When I was in middle school, I was required to create a diorama illustrating a hypothetical synagogue sanctuary (as you do, at Jewish day school). All I remember about my project is that I glued a picture of Gene Siskel to one of the walls. My teacher rightly called this out for being inappropriately idolatrous, but in the moment, I’d thought that I’d been paying appropriate reverence to an important man. After all, Siskel was Jewish, he had just recently passed away, and, until his death, I watched him and Roger Ebert weekly on television. I loved movies and knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, so I valued the words of Siskel and Ebert as highly as any of the words I was reading in school. These men cultivated my already-growing passion for cinema, and I’m certain that their enthusiasm was a contributing factor in my eventual interest in writing and film criticism.
In the years that followed, I’ve paid attention to Ebert’s ever-expanding body of work, and though I knew of his illness, I was shocked and saddened by his passing last week. I’ve now read plenty of articles praising him for his accomplishments and successes, and I can’t disagree with anything that’s been said. His writing was prolific, his persona was friendly, and he made the general public give a damn about film criticism. His absence will be felt by all who love movies.
Where I begin to disagree with the accolades, however, is the claim that Ebert was a feminist.
Now, I’m not saying he wasn’t a feminist. I can’t know whether he was or not because, to my knowledge, he never publicly self-identified one way or the other. Some have referred to him as a “stealth feminist,” which may be a good way of putting it. But I do know that, at least in the later years of his life, he made certain comments that contradict my own views of what feminism means. These comments don’t necessarily make him anti-feminist, but they need to be examined in discussions about his feminism.
Particularly Ebert’s feminist contradictions are visible in his approach to depictions of women and violence onscreen. On the one hand, in 1980, he and Siskel devoted an entire episode of “Sneak Previews” to condemning violence against women in horror and thriller movies. Gratuitous violence against women is still a significant problem in film today, and one that is rarely discussed at length in mainstream venues, so the fact that Ebert and Siskel actively engaged in feminist analysis on television was groundbreaking.
On the other hand, 30 years later, Ebert wrote a negative review of Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass,” which appeared to blame the film’s failings on the violent nature of the female lead. I can’t blame Ebert for disliking “Kick-Ass” (I didn’t like it either), but I fetl his problems with the film were misplaced. Rather than criticizing the film as a whole for its cartoonish violence and bleak worldview, he targeted his criticisms toward Hit-Girl (played by Chloë Grace Moretz), the 11-year-old girl who held her own against the male villains. “Kick-Ass” is hardly a feminist triumph, but it at least allowed a woman to be as aggressive and self-sufficient as the men, and had I seen the film when I was in middle school, I would have felt empowered by that image. I also would have been crushed to know that Ebert, a man I so admired, didn’t believe that such a characterization was acceptable for a young lady onscreen.
On a personal level, Ebert’s contradictions were evident in his approach to issues like abortion. Just last month in an essay about his Catholicism, he wrote that he was pro-choice but still (perhaps inadvertently) placed a higher value on an unborn child than on that child’s mother:
“I support freedom of choice. My choice is to not support abortion, except in cases of a clear-cut choice between the lives of the mother and child. A child conceived through incest or rape is innocent and deserves the right to be born.”
On the one hand, he stated that he was pro-choice, which I assume means he opposed the overturning of Roe v. Wade — which would permit the government to make reproductive choices for women rather than women themselves. On the other hand, his articulation of his personal views is judgmental of women who make choices with which he disagrees. It’s one thing to understand that the option of choice needs to exist, but it’s another entirely to recognize that, even in non-life-threatening cases, there are reasons why terminating a pregnancy may truly be the right decision. Either way, that’s not a judgment call for anyone other than the mother in question to make. To be truly pro-choice is to trust the instincts of the women making the choice, which is a trust that doesn’t come through when reading Ebert’s words.
Again, I want to make it clear that I don’t think that Ebert was necessarily anti-feminist. Rather, I’m uncomfortable assigning a label to him that he may not have wanted to adopt for himself, and I’m honestly not sure why some feminists are finding it so important to claim Ebert as one of our own. Would he not be worthy of celebration if he were deemed not quite feminist enough? Do his politics outweigh his artistic accomplishments?
Ultimately, I don’t think it matters if Ebert was a feminist or not. I don’t think that should necessarily be the litmus test for whether or not he was a valuable and influential voice in the world of film criticism. I think that some of his words were very feminist, while others weren’t at all. In the end, I don’t know which words more accurately reflected who he was as a person.
We’ll never know for sure. But that’s okay. He brought so much joy to so many moviegoers, myself included, that I’m comfortable leaving this particular question unanswered.