LOUISE O'NEILL: Do men just instinctively dislike movies and TV shows that star women?

White Girl isn’t the first female-centric movie to suffer negative feedback from male critics. 

After seeing Seána Kerslake’s star-making turn in A Date For Mad Mary, I was interested in watching her new TV show, Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope. 

Described as the Irish Girls, it’s about two young women living in Dublin who haunt Coppers nightclub on a frequent basis, drink too much, have unsatisfactory sex with strangers, and must then endure awkward conversations with their pharmacist to procure the morning after pill. 

Je suis Aisling and Danielle.

Despite watching most of the first two episodes through my fingers due to the horrific memories I was forced to recall, I enjoyed Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope immensely. 

Stefanie Preissner, the show’s writer, has created something that is raw and relevant and laugh-out-loud hilarious.

However when I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, it became clear to me that not everyone agreed and all too often, the criticism levelled at the programme seemed to be gendered.

While many women praised the show’s honesty, commenting on how refreshing it was to see real Irish women on television, a surprisingly large amount of men seemed horrified at the depiction of casual sex and binge drinking. 

Not ladylike enough for you, was it?

A friend of mine, Elizabeth Wood, has just released her debut film White Girl. It’s a ferocious achievement, perhaps one of the most exciting and searing movies I’ve seen in years.

It deals with many things — race, gender, white privilege — but male critics in the US have become preoccupied with the sex scenes, as if sexuality (and specifically, female sexuality) is more shocking than a cripplingly discriminatory judicial system that targets people of colour.

There is a scene in White Girl where Leah, a 21-year-old intern at a magazine, is sequestered in her boss’s office when he offers her cocaine and then roughly kisses her.

She seems enthusiastic at the start but as he pulls up her skirt, she begins to express discomfort, discomfort her boss ignores.

Leah struggles free and instead gives him oral sex and, to me at least, it was obvious that she did this to avoid having sex or perhaps to avoid being raped. 

I, like Anna Silman of NY Mag, ‘felt like I was witnessing something violating and inappropriate, an encounter somewhere in the gray area between consent and complicity that many women know all too well.’

Interesting, then, to see how other critics reacted.

Stephen Holden of the New York Times commented ‘with hardly a second thought, she rewards him with oral sex’. 

Peter Debruge of Variety said: ‘Leah wastes even less time before hooking up with her boss,’ and Sam Adams of The Wrap comments that ‘...less than a minute later, they’re having sex’.

Most disturbing was a scene in which Leah is clearly raped by an older man. 

She is intoxicated to the point where she is barely conscious but he penetrates her anyway, an act which a Variety reviewer described as Leah “transforming” said man “into yet another sexual predator” — as if anyone could ever be responsible for the sexual violence inflicted upon them.

White Girl isn’t the first female-centric movie to suffer negative feedback from male critics. 

When the all-female remake of Ghostbusters was released this summer the disparity between the male and female reaction was telling. 

An article in Salon stated that 84% of female critics gave Ghostbusters positive reviews, with 77% of the negative reviews coming from male critics. 

A study by the San Diego State University entitled ‘Thumbs Down 2016: Top Film Critics and Gender’ found that an estimated 76% of film critics are male (and are, according to the same study, more likely to review genres dominated by men). 

Surely it’s not difficult to see how this could skew the public’s perception of a movie’s quality and thus impact ticket sales?

So, do men just instinctively dislike movies and TV shows that star women? Does this account for the fact that in 2014 only 12% of top grossing Hollywood movies featured female protagonists? 

While speaking at an event called ‘Story Power: Three Great Women in Film’ in 2015, the actress Meryl Streep said “in a way, these critics are watching two different movies. Women are so used to empathising with the active protagonist of a male-driven plot. That’s what we’ve done all our lives. 

"You read history, you read great literature, Shakespeare, it’s all fellas. But they’ve never had to do the other thing. And the hardest thing for me, as an actor, is to have a story that men in the audience feel like they know what I feel like... It’s a very hard thing for them to put themselves in the shoes of a woman.”

Most of the popular culture we consume, from movies to TV to literature, focuses on men and men’s lives with the female characters often reduced to an appendage — the wife or the girlfriend — so women have been forced to become accustomed to looking at the world through the lens of a very different perspective to our own. 

(No, it’s not just because we’re somehow biologically more empathetic.)

This starts from a young age, when children’s books featuring boy heroes are considered suitable for both genders but apocryphal wisdom leads us to believe that young boys will refuse to read books about girls. Unfortunately, that attitude doesn’t remain in childhood.

I’ve had male friends tell me that they ‘never read books by women’, that they wouldn’t want to read Marian Keyes’ work because it’s too ‘girly’. 

(You know, those brilliantly written novels about addiction and domestic violence and rape.) 

They tell me this with a puzzled expression on their faces as if they don’t understand why I would find their attitude strange.

The reason why I find it strange that you don’t care to read books or watch TV shows or movies that focus on the lives of women is because women make up over 50% of the population. 

We are not ‘other’. We are your sisters and your daughters and your friends and your work colleagues and your mothers. 

We have our own lives and desires and hopes and dreams — and our stories are just as worthy of being told as yours are, just as worthy of being heard.

And we would hope that you want to hear them.



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