Cinemas in Sweden have instituted a classification system for films, based not on the violence or sexual content they contain, but on how sexist they are.
To be awarded the highest A rating for gender equality, a film must pass the so-called Bechdel test: the movie must contain at least two named women characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.
The test – whose origins are in a 1985 storyline in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For – may sound like an incredibly low bar. But an alarming number of films showing in cinemas fail to reach it. “The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, all Star Wars movies, The Social Network, Pulp Fiction and all but one of the Harry Potter movies fail this test,” said Ellen Tejle, who runs Stockholm’s Bio Rio, one of a number of independent cinemas that has instituted the classification.
To that one might add a number of current releases and Oscar contenders: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, despite its starring role for Sandra Bullock; Lee Daniels’ The Butler, about a presidential servant and the civil rights movement; and Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass’s piracy drama, which involves an all-male gang of pirates attacking an all-male shipping crew. The WikiLeaks film Fifth Estate, which is partly set in the offices of the Guardian, fails the test.
Oddly enough, Thor (in which Chris Hemsworth plays the Nordic god, come to save us all from Christopher Ecclestone) does pass, since it features a scene in which Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings discuss nuclear physics.
But some classics fail to meet the test, with the Shawshank Redemption, which regularly tops viewers’ polls, falling foul of the Bechdel criteria.
Claire Binns, director of programming and exhibition for the UK-based Picturehouse chain, said the classification idea would not be taken up in her cinemas anytime soon, but it certainly highlighted a real problem – a “criminal” lack of parts for older women in cinema, a desperate lack of women working behind the camera and a failure of the film industry to bring to the screen “women with real stories – women that aren’t just there to be killed in reel three or raped in reel four”.
She said that she “did her utmost” to seek out for her chain films with strong female stories, mentioning the forthcoming Bright Days Ahead, directed by Marion Vernoux and starring French actor Fanny Ardant as a dentist embarking on an affair with a younger man.
She also said Picturehouse had decided not to show the violent, macho cop drama The Sweeney on London screens, a film “which I found quite offensive”.
In Sweden the experiment is reflective of a much more ardent debate on gender equality than in Britain or North America, said Sofia Nyblom, a Swedish journalist and arts consultant. It comes against the background of the Swedish film institute’s gender equality directive, which states that 50% of its funding should go to women filmmakers.
In other artforms, too, patience was running out with gender inequality, she said, citing Kvast, a body set up to agitate for better representation of women composers by performing groups and broadcasters. “I don’t think this will attract sneers,” she said.
But the Bechdel test is, some argue, a crude way of assessing films for gender equality. Dr Bella Honess Roe, lecturer in film studies at Surrey University, pointed out that The Hurt Locker would not pass the test, though “it was a watershed moment for women directors when Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for it”.
Films that are, arguably, problematic in other ways, such as The Help, which was criticised for its race politics, would pass, she added. “If we are going to classify for gender equality then surely we would have to examine class, race, ethnicity and sexuality bias,” she said.
Clio Barnard, acclaimed as one today’s most exciting British film-makers, notes that her most recent film, The Selfish Giant, with three male protagonists, fails the test. So does her debut feature The Arbor (on a formal technicality: its two main characters are both women, but they never speak to each other). “It’s a good thing if it raises the question,” she said. “But I’d like to have a discussion about changing the rules.”
A women’s viewpoint behind the camera was at least as important as the characters on screen, she said – recalling her excitement at seeing Andrea Arnold‘s debut feature Red Road, and its “brilliant exploration of female sexual desire”.
Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of the Women and Hollywood website, acknowledged the crudeness of test (“it doesn’t tell you whether it’s a good film”). But it is at least presenting information that can contribute to a necessary debate, she said. “It would be great if our culture reflected who we were and didn’t have to seek out information about whether we are included.”
And it matters, said Kate Gerova, the director of the Bird’s Eye film festival, which screens work by women filmmakers. “We make sense of ourselves through cinema,” she said. “Its first principle is one of identification. How you make sense of who you are, where you are in the world – we do this through cinema.” There are plenty, it seems, who are fatigued by watching films, in the words of Honess Roe, about “men running around blowing each other up while women sit about in inappropriate clothes, waiting to be rescued.” – By Charlotte Higgins © Guardian News and Media 2013
Image – www.sxc.hu