Film Reviews

Something Rotten?: The Gender Bias in Rotten Tomatoes’ The Spy Who Dumped Me Reviews

Two weeks ago, a new study concluded female film critics like movies with female leads as well as movies with female directors more than their male counterparts. Through sheer coincidence, Hollywood is offering up two such female-directed, female-led movies on wide release this weekend. The first is YA dystopian adaptation The Darkest Minds. The other is The Spy Who Dumped Me. This is a story about the latter. 

As I left a preview screening of The Spy Who Dumped Me last weekend, I happened to exit out the same door as a short, curly-haired older woman with a half-eaten tub of popcorn in one hand and a walking cane in the other. Think of her as everyone’s grandma. I was already pre-writing a review of the film in my head. “An uber-violent, mildly funny ode to female friendship that leans far too hard on Kate McKinnon’s improv skills” seemed like a fair summation of what I regarded as a wildly inconsistent buddy comedy. The older woman, completely unprovoked, looked up at me and the person I’d seen the movie with and excitedly asked, “Didn’t you just love it?”

Wait, what? Why would anyone truly love The Spy Who Dumped Me? It’s a complete tonal mishmash of a film. The plot, as perfectly distilled in all the trailers, sees Mila Kunis playing a thirty-year-old retail worker who discovers her ex-boyfriend (Justin Theroux) is actually a spy caught up in an international conspiracy. She, along with her roommate and best friend played by McKinnon, get dragged into the middle of it and end up pingponging from one Eastern Europe location to another, presumably racking up untold credit card debt in the process. They happen to have the MacGuffin that everyone wants, but they don’t know who to trust.

In classic spy comedy fashion, they are surrounded by hyper-competent assassins, spooks, and mysterious bureaucrats (such as Gillian Anderson, doing her best impression of Judi Dench’s M from the Bond movies), yet everything they know about shooting a gun comes from video games. Through every twist and turn which awaits them, all they can truly rely on is their unbreakable friendship.

Certainly a workable premise for a movie, but in director/co-writer Susanna Fogel’s hands the jokes are often flat and the frequent John Wick-esque explosions of fast cut action and gore too jarring and at odds with the rest of the film, even if the action itself is expertly staged. Think of a version of Spy with better action scenes but fewer jokes. It’s a classic case of great cast, good premise, poor execution, which equates to wait to rent or stream for the parts that work but don’t waste money on a movie ticket.

Try telling that to the little old lady directly outside the Regal Cinema 20 last Friday night. As we walked down the hall and into the lobby, she raved about McKinnon’s performance and the story’s overall message about friendship, about how romance comes secondary to companionship and how there aren’t nearly enough movies like this. She laughed and laughed throughout the movie and was laughing just as hard recounting her favorite jokes to us. “Those women had fun and so did I” were her parting words to us.

Fun? Well, McKinnon does get to go undercover as a trapeze artist

Which movie did she see? Because I’d love to be laughing as hard as she was.

We all have different tastes and are free to like what we like. Obviously. But had I just walked into the very same thing San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film warned about two weeks ago when it reported female critics are more generous to female-led films than men? As a dude, does my tepid support of last year’s male-led buddy comedy The Hitman’s Bodyguard, for example, compared to my current takedown of the female-led The Spy Who Dumped Me mean I am falling into the cliche?

Of course, “eccentric old lady talked to in a movie theater lobby” is hardly a worthy substitute for a genuine female film critic. So, in replication of the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Televisions’ methods I took to RottenTomatoes to see if the same kind of gender bias is playing out among all reviewers. Here’s what I found:

As of this writing, there are 91 reviews of The Spy Who Dumped Me from RottenTomatoes-recognized critics. 68 (or 74%) of them are from men, 23 (or 26%) from women. As a frame of reference, according to the Center for the Study of Women 68% of RottenTomatoes critics are male versus 32% female, meaning The Spy Who Dumped Me’s reviews are just slightly more male-heavy than usual. Overall, the critics have come down fairly hard:

However, women have indeed been slightly more receptive to this film’s charms. Only 33% of male critics have either directly graded or had RottenTomatoes grade The Spy Who Dumped Me for them as Fresh; compare that to the 52% of female critics who think the film deserves a Fresh rating.

RottenTomatoes, it must be noted, is a notoriously flawed metric. Stephanie Zacharek’s Time review is recorded as Fresh even though it’s not entirely overflowing with praise, “The Spy Who Dumped Me, a well-meaning handspring of a movie that doesn’t necessarily land on its feet.” Likewise, Kate Taylor’s rated-Rotten review in The Globe and Mail isn’t without complement: “Writers David Iserson and Fogel have clear and lofty ambitions here. With Kunis’s sly comic talents providing a foil for the wacky wonders that McKinnon offers, they want to make a comedy entirely driven by its female leads. They also want to create a genuinely thrilling action movie full of car chases, gunfire and explosions […] Initially, they succeed admirably, but ultimately they flounder.”

