Where are the female film critics?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

This strikes me as part of the overall trend, with women in retreat from many crucial professions. Female participation in computer programming peaked in the 1980s, and female representation as nurses peaked 10 years ago. Apparently female film critics are also disappearing.

Film criticism wasn’t always such a boy’s club. In the 1920s and through World War II, women weren’t welcome covering hard-news topics like politics and international news, but they did find a rare place writing about the moving pictures. At the time, film was considered less prestigious (books and theater being the more highbrow arts), and writing jobs were ideal for homemakers, who could attend press screenings during the day and accept short-term or contract work. As a result, women like Dilys Powell and C.A. Lejeune enjoyed decades-long gigs at prestigious publications (The Sunday Times and The Observer, respectively). Editors liked female reviewers, as several made the assumption that women were softer on films than men, thus endearing their publications to studio ad men. Film criticism, Jerry Roberts writes in The Complete History of Film Criticism, was considered a “suitable domain for women—something for them to do along with ‘sob-sister’ columns and society pages.”

But the joke was on the editors. Film rapidly grew in prestige, and, thus, women critics and writers grew in influence. Some of these writers were even overtly feminist, reviewing movies in ways that challenged Hollywood’s macho culture. In the 1940s and 1950s, Cecelia Ager wrote incisive takes on films like Camille and King Kong, focusing on their female characters. E. Arnot Robertson fixated on films marketed to women, gently mocking sentimental romances while also acknowledging their pleasures. (MGM, so threatened by her review of The Green Years, banned her from future screenings; later, Robertson brought suit. The whole affair cost her a gig at the BBC.)

By the ’60s, two of the biggest voices in film criticism were women. At the New York Herald-Tribune, Judith Crist was banned from 20th Century Fox screenings after panning Cleopatra, a move that made it the fashion for newspapers to “import or create their own hard-to-please reviewers,” according to Roberts. Writing for The New Yorker and others, Pauline Kael became the most famous reviewer in America. Her first book of criticism, I Lost It at the Movies, sold 150,000 copies—unthinkable at the time—and helped make writing books an important source of both revenue and prestige for the critic contingent. Kael’s fight with Andrew Sarris over the “auteur” theory of cinema became film myth.

…Controversy and public spars were important for the development of film criticism: Without them, critics wouldn’t have become so well-read, or appeared on television and radio to endear themselves to new generations. And the ’80s and ’90s were peak times for the female critic, in terms of the sheer number of them installed in full-time gigs at newspapers, according to Roberts.

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