It is super difficult in the journalism business to establish yourself in any field of interest, but particularly cultural criticism. Those jobs are few and far between at the best of times and it can be tough to make a living wage from it. Women film critics are drastically outnumbered by men — and women of colour struggle even more — and then there are all the issues of cost, accessibility, sexism, harassment, online abuse and the growing inevitability of being doxxed. So, you would think it would be a positive for a major publication to put money behind supporting emerging female critics, as well as the might of being published in an actual magazine. Boy are those opportunities thin of the ground these days.
Stylist is a free weekly women’s magazine, mostly available in big cities like London and Edinburgh. It’s widely read, has a major web presence and, while mostly focused on fashion, does a lot of work focused on feminism. This week, they launched ‘Under Her Eye’, a new section dedicated to film reviews written by women. It’s a great idea, although the name is a tad uncomfortable as a supposedly ‘pleasing subversion of The Handmaids Tale’s foreboding refrain ‘under his eye’, since Aunt Lydia wasn’t exactly there to be a mentor. Stylist have a good sized platform and clearly think it’s worth investing money in women driven criticism, which is encouraging. However, their plan to hire three new film critics is a competition that will be voted on by the public.
Out of a shortlist of 20, 10 entries will be chosen by the public and sent to London for a ‘judging day’. The three winners will then be invited to a photo shoot before beginning their work. It’s also worth noting that the winners don’t get a full-time job but rather a freelance arrangement (although £200 for 1000 words is not the worst deal out there).
So essentially, Stylist have made sport out of a hiring policy. To gain a freelance arrangement (not a contract?), you have to be loved by the public. Stylist claim that, to avoid a popularity contest, the entries will be judged anonymously, but how can it not become a popularity context in all but name? This doesn’t seem like an opportunity for newbies to the business and seems more clearly aimed at writers with a foot in the door who probably have some level of social media popularity. What’s to stop them from quietly encouraging their followers to vote the right way?
Critics and entertainment writers responded on Twitter.
Stylist is actually going to pit young women who write about film against each other in a weird public vote… I'm not sure that's how we encourage the next generation of young women writing about film. https://t.co/YoW9ckG4DQ— Rachael Krishna (@RachaelKrishna) August 7, 2018
Welcome to the 1st annual reviewer games pic.twitter.com/EVyRbpWsV2— Joseph Stashko 🇺🇦 (@JosephStash) August 7, 2018
Also disappointing that it includes a Picturehouse membership, when the chain still refuses to pay its workers the London Living Wage and allegedly refuses to negotiate over sick & parental leave. https://t.co/fY5nd9ooJ1— Andrea Mann (@AndreaMann) August 7, 2018
Essentially, opening this to the public makes it a popularity contest, and the fact that it's meant only for women writers becomes the inverse of what it's supposed to be.— Christina Newland (@christinalefou) August 8, 2018
Like you, I think this is a well-meaning idea that has gone a bit awry. Losing a popularity contest won't do much for some applicants' confidence, and do the winners necessarily want a photo shoot and all the pageantry? Just invite people to pitch and pick the freshest voices!— Guy Lodge (@GuyLodge) August 8, 2018
My guess is they want people with "social capital"/existing engaged online followings, and this is an easy way to test for that. But yes, it sucks. Editors, just do your jobs!— Robbie Collin (@robbiereviews) August 8, 2018
Stylist’s motivations are obviously earnest and I frankly wish more publications would take diversifying their cultural desks seriously. Yet it’s tough to get over the set-up of making women compete against one another for the public’s love, all over a freelance gig, and then to add a photo-shoot to it all, as if women aren’t judged harshly enough. A lot of this just lets editors and publications off the hook too - oh, it’s the public’s job to pick new hires but not an editor’s responsibility to find fresh new voices without the hoopla of a social media spectacle? Getting work is tough enough as it is.
I would love to see places like Stylist establish mentoring schemes for writers looking to get into film criticism, and to see that enthusiasm and investment spread to places like the British Film Institute, BAFTA, and film festivals. The Toronto International Film Festival smartly worked hard to invite more diverse critical voices to cover the event (disclaimer: I’m one of them), and things like that will greatly impact our industry. We need support, not contests.
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