Visible Women

Gemma Chan’s open letter on the importance of diversity in film criticism

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Gemma Chan
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As she launches Under Her EyeStylist’s new initiative to find the next wave of female film reviewers, actor Gemma Chan explains why diverse stories and perspectives are so important in cinema. 

Dear Stylist readers,

Significant steps have been taken within my industry to rectify the gender imbalance that still exists. However, a recent US study found that just 22.2% of film critics are female and only 4.1% are women of colour. Here in the UK, the situation is not much better, with membership of the Critics’ Circle Film Section currently about 24% female. Despite a handful of exceptions, film criticism is still, overwhelmingly, white and male.

Does this matter? Well… yes. Not only is it an employment issue for women who write about film but worryingly, research has also shown male critics are more likely to review films featuring a male protagonist than a female one. And, when they review films directed by a woman, they are less likely than female reviewers to mention the director by name, and to offer positive comments about her work.

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The unavoidable truth is, as Brie Larson recently said, “It really sucks that reviews matter, but reviews matter.” Critics are the ones who suggest to a potential audience which stories are worthwhile and valuable. This not only impacts the visibility and box office success of films with female protagonists and/or female writers and directors, it can also have a knock-on effect on the likelihood of such films being green-lit again.

“We have seen the ramifications of an industry in which the content sold to audiences is created and reviewed by individuals who are primarily white men,” says Dr Stacy L Smith, one of the directors of the study into film critics. “Creating inclusive hiring practices at every stage of the filmmaking and review process is essential to ensuring that we see diverse perspectives reflected in society.”

“Diversity in our stories, perspectives and culture can only help us gain a better understanding of one another”: Gemma Chan 

It’s worth pointing out that it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, film reviews were once considered ‘women’s work’. In the past, seminal figures included the likes of Dilys Powell (The Sunday Times), Iris Barry (The Spectator; The Daily Mail) and Pauline Kael (The New Yorker), all of whom helped influence and shape the very nature of cinema critique.

And I’ve been encouraged, challenged and inspired by talented female writers doing vital work today (Kate Muir, Wendy Ide, Catherine Bray, Anne Billson, Corrina Antrobus and Simran Hans to name just a few, and whose work I encourage you to seek out). However, it’s undeniable that film criticism, despite a few exceptions, remains largely a male-dominated field.

In light of this disparity, and as part of Stylist’s campaign to raise the visibility of women, I’m proud to announce that Stylist is launching its own panel of female film critics, committed to reviewing film through the female gaze. Part of this will involve a competition to find the new generation of female film critics. This is a brilliant opportunity for someone who is passionate about film, and who has ever dreamt of writing about it.

One final and crucial thing to note: we are not saying men shouldn’t be allowed to review films by or about women. We just feel that more women (particularly women of colour) should be doing it too. Diversity in our stories, perspectives and culture can only help us gain a better understanding of one another. Which, in these divided times, surely can’t hurt.

In love and solidarity,

Gemma Chan

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.  

Photography: David Titlow