Visible Women

Why the world needs more female film critics

As Stylist launches a new initiative to galvanise female film reviewers, we investigate why representation matters now more than ever. 

Think of a film critic and you might picture Peter Bradshaw, Anthony Lane, Jonathan Ross, AO Scott or Mark Kermode. Proving rather succinctly that film criticism, like many industries, is one in which there is still a huge gender imbalance.

“There are many fantastic male film critics, who are brilliant writers,” says actor Gemma Chan, “but, as with any industry, more diversity and a range of perspectives means the work speaks to more people, and represents a broader viewpoint. And that’s so important.”

It is for this reason that Chan feels strongly about representation, not only on the big screen and behind the camera, but also in the press screening rooms where the critical consensus is formed.

New research by USC Annenberg in LA shows that only a fifth of film critics are female, and of those only 4.1% are women of colour. The female gaze is severely lacking in film criticism, and that’s why we at Stylist, alongside our issue 428 cover star Gemma Chan, are asking you to step up and join our team of movie reviewers.

“It is absolutely a conscious decision for me to seek out female-led stories, made by women”: Gemma Chan 

It’s a topic that is starting to gain increased attention. Time’s Up, the organisation launched by women in Hollywood as a direct response to the #MeToo movement, which exposed instances of sexual harassment and assault, fights for equality across all workplaces. 

This year, they too have taken aim at the male-dominated world of film criticism. As such, they’re launching Critical, an opt-in database that will connect underrepresented critics and journalists with publicists, studios and talent.

The move follows intensifying calls from within the industry to diversify film criticism. In June, Brie Larson announced in a passionate speech at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards that the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals will offer 20% additional film credentials to underrepresented journalists, while Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock called for more female film critics during their press interviews for Ocean’s 8. Their reasoning being that more diversity in criticism means that more diverse films will reach a wider audience.

As Jessica Chastain has said: “Critics are the ones who suggest to an audience what stories are valuable … we need more female critics to let women and men know stories about women are just as interesting as stories about men.”

Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock have both spoken out about the need for more female film critics 

Taking action

It’s an issue that Chan also feels passionate about – and as an actor, she doesn’t just talk the talk. The decisions she has made with her film projects speak for themselves. In November she stars in Crazy Rich Asians, revolutionary in that it is a mainstream romantic comedy with an all-Asian cast.

Next year, we’ll see Chan starring opposite Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen Of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke, and then with Brie Larson in Captain Marvel, co-written and co-directed by Anna Boden. These are strong female-led stories, directed (or co-directed) by women.

“It is absolutely a conscious decision for me to seek out female-led stories, made by women,” says Chan. 

But, of course, there is no point making female-led stories if they can’t reach an audience, and this is where critics come in. 

The 2016 Ghostbusters remake

“If the majority of film critics and editors are the same gender, ethnicity and class, there’s a danger certain films may be overlooked or undervalued in coverage,” says film critic and broadcaster Anna Smith, who is a member of UK Time’s Up.

She cites 2016’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot as an example. “As a woman who grew up being asked to identify with male heroes, the significance of the all-female cast had a huge emotional impact on me, and that compensated for many of the film’s problems,” she says.

“That’s something that, with the best will in the world, men might not feel as strongly about, so their reviews may have been weighted towards other less positive aspects.”

Smith is the first female chair of the Critics’ Circle Film Section since legendary critic Dilys Powell stepped down over 40 years ago. “When I began writing for film magazines 18 years ago, I was usually asked to review romantic comedies and children’s films,” she continues. “Eventually, one of my editors asked about my favourite genres, and was surprised to hear me include sci-fi.”

The late Sunday Times journalist Dilys Powell (1901-1995) was known for her film criticism 

And of course, it’s not just about genres and having more strong female leads. It’s about the nuances of storytelling – a diverse range of critics bring an array of perspectives, which is important because stories are appreciated in different ways by different people. 

This is why representation matters, and why Chan is helping Stylist launch Under Her Eye, our competition to identify and nurture the next generation of diverse film critics.

As Chastain tweeted in 2016: “Hey #nastywomen – If you love film and are good with a pen, how about becoming a critic?”

You heard her. Read Gemma Chan’s impassioned open letter here – and then find out how you can launch your very own side hustle into the world of film criticism.

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 of Gemma Chan: David Titlow. Other images: Getty Images / Sony Pictures Entertainment