The "War Crime" of Reviewing: On David Edelstein and Women in Criticism
I’ve been writing on the internet for fun for over seven years now, but it’s only been in the past few months that my work has turned professional. Since January, I have become a person who gets paid to have opinions online. While I still struggle to allot myself the title of “critic”, I take great pride in my occupation as a pop culture features writer and find immense rewards in the work that I do. Things have definitely changed since I started doing this for money: I notice how much more open people are to listening to my thoughts; I’m sharply aware of how amplified my voice has become and see the consequences of that, both positive and negative; and, now more than ever as a woman on the internet, I am conscious of how few our numbers are in the professional realm. I’ve talked about this before, and the ways in which the white-male dominant circles of film criticism can lead to discomfort and unchallenged narratives. With the most visible and anticipated woman-led film of the year, and possibly century, now in cinemas, I quietly hoped that the critical response would avoid the dishearteningly expected pitfalls of sexism.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. David Edelstein, a critic for Vulture, who has written some wonderful pieces over the years, published his review of Wonder Woman, and the results were unsurprising but still disappointing. The review is primarily focused on the physical attributes of star Gal Gadot, whom Edelstein calls “the perfect blend of superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness.” He laments that “fans might be disappointed that there’s no trace of the comic’s well-documented S&M kinkiness”, but is happy to report he “didn’t miss Lynda Carter’s buxom, apple-cheeked pinup”. There are several other moments that stick to discussing Gadot’s appearance and how happy it made Edelstein, and while the review itself is pretty negative, one cannot help but notice the tone he takes when gushing over the film’s star. None of this is new to readers, or even to Edelstein, who has made various discomfiting comments throughout his years of writing (including an infamous one regarding then-11 year old Emma Watson in the first Harry Potter movie).
The response to Edelstein’s review was a mixture of mockery and unease. Twitter jokes were shared, outrage was expressed, and many of us discussed how often we encountered this kind of thing in criticism. There’s something about this field, so dominated by men as it is, that unleashes the inner pervert with no care for consequence.
I was reminded of men like theatre critic John Simon, who reveled in viciously tearing down the physical appearances of actors, including saying that Barbra Streisand’s nose “cleaves the giant screen from east to west, bisects it from north to south. It zigzags across our horizon like a bolt of fleshy lightning”, and that Liza Minnelli looked like a beagle. I thought of the infamous Jeff Wells, who had the gall to directly contact director James Mangold to commend him for having actress Vinessa Shaw go nude, then asked for some stills of the scene. I remembered the shock I felt reading Rex Reed’s nasty attack on Melissa McCarthy, where he called her “tractor-sized,” a “screeching, humongous creep” and a “female hippo” (thankfully, Reed was recently let go from the Observer, but it took long enough).
Sexism doesn’t happen in a bubble, nor is it ever a one-off incident that can be blamed on one rogue critic. Every time this happens, every single moment I receive an abusive tweet or nasty comment that avoids my words and focuses on my life, I think of the countless other times it’s happened to me, to my colleagues, and to women I’ve never met.
When David Edelstein responded to criticism, ending his weak defence with a line about how his critics couldn’t read, most of us just rolled our eyes, because we truly didn’t expect any lessons to be learned. Why would you take the time to understand the disappointment when your own position is so secure? Indeed, that point was driven home when Stephanie Zacharek of Time Magazine jumped to Edelstein’s defence on Twitter, with some strong words that felt misplaced at best. I understand defending your friends, but I could not fathom how Zacharek went from sticking up for a friend to claiming that “Writing While (Straight) Male has become a war crime”. She also claimed responses to Edelstein were a “mischanneling of anger and frustration and could hurt us all in trying to do good work”.
Writing While (Straight) Male has become a war crime. Yes, a writer can make the wrong word choice here or there, and may even make the— Stephanie Zacharek (@szacharek) June 6, 2017
I’ve no desire to shit on Zacharek or fellow women in this business — we can’t afford a drop in numbers, frankly — but I cannot hide my frustration with this line of argument, nor can I fully express my exhaustion with once again being told that my anger towards misogyny is misplaced. If writing while straight and male was a war crime, that wouldn’t explain why they remain so dominant in our field. All that accusation does is heighten the already bubbling tensions at play in criticism, especially given how many of us are already accused of being leftist shills by alt-right screeds like Heat Street and Breitbart. This claim simply comes across as conspiratorial, as if there is a coven of female critics waiting in the dark to drag Edelstein from his job and onto the bonfire.
A big issue with being a minority in this field, or any part of society, is that you will always notice certain elements more than others. If the majority of voices at the critical table are white men, and they remain the most amplified opinions when discussing the few stories told by and for women, the bad elements will always be heightened, because we’ve been trained from birth to notice them. I have lost count of the number of Girls reviews I’ve read that couldn’t help but make snide comments about Lena Dunham’s weight, or post-Harry Potter film appearances from Emma Watson that just had to slobber over how “all grown up” she was, or the blatant racism at play regarding any film led by black women.
It’s not just that these voices are tolerated. So often, they’re flat-out rewarded and given bigger platforms to repeat the same shtick, while concerns are shoved to the side as a distraction or something separate from the issue at hand. Before Devin Faraci was exposed as a sexual harasser, he had a long history of treating people like dirt, putting targets on people’s backs for attack, and in one instance, telling a man to go kill himself then goading him over how he’d be a better husband for the man’s wife if he were to die. None of these things were secret, and yet I still saw so many critics, people whose work I love and respect, sharing pieces by him with the weak caveat of “well I don’t always agree with him but this is a good piece”. In one staggering instance, a prominent woman film writer proclaimed Faraci to be a much needed voice for women in the field and decried those who “drove him out”.
I’ve lost all patience with this willful shuffling around an impossible to ignore truth about this industry, and I’m sick of the same excuses being made to justify defending something that doesn’t need the time or energy spent on it. The most marginalised voices in the conversation are finally getting some air-time, and the big names are dismissing it as an attack on the underdog white men. I cannot imagine how much more frustrating this is for the women of colour in our field. Ultimately, David Edelstein will be fine, that much was never in doubt, but any possibility of him understanding the hurt and confusion caused has been wiped out in favour of strengthening a narrative that positions the under-represented amongst us speaking out as comparable to war crimes.
I don’t expect much to change. Devin Faraci is, I have been informed, still being invited to press events. Jeff Wells still gets to interview major directors. Rex Reed is out of work but it took decades to do so, and he’ll probably land on his feet. The sad truth is that issues like this only become a problem for the majority when they become impossible to ignore, and getting to that point requires more people to be hurt. It requires “worthy sacrifices”, and I’ve no patience for that.
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