings and catchy pull-quotes do not constitute film criticism; they are merely economic artefacts born from market drivers and simple group psychology. And as a general rule, we should always be sceptical of statistical trends masquerading as explanations (I’m sure everyone has heard the phrase “correlation does not [always] imply causation”).
Amongst those eight most negative reviews written by white men — those with a score below 50 percent (actually negative reviews) — are eight arguments of why the film, for one reason or another, didn’t work for that person. The contents of these reviews are infinitely more diverse than any inclusion initiative could wish for. And then there’s the ironic fact that, any one of these criticisms, if not all of them, could turn solely on the fact that the film wasn’t inclusive enough — that, for example, there wasn’t sufficient Latino or Asian representation. Or even this argument now, could be seen from afar as confirmation of my group bias as a straight white man (against intersectional and critical theory), ignoring the very content of its argument.
But it gets worse. The implied claim that only certain groups can fully appreciate certain artistic perspectives (a bizarre mix of empiricism and, extended to its logical maximum, solipsism), leads to a singular and reductive view of minority critics, which fosters groupthink and exposes any dissenting minority reviewers to personal attacks based on their identity.
Criticisms are, at their root, explanations of why something doesn’t work; they are creative and individual; and they are themselves conjectures open to criticism. Creativity without criticism is chaos, noise; it takes error corrective mechanisms in tandem to identify value and make progress. In science, criticisms take the form of experimental tests; in philosophy they rely on the explicit, though ever evolving, criteria of logic and rationality. Aesthetics is a special case of this: as opposed to epistemological ‘truth’, it searches instead for objective standards of beauty. This founding value has all but vanished within the fine art community over recent history, due to the stultifying influence of Bad Philosophy. And one of the results is the complete dismissal of criticism as a crucial stage in the artistic process, debased instead to a malicious industry influence alone, and in turn reducing critics to the bumbling and antiquated gatekeepers of commercial success. It leads to people like Brie Larson being able to say with impunity: “It really sucks that reviews matter, but reviews matter.” The problem isn’t that she’s totally wrong, but that she’s only half right.
Jennifer Osei-Mensah responds:
Brie Larson’s acceptance speech at the Crystal + Lucy Awards does not demonstrate that she hates criticism, but rather calls for a reassessment of who’s doing the reviewing. Film criticism, in the modern day, is an important determining factor of box-office success. It informs our choices as cinema-goers, and it sparks discourse, so it’s important that we pay attention to whose voices we listen to.
To state that only women of colour can appreciate films that are made for them is indeed foolish, and would lead to the damaging counter-argument that only white men can understand films made for them. This is not Larson’s point. It is not to say that white men are incapable of reviewing a film ‘for’ women of colour, it’s more a case of – why should they? To better articulate this, why are the majority of critics for these films white men? Sure, they write good reviews, and based on the content of these reviews they aren’t biased towards the issues represented in these films, but why should more of their voices be heard than female voices, or voices of colour?
As Larson states, film criticism should be an industry that represents the population going to see movies. Rather than picking apart the contents of reviews of white males and laboriously examining them for signs of bias or lack thereof, we should offer minorities a seat at the table. Although Larson’s motivation for this speech may be her disappointment at negative reviews, her point still stands – let’s open up the discussion and hear more diverse voices.