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I Got Death Threats For Writing A Bad Review Of ‘Aquaman’

I saw “Aquaman″ on a brisk Monday morning in December. Though I appreciated that star Jason Momoa didn’t take himself too seriously while playing an underwater superhero, the glut of CGI effects distracted me from the story. Which was hollow and nonsensical anyway.

As with every movie I watch — up to four a week, hundreds a year — I expressed my opinion in print and online for Us Weekly, as well as my own site, MaraMovies.com. The review was also linked on Rotten Tomatoes, where I’m a Top Critic. Since I had a lot of films on my busy holiday schedule, I quickly moved on. Hundreds of men who read my review did not.

I knew something was awry when I received 10 consecutive message notifications on Instagram. I have a paltry 400 followers. The last time someone wrote me cold on that platform was over the summer, when a kind-hearted stranger wanted to let me know he had found my lost wallet. These messengers, with their various D.C. Comics and Aquaman-related monikers, weren’t sharing similarly good news. They were writing to let me know they were outraged about my negative review.

“You bitch better go and suck a penis. Giving reviews by taking currency. Worst character living in the world. Bastard Bitch.”

“U fucking marvel dumbo bitch.”

“Hey what pathetic looser [sic] you are. I will kill your mom, dad and friends Bcoz I want [you] to regret for what u did. I have your address and details about your family members.”

“Wait don’t take this as a joke, next time if your parents die in a shooting or bombing… don’t [say] that I didn’t warn u.”

“Bitch stop writing bad reviews.”

I scrolled through messages with my heart beating out of my chest. I had rarely seen such filth in print, let alone directed at me. I reported the messages to Instagram and was rebuffed because, per the automated response, the vitriol didn’t “violate community guidelines.”  

Didn’t matter. They found me on Facebook and Twitter, too. One man suggested “Kill yourself you stupid feminazi” and noted “btw your last name sounds Jewish so no surprise you are such an ignorant person hope another Holocaust happens.” Nearly 2,000 people “liked” a post in which some guy made a collage of my face and a few negative reviews. One comment: “Look at that smile that’s someone who’s been single for more than a year.”

Over the next 10 days or so, I was greeted with these kinds of messages, even as ”Aquaman” opened No. 1 at the box office and made a gazillion dollars. I attempted to block each user before I could process the hateful words. I wasn’t scared by the threats as I much as I was disheartened.

One guy summed it up when he messaged me: “How many of us are you going to block? There are thousands of us.” One slightly built if even-keeled woman couldn’t take on an angry mob of men. Key words being “woman” and “men.” I knew full well that male film critics who slagged on this same movie weren’t getting this kind of vicious feedback.

If you ever want to become instantly popular at a cocktail party, tell people that you’re a film critic. The questions fly at a furious pace — “Do you get to see all the movies for free?” (Yup). “What’s your favorite movie of all time?” (”Back to the Future”). “Which celebrity is the nicest?” (They’re all generally nice, except for Roseanne Barr). I also get the curious catch-all of “what it’s like being a film critic?” A lot of fun, I respond. Nobody ever thinks to ask the most pressing and complicated question of all: What’s it like being a female film critic?

The numbers don’t lie. We make up just 32 percent of the industry, according to a recent study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State. Being on the wrong end of a crooked number has far-reaching effects, extending all the way to the very films on the marquee.

The great Manohla Dargis of The New York Times recently wrote about what it’s like being a female critic in the Me Too era, admitting that she’s only now become more sensitive to implicit misogyny. For too long, female critics have been subjected to crass jokes and objectification up on the big screen. Few ever called out these filmmakers and demanded change.

There are people way smarter than me and higher up on the food chain helping move that needle. But I’m not convinced people are fully aware how the job of of female-minded criticism is complicated by the way we are treated by the men who read, watch and listen to our opinions. We’re constantly doubted, and, yes, targeted just because of our gender.

Adore a movie that I green-splatted on Rotten Tomatoes? Women almost apologetically take umbrage with my actual viewpoints. Male bullies tend to go straight to my genetic makeup.

The B-word and C-word are tossed around with regularity. Years ago, one guy commented that I must have been on my period when I saw a certain action film. After I opined on a radio show, a group of men found my photo and discussed my level of hotness on a forum. They knocked my hair, my skin and my nose. Though my male counterparts get some blowback as well, I doubt anyone is ripping them for their looks.

I try very hard to take a stick-and-stones approach to the anonymous knee-jerk insults. What do these trolls know from taste, screw ’em. I even used to retweet the knocks, hoping to embarrass the perpetrators and showing off the comments almost as a perverse badge of honor. I’m not amused anymore. My stress level has gone to scary places, since I fear that just one person might carry out their threats.

Worse, I worry that reading volumes of hate mail is starting to get in my head and cause me to consider the potential angry male ramifications while I’m writing my reviews, thereby compromising my integrity. As if women needed one more obstacle as we try to get ahead in our careers.  

Most of all, I’m deeply offended by the barbs implying that I’m unqualified to do my job. That I can’t understand the nuances of a comic-book movie because I grew up playing with Barbies. That I can’t root for ”Creed II” because girls “don’t like sports.” That I should just stick to rom-coms and Nicholas Sparks adaptations. These stereotypes are as wrong as they are demeaning.

A marvelous film in any genre will transcend any audience. All critics love movies — why else would we keep going back for more? Yet these snap judgments are second-nature because men have long been considered the ultimate taste-makers. And for the record, I can’t stand ”The Notebook.”

This online harassment isn’t limited to a geeky niche industry, of course. Do me a favor: Read any vaguely provocative column or essay written by a woman. Even a tweet. Then count the mean-spirited comments unrelated to the words on the screen. A snipe at her background here, a quip about her appearance there. What they’re really saying is: How dare this woman have the gall to state an opinion.

The next time someone asks me about my job, I’ll respond that while there’s no greater delight than leaving an office in the middle of the day to go to the movies for professional research purposes, being a female critic requires a skin thicker than that of a desert rattlesnake. You must steel yourself for frightening threats that go for the jugular. And the only way to deal is to move forward, because heaven forbid you exit social media in this age of relentless self-branding.

I don’t know if the trolling or crude stereotyping will ever dissipate. I’m already bracing for the volatile responses to my next green splat. My only comfort is knowing that while these bullies are hiding behind fake names and laptops, I’m using my voice to openly fight back.

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