‘Promising Young Woman’ and the need for diversity in film criticism

If you haven’t been following this particular controversy (in amongst all the others populating the internet at any given time), here’s a brief overview. After its release last year, Variety published a review of Promising Young Woman – a #MeToo-flavoured revenge thriller starring Carey Mulligan – in which critic Dennis Harvey used some supposedly misogynist terms to describe Mulligan’s appearance in the film. Following the actor’s reported outrage at the piece, Harvey denied that his review was misogynist, stating: “I’m a 60-year-old gay man. I don’t actually go around dwelling on the comparative hotnesses of young actresses, let alone writing about that.”

I should preface this by saying: I don’t consider Harvey’s comments to be sexist. His review is not particularly respectful or sensitive to the issues raised by the film, but in my view, the point he is trying to make about Mulligan’s performance is that she is not a casting choice you would immediately associate with a ‘femme fatale’ character. I would say the same thing about Jason Statham being cast as the lead in Titanic (sorry, Jason). In either case, these roles just don’t really fit with the actor’s preconceived ‘brand’.

The problem with Harvey’s review is how clumsily it is written, not its moral content. The way he talks about the #MeToo movement in the opening paragraph, for instance, feels like an afterthought (more on this later). His use of the word ‘inevitably’, in reference to men taking advantage of intoxicated women in the fourth paragraph, is rather callous. I suppose the question at the heart of the debate is: if a female critic had been assigned to review Promising Young Woman, would her words have been chosen any more carefully when examining the film’s themes? Would Carey Mulligan’s performance have been reduced to a misplaced comment about ‘bad drag’? 

Certain male critics have a habit of writing about #MeToo as if it’s some passing trend, a box they need to tick when discussing movies about ‘female topics’ in order to make their review current, and Harvey’s is no exception. Perhaps this is because they just don’t have the depth of experience women do when it comes to matters of sexual violence, or the same kind of emotional attachment to the subject.  

I’m not suggesting that men shouldn’t be allowed to review these kinds of films. Cinema is for everyone, as is film criticism. But when a publication chooses to assign a male critic to review a film like Promising Young Woman, the importance of editorial sensitivity to the issues being discussed is paramount. Even though I don’t consider Harvey’s comments to be inherently misogynist, a review as poorly-worded and tactless as his should not have passed muster.  

Increasing the amount of female film critics in the mix will not get rid of the misogyny, or lack of diversity, at the level of senior editorial staff (although it’s a good place to start). These are the people who hire the critics, assign them movies to review, and decide if their work is fit for publication. As with all areas of a dinosaur industry, this sector of journalism is still operating on old, pre-#MeToo models that are in dire need of overhauling and diversifying. Expressing outrage over the lack of female film critics is just the tip of a very large and complex iceberg.  

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