Fifty Shades of Bias—how male and female movie critics see things differently

A different perspective.
A different perspective.
Image: Universal Pictures
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Walking out of Fifty Shades of Grey, I confronted a mystery: the critics hated the movie, but I had enjoyed it, and everyone around me seemed to have liked it as well. There are several obvious explanations: critics are paid to have better, or at least snobbier, taste than the rest of us—enjoying a movie is not the same as thinking it is good. But then another possibility occurred to me: 68% of the film’s viewers were women, but film critics are predominantly male (pdf). Would Fifty Shades of Grey have been a critical success in a world with more female reviewers?

This immediately seemed unlikely to me. Film critics, after all, are professionals; they are supposed to be unaffected by gender biases, and a previous study found (pdf) no evidence of bias in positive reviews. Opinions abound on why Fifty Shades of Grey appeals more to women. But whatever the reason may be, it’s producing increased demand for rope, so it’s probably not something that ought to influence movie critics. And indeed, the critics claimed to be thoroughly detached during the sex scenes, calling them “bland,” “yawnography,” and “fifty shades of beige.”

But perhaps they were not so unmoved. When I looked at the data, I found a dramatic gap: female critics were twice as likely to give the film positive reviews. Only 19% of male critics liked the movie, putting it in the realm of the truly terrible. But 37% of female critics liked the movie: a negative consensus, but not an embarrassing one.

The movie most comparable to Fifty Shades of Grey is arguably Twilight, the romance upon which it is based. (For better or for worse, I could not find other movies about sadomasochism that had enough reviews to draw statistically significant conclusions.) Seventy percent of female critics liked Twilight, and only 43% of male critics did. Stop to consider this: in a world run by women, Twilight is actually a good movie.

The point is not the tragic undervaluing of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey as works of art. Rather, these are funny examples of a broader effect: male and female critics differed in their opinions of other movies as well. For example, 78% of female critics liked Love Actually, but only 58% of male critics did. Eighty percent of male critics liked The Wolf of Wall Street, but only 57% of female critics did.

These disparities matter because critics exert power over what movies millions of people see: for dramas, a thumbs up from a major critic can add 50% to box office revenue. (It is worth noting that Fifty Shades of Grey defied this trend: in spite of the negative reviews, the film made so much money that even The Economist took note.) If critics are mostly men, and men and women differ in their preferences, then critics will not be giving reviews best suited for a moviegoing audience that actually leans slightly female. The differences between male and female critics also lend credence to the many complaints about how the Oscars are awarded by judges who are disproportionately older white men. If male and female critics differ in their preferences, it seems plausible that Academy voters will as well. There’s only one way to know: would the Academy be brave enough to release the voting records of its judges, or at least internally investigate how a judge’s age, gender, and race correlate with a vote?

More broadly, movie critics are not the only experts vulnerable to gender gaps. Professional female investors are more financially risk averse than male investors. Female judges are more likely to rule in favor of sexual harassment and sex discrimination plaintiffs. Female physicians spend more time with their patients. By nature or nurture, men and women are different, and expertise only gilds that with the veneer of impartiality. If we want our institutions to make representative decisions, we need more women in positions of power—and not just so we can be told which sex scenes are truly titillating.