Girls on film: it's time to celebrate women critics, the liveliest voices in cinema

Why has it taken us so long to realise that the strongest, most exciting voices, shaping our opinions of cinema are women?

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It was encouraging to find such a celebratory air to the recent Sight & Sound feature on female voices in film criticism. Without playing down the levels of gender inequality in the industry, the magazine (which last year ran a competition to find new female film writers) opted primarily to highlight the influential contribution of women to the way movies are discussed, understood and appreciated. I’m grateful to the article for alerting me to Hilary Mantel’s film writing for the Spectator between 1987 and 1991. And for making me ponder the role women played in my own film education, which is to say: they were everything.

My main cinemagoing companion as a child, in fact the first person who ever took me to the cinema, was my grandmother. Our post-movie chit-chat was as much a part of the experience as the packed lunches she prepared for us to eat in the stalls in those days when cinema concession stands didn’t run to much more than pre-packed popcorn, a King Cone and a box of Matchmakers. That means the first voice that ever spoke to me, and with me, about films was passionate, giddy, funny — and female.

I didn’t find an equivalent of that voice in print until I was a teenager. Existing on a diet of film reviews in Time Out, I discovered the snappy dispatches of Anne Billson, and realised overnight that it was permissible, even preferable, to use humour when writing about cinema. I can even remember the review that flicked that switch on in my brain — it was Billson’s mischievous take-down of Wild Geese II (“A right load of proper gander”), a film so ridiculous that it merited only mockery. (Happily, the whole review is online here).

I wasn’t the only one inspired and energised by reading Billson’s writing: Jane Giles celebrates her in the Sight & Sound feature. That in turn reminds me that Giles herself was also an important presence in the life of any film buff coming of age in 1980s London: she was the manager of the Scala repertory cinema (and later wrote a study of The Crying Game in the BFI’s Modern Classics series—a film that was financed in part from the Scala’s takings).

From reading Anne Billson it was only a short leap to Pauline Kael, whose chunky collections looked unruly and gaily-coloured on the sober shelves of my university library.

Watch Kael in action:

If Billson showed that humour was an important tool in film writing, Kael demonstrated that you could make your own rules. As Nick Pinkerton notes in his own contribution to that Sight & Sound feature, to love and read Kael is to engage in endless spats with her. My love and admiration for her has been fierce and erratic. Paradoxically, that’s one of the reasons her reviews are so important to me: a disagreement with her is always a ruck worth having. Her writing is alive and boisterous, with shades of the bar-room brawl about it; closing one of her books, it still feels as though the arguments are still raging with the pages.

Film criticism has plenty of robust, distinctive female voices — from Charlotte O’Sullivan at the Standard and Catherine Shoard at the Guardian to Sophie Monks Kaufman at Little White Lies and my NS colleague Antonia Quirke (whose brilliant and engaging guests spots hosting BBC1’s Film 2015 render it absurd that the programme makers haven’t handed stewardship of that show to her on a permanent basis). The Sight & Sound piece has been chastening in one way. Just because the female voice in film writing and broadcasting is implicit doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be emphasised and celebrated. How strange, and telling, that it took that feature to make me consider and acknowledge the importance of the female voice in my own development.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.