Also, are talking low sample sizes here – just 23 female critics! – and the results, no matter how you slice them, are hardly a ringing endorsement for The Spy Who Dumped Me. This does, however, support San Diego State University’s findings about gender bias on RottenTomatoes.

(It’s worth noting: 80% of RottenTomatoes readers like the movie whereas only 37% of critics do. “Those women had fun and so did I” is apparently not unique to just little old ladies who chat up strangers outside theaters.)

Fogel and her stars

All of this touches on the larger conversations we are currently having about the state of film criticism and the need for more diverse voices. It’s why something like the forthcoming female-centric Rotten Tomatoes alternative Cherry Picks exists.

So, I’ll close by getting out of the way and handing the mic to Den of Geek’s Kayti Burt, who penned one of the most enthusiastic Spy Who Dumped Me‘s reviews I’ve read so far:

The prioritization of the female experience outside of romantic relationships is one of The Spy Who Dumped Me‘s greatest strengths, as female characters in spy films are all too often confined by their role as a sex and/or love object. Kunis in particular has romantic subplots but she is never defined by them.

The picture is not about a Smurfette-like lone wolf succeeding in a man’s world, a la Atomic Blonde, but rather about two women who draw power from their friendship and the traditionally feminine qualities they possess in a much-needed subversion of not only the spy genre, but most studio fare […]

The Spy Who Dumped Me arguably tries to be too many things—a buddy comedy, a spy film, a European travel adventure—and doesn’t fully succeed at all of them, but it does succeed where it needs to by constructing a central female friendship that makes viewers both laugh and care. And by putting that successful element inside of a buddy spy comedy travel adventure, The Spy Who Dumped Me doesn’t just offer audiences a hell of a fun, escapist ride, it offers moviegoers something they have never seen before.

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5 comments

  1. Maybe it is less about the gender of the critics than about the rarity what movies like this have to offer. I mean, sure, male critiques care less about seeing specific plot points, but maybe the female critics would judge closer to the male ones if movies centred around female friendships were more common?

    1. I will/can accept that. Maybe if there were more movies like that, and some variety, most people would have instantly forgotten such a mediocre film. That little old lady may have been waiting a really long time for a movie like that.
      Hollywood is still operating on the idea that women won’t go see action movies. Except we will if you give us some strong characters and a plot we can get some deep feels about, like Wonder Woman, and Fury Road.

      That said, I still think gender plays some part in this equation. Speaking as a woman, I think we might have different criteria when responding to a movie, at least as members of the audience. We’re more likely to respond to the emotions, characters, mood, and pay less attention to specific plots, and the technical aspects. Not that we don’t care about those things, they’re just not our priority.

      I’ve noticed this all over Tumblr, which is very female centric, and I follow a lot of women on there. The women talk about movies differently from the guys, and they prioritize different things. The fan behavior, like dialogue, gifs, meta, and discussion of movies and TV shows is centered almost entirely on characters, and their relationships to each other. It’s not that we don’t like car chases and explosions, and gore, but if that’s all you got, we’ll probably be bored. It’s not a hard and fast rule, (I’m just speaking in a broad general sense, cuz there’s a hundred reasons why a woman might go see a movie, and how she will respond to it) but I do know I’m more likely to love a movie for producing certain emotional responses, than the technical aspects of the movie.

      This is anecdotal, but back when Watchmen came out, I was speaking to a young lady at my job about it, and telling her I thought it was a perfectly acceptable film, and I liked it okay, and felt some type of way about the people in it. She, a young Hispanic woman, in her early thirties, absolutely detested that movie. She thought it was ugly and made her feel awful. I’ve been thinking about that conversation, off and on, for years. It started me thinking about what different people will expect and respond to from a movie.

      I’m not a guy, so I don’t really understand how a guy watches a movie, and what he expects, but I suspect that men and women go into these movies with different expectations.

      1. You don’t have to Hispanic to detest that movie. I do too.

        For the record, I am not saying that more diversity between the reviewers isn’t a good idea. I just wanted to bring up this aspect in the interplay. Though, frankly, I am more worried about more diversity in movie criticism than in movie reviewing (which are two different things in my eyes). For the typical “will you like this movie” review the gender or cultural background of the reviewer should not matter because ideally a good reviewer should be able to suss out “who is the target audience” and “will the target audience like it” and “if not, is there perhaps a different group of people which might enjoy this”. Naturally this isn’t happening either because nowadays movie reviews have become waaaaay too much about the personal taste of the reviewer.

      2. Can’t tell you how a guy would feel, btw, I can only tell you how a white European woman who is easily bored by action scenes but nevertheless enjoys them when they have an emotional core thinks of movies.

      3. Arguably this makes me better in judging action scenes, because I am more difficult to please than the average “cool there is an explosion” action movie fan….

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