In the brief time I have been working professionally as a film and pop culture writer, the industry has made some major changes. Like everything else in the aftermath of Harvey Weinstein and the birth of the #MeToo movement, serious conversations have taken place and it’s become abundantly clear that the status quo cannot remain in place. Many of the things discussed weren’t new. We’ve been talking about the problem with the lack of diversity in criticism for many moons now, but there is another issue that hasn’t been fully confronted.
In 2016, a solid year before the Weinstein revelations, the news of sexual assault allegations about former Birth Movies Death editor Devin Faraci broke. One of the most infamous figures in film criticism, Faraci had a long history of bullying, intimidating behaviour and general nastiness towards his peers. Several months after he left his editorial position, it was revealed that he had quietly been hired back by the Alamo Drafthouse to do some writing work (that also ended after pushback from various figures). In September 2017, it was reported on IndieWire that Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles had allegedly sexually assaulted and harassed women. One of the accusers informed the owners of the Drafthouse about this behaviour, but no action was taken. The women were told to simply ‘avoid’ Knowles.
Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse, is still in his job. Knowles took a leave of absence from AICN. Faraci has recently launched a new film website, which is billed as ‘film from an occasionally Buddhist perspective’.
I don’t wish to rehash old news here. I know that Faraci has been on a long sad man apology tour, including appearing in a PBS documentary on the #MeToo movement, further expressing his penance for something he claims he doesn’t remember doing. Much has been said about this, usually by people much smarter than myself. What I haven’t seen discussed much, from Faraci or others, is the toxic effect he had on film criticism and journalism for years before news broke of his sexual assault allegation. This is a man who made our industry actively unpleasant to be in at times. Along with Knowles, Faraci helped to mould this sector into a cock strutting bro-zone where the pair of them reigned supreme above all else. They wrote blatantly sexist reviews, leering over female characters and theorizing how or if they fucked. They helped to breed hostile attitudes and cult-live devotees, ready to attack whoever criticized their self-styled idols. Getting exclusive stories and access wasn’t just good business under their rules: It was a symbol of their dominance as bros in the film and geek world. One of them even tried to push himself as being a greater feminist than any of the women in our field.
For all his sadness and claims of reflection on his terrible behaviour, I have yet to see Devin Faraci accept responsibility for the ways he turned this industry into an aggressively macho field that was hostile to anyone who wasn’t a straight white man. This is the world I move in as a professional writer and I feel the stain of it daily. We may never truly be free of it. The people who filled the swamp either don’t understand this or prefer it that way.
The lack of diversity in criticism - particularly amongst mainstream outlets and traditional publications - reflects terribly on how the general population consumes art. It limits the viewpoints we have and offers skewed perspectives on the culture that defines us. Obviously, this narrow mindset also makes for boring criticism. The bro-ish nature of criticism, mostly prevalent in blockbuster coverage and the like, has a similar effect, albeit with a more obnoxious edge. There’s an aggression in much of these articles, a kind of smarm that directly ties forced macho anger to knowledge of your field. Imagine every mansplaining conversation you’ve ever had in Forbidden Planet but across 1500 words, with a hefty dose of comments section anger to exacerbate the situation. Bro-style criticism not only indulges this behaviour, it actively encourages it. Being able to start fights, however cruel, was part of the game for these people. The thrill was rooted in being able to stoke the fires of fury, of tying one’s pride and personality to how aggressively they loved Batman. All of this made the very idea of writing about films seem impossibly exclusive. Calling out problems with this toxic masculinity would lead to you being accused of being a ‘pussy’, someone who just wasn’t tough enough to hang out with the big boys. When this is the norm, not only does it make it exceedingly hard for women and people of colour to get a foot into the industry, but it normalizes the nastiest of behaviour.
Harry Knowles could write a film review comparing the director’s skill to performing cunnilingus because he made it normal to do so. He could spend hundreds of words wondering about Claire from Heroes and whether her hymen grew back every time she had sex because it was an expected part of the bro world of criticism. Devin Faraci could go onto Twitter and try to goad a fellow critic into suicide, laughing at how he would be a better carer for the man’s wife in the process, because people who should know better would still share his stuff and legitimize his behaviour. He could search his own name on Twitter, find people criticising him, then put big targets on their backs and get away with it because hey, sometimes his writing was okay, right?
I’m not sure we’ll ever be free of this stench. It lingers in every corner of our field, even among areas where women and people of colour have greater amplification. Even when you get rid of the major causes, the symptoms remain. Change is possible and utterly necessary. There are urgent voices out there who are writing the kind of criticism we desperately need right now, and more sites are working to maintain civil comments sections that exert zero tolerance policies for aggressive rhetoric. YouTube criticism remains a white sausage fest, but more varied figures are emerging to great acclaim. There is much to be done. It can be done, and it will be done. However, it cannot continue until we fully recognize how and why our field was undeniably toxic for so long. I don’t expect Faraci or Knowles to acknowledge the roles they played in making that happen, and I’m not sure their words would mean much at this point. We can renovate our broken houses and build new ones for those voices that were abused and ignored for many years.
If you are interested in looking for more women and non-binary voices in film and pop culture criticism, check out our extensive list of figures to read!
(Header photograph from Getty Images)