Featured today in The Guardian was an article about a new rating being promoted in Sweden, whereby cinemas “are introducing a new rating to highlight gender bias, or rather the absence of it.” Admirable though the attempt may be, appealing to the dictates of a standardised test is a flawed way of determining which films ‘make the grade’ to promote gender equality.
According to the article, “To get an A rating, a movie must pass the so-called Bechdel test, which means it must have at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.” By these inane criteria, Gravity fails. Is anyone seriously going to argue that a film which features a female astronaut doctor who never makes a single mention of a partner (male or otherwise) who tries to overcome grief and who must use her wits and will to survive doesn’t feature female empowerment? Similarly, almost all of James Cameron’s works (discounting the arguably misogynistic True Lies), so notable for their strong and empowering representations of women, fail the test.
The test, originally designed by artist Alison Bechdel in 1985, succeeds as an effective consciousness raiser (in the same way that showing a map of the world with the southern hemisphere on top does), but becomes dangerously insufficient as grounds for anything more. In the same way that showing a map of the world “upside down” does little more than bear out the fact that North America is no more up than South America, determining whether a film includes a scene in which women don’t talk about a man does not designate whether that film features gender equality. To complete the analogy, it would be like arguing that the Southern Hemisphere should be printed on top, because that’s the way it ought to be considered by everyone. More damnably, the argument would contend that even if not accurate (the position of the poles is entirely arbitrary) it would at least counter-balance the centuries of North-centric world maps. If my obvious rendering hasn’t made the problem clear, then the facile nature of this test should be enough to discount its legitimacy, that is to say, the way in which it allows for arbitrary reductions of the complex processes of cinematic language to a simple pass or fail.
The issue, as it may very well become, is if films are valued purely for a ridiculous conflation between speech and gender equality, and furthermore if people are led to eschew films without the grade in favour of material which do purport to pass this criteria. If you’ll indulge this slippery slope fallacy a jot further, consider that an offensively stupid movie where Katherine Heigl talks about electrostimulating panties with a woman gets an A grade (that is to say, gets branded as a film promoting gender equality simply by association), while the vast majority of films do not simply because the art is not concerned in making two women swap stories.
As Swedish film critic Hynek Pallas (quoted in the article) notes, “There are far too many films that pass the Bechdel test that don’t help at all in making society more equal or better, and lots of films that don’t pass the test but are fantastic at those things.”
While I do agree gender inequality is an issue in cinema (arguably a major issue), the imposition of a draconian measure of conduct seems altogether too simplistic to be of any use–other than to promote dullness. Part of the problem underlying this apparent inequality stems from a very real inequality in the Hollywood system. Quite simply, there aren’t many female directors or writers. When they do exist (the late and incomparable Nora Ephron comes to mind, as she no doubt comes to the minds of many) they usually operate within the spheres of drama or comedy, which save for a few exceptions do not generally do big business, at least, not big enough to have every studio clawing for an encore. Notably, when a film like Hurt Locker wins Best Picture, and its female director the top prize as well, the dual win is notable not only for the film’s male-dominated and typically hyper-masculine genre and the director’s gender, but for the way in which the latter successfully operates within the former. Important to note, in yet another example of how this letter-grade system is little more than an interesting game of statistics than it is a designation of any real cultural value: the Hurt Locker also fails the Bechdel test.
While Hollywood’s currently male-dominated system has no doubt created a situation where women aren’t in power (though it’s also important to note that equality doesn’t mean simply seceding all rights to another group just for a change of pace), the solution is not so simple as merely throwing more women on the screen to have conversations about nothing just to pass the test. Moreover, even if men do attempt to depict women on film they’re either called misguided or accused of appropriating the female for their own needs. The most recent example of this trend, Blue is the Warmest Colour, is a lesbian-themed film written and directed by a man, which left more than a few critics wondering if they were going to put up with that sort of thing, but which does pass the Bechdel test despite this (even though the women swap spit as much as they do small-talk). So the problems then are that we have not enough women making movies, not enough men comfortable enough to make movies from a female perspective (or which includes a female perspective), and a general public of female viewers who, for all their inchoate appeals for greater female characters, can’t quite decide what exactly they want to see these characters do. Taken together then, it is a problem of a greater magnitude than that which our recidivist impulses to make lists can fix.
Still, I suppose they’ve earned an A for effort.