The Gendered Nature of Entertainment Reviews: A Lesson in Socialized Sexism

Monday, May 30th, 2016

I’m tired of constantly pointing out sexism in the entertainment + media + production industry. At cocktail parties. In pitch meetings. In conversations with my team, my family, my friends and my mentors. It’s a seemingly endless well of awful that never runs dry. So much so, that a year ago, I straight up decided that I was only going to focus on the positive ways we can change the industry.

But today I’m going to have to step away from my previously valiant effort to talk about something that is so pervasive, and yet, so silent that it’s difficult to talk about. It’s about how we teach little boys and little girls to experience and process stories about the opposite gender. Specifically, it’s about how that phenomena negatively impacts how we view entertainment later in life and contributes to a silently socialized sexism that is almost impossible to call out.

Well, guess what: I’m calling it out.

Or at least I’m going to attempt to. In March of this year, the new Ghostbusters trailer was released to mixed reviews – for all of a minute. And then, the reviews turned ugly. So much so, that the trailer is now the most disliked movie trailer of all time, according to YouTube. What does that look like in real numbers? 841,930 Dislikes. If genuine fans of the original franchise were so hard up on repping the OG, then I guess I could see why they would feel the need to put down the reboot in the form of an internet thumbs down. But we all know that this is not where that story is going.

Since the trailer’s release, the film, the actors and director Paul Feig have been the targets of unprecedented negativity unlike any reboot has ever seen. I am going to call it bullying, because frankly, that’s what it is. I’m not going to give it the time of day by sharing some of the comments here, but if you want to, just look at the comments on ANY news story about Ghostbusters. If you’re not depressed after five minutes, you have a special talent. CBS News laid it out pretty simply:

“So what makes this trailer so much more objectionable than others, like the critically panned “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (16,495 dislikes) or last year’s “Fantastic Four” reboot (7,391 down-votes)?”

Keep in mind, we know just how bad the movies above are already. The negative reaction to Ghostbusters is based entirely on a 2 minute trailer which reveals very little about the actual plot of the movie. Who has ever said: “I loved the trailer, but hated the movie!” No one. Ever. In the history of time. As a result, it’s hard not to immediately assume that the negative reaction to the trailer and the film is based entirely on the gender of the people in it. And if you want to disagree, you can feel free to go check out all the comments on the video itself on YouTube. Again, I refuse to give those kinds of comments space on this blog, but they basically amount to a violent hatred of women having a role in the Ghostbusters franchise and how utterly unfunny the women in the film will be.

If you think that the reaction to Ghostbusters is a solitary one that is isolated to this individual reboot, I invite you to look at a similar phenomena recently uncovered by the data blog, FiveThirtyEight.  It turns out that when men and women rate television shows on IMDB, women generally rate male-led programming the same way men do. But men? Well, men seem to apply a “lady-centric” de-merit to any television show that primarily features women. If Ghostbusters exists on the troll end of the spectrum, then the findings about television show ratings on IMDB may serve as a median. Specifically:

“Women gave their top 100 shows, on average, a 7.8 rating, about the same score they gave the top 100 male-dominated programs, 8.0. …Men gave their top 100 an average score of 8.2 but gave the top 100 female-skewed shows a mere 6.9 average ratings. Shows with more than 10,000 ratings are inherently popular and yet men thought the programs in that group that skew female were below average.”

Does this apply to all men? No. #NOTALLMEN. Amen. But, when looking at data in aggregate of larger cultural phenomena around the preferences of male and female consumers, it’s important to note that outliers are not the story. And while the screaming trolls on YouTube might also be another kind of outlier, the nature of anonymous points-based reviewing that doesn’t require prosaic use of the comments section to share sexist slurs, reveals how the male community at large generally views programming that primarily casts the opposite sex. It doesn’t mean they are misogynist. It doesn’t mean they are sexist. It doesn’t mean they are bad people. What it means is that at some point, they are taught that shows about women are somehow not capable of being analyzed and reviewed in the same objective way. And that somehow, the factor that determines “how good” a show is, is in part, determined by the sex of the stars.

What FiveThirtyEight’s analysis doesn’t reveal is whether or not these men and women actually watched the shows in question. However, I think there’s one subset of data that they didn’t really dive deeply into that really highlights just how actively a certain subset of male internet users will go to ensure that the qualitative rating of entertainment featuring women is exceptionally lower than that of their male-starring programming. Looking at shows with more than 10,000 user reviews on IMDB, there are only 2 shows that women rated a full point lower than men. One of them is Beavis and Butt-Head. The other is Star Wars: Clone Wars. However, the list of shows that men rated a full single point lower than women rated them? 50. FIFTY FREAKING SHOWS.

Amongst these shows is Sabrina the Teenage Witch, which I have to point out featured a younger Paul Feig as science teacher Mr. Pool. But you probably won’t be surprised to find nearly every single Shonda Rhimes show on the list, either.

If you’ve stuck with me this long, congratulations. I’m finally going to make my larger point. Thank you. Thank you for being patient.

This behavior, this seemingly latent “female deduction” that happens to our entertainment does not happen in a vacuum. For years, our media has been asking the obnoxious question of: Can women be funny? I contend that what we are actually dealing with on a cultural level is much more negative. The real question is: Are women ALLOWED to be funny in our entertainment? And that doesn’t just happen. That is socialized in us from a very young age.

So, where does this come from? Bold statement time: Children’s freaking books.

A few years ago, J.K. Rowling made news when she revealed that her publisher had asked to her change her name to the more male sounding “J.K” for the Harry Potter series for fear that little boys wouldn’t pick up a book written by a woman. And while that story is a perfect illustration of just how subliminal this kind of subtle sexism has been in publishing, I contend that little boys are taught from a very early age that stories about women are rare and not for them. This is not necessarily explicitly said. Rather, this is implicitly indicated by the sheer volume and exposure to the kinds of stories that are told. Little girls? Well, there are no options. So nearly every story is for them. And the data backs this up. Unsurprisingly, this goes ALL the way back to your picture books.

As the Wall Street Journal reports:

“A 2011 Florida State University study found that just 7.5 percent of nearly 6,000 picture books published between 1900 and 2000 depict female animal protagonists. … No more than 33 percent of children’s books in any given year featured an adult woman or female animal, but adult men and male animals appeared in 100 percent of the books.”

When only 7% of children’s picture books feature female characters, female characters become abnormal. If something is abnormal, it isn’t widely accepted. And if that precedent begins before you can even read or write, you are bound to start to have some unconscious bias. In fact, research finds that this bias sets in by the time boys are in the fourth grade:

“Two studies, one from 1978 and one from 1988, did find that boys expressed a preference for male characters, but the youngest age group studied was the fourth grade, at which point it is impossible to separate nature from nurture.”

Let me reiterate that this is not all men. I know plenty of men who love shows and movies starring women. But this is a ground up problem. This starts from before the moment a child is born when books are wrapped and packaged and delivered to waiting parents eager to raise smart and well-balanced kids.

How can we possibly expect Hollywood to change if we teach little boys from the time they learn their very first words that female characters are not the norm? How can we expect a Ghostbusters reboot to receive the same warm reception as a Jurassic Park remake in a culture that celebrates male heroism and applies sex-based penalties to media starring women? And how can we expect female storytellers to receive opportunities from the powers that be when the socialized belief amongst 50% of the population is that women’s stories are unpopular before they’ve even seen it?

We can’t.

We must be better. And it starts with little boys.