Use the Bechdel Test to rate films and challenge the film-makers

As I said at the end of the last article, I’m taking a break today from the ongoing narrative about mental health issues, to talk about a feminist issue in film that I care about a lot.

It is not just because I am Carey Mulligan’s number one fan that I was so happy about the release of the Sarah Gavron-directed Suffragette, in 2015.  It was also because I am a feminist (yes, feminist, not ‘male-feminist’).  It was because I hope that many people watched that film and did not just get angry about issues depicted being from such recent history, but also became passionate to challenge inequality issues that exist right now.  I felt it was an important film at an important time.  Hopefully together with such events as the recent Women’s marches; the launch of the Women’s Equality Party in the UK; the UN’s solidarity movement He For She (@HeforShe) as championed by Emma Watson; and the excellent, accessible, online media platform The Pool (@thepooluk) co-founded by Sam Barker and Lauren Laverne in 2015, there’s a growing awareness and demystification of feminism among the everyday population; what it is, and why it is so important to us all.  Then again, maybe I’m just being naïve.

Whether I am being naïve or not, the continued existence of the inequalities and poor attitudes faced by women and girls, is a matter for urgent, continuing, conversation and challenge.  Not least in the film industry, for the cultural representation of women and girls, and the artistic and industry opportunities within, can be both a good reflection of inequalities and attitudes that exist in wider society, and provide opportunities to represent, inspire and normalise equality and healthier attitudes.

There are key Hollywood figures speaking up about the issue.  Geena Davis is producing a documentary film in partnership with CreativeChaos on gender inequality in Hollywood; Jennifer Lawrence wrote an essay in 2015 for Lena Dunham’s Lemmy Letter newsletter expressing anger at the gender pay gap in the film industry (a good example being the considerable gap between herself and her male co-stars in 2013’s American Hustle); while Reese Witherspoon and Jodie Foster are among other major figures that have contributed to the debate since then, also citing limited opportunities for female directors.

Last week Emma Stone (an excellent actor) became the seventh winner of the best actress since the year 2000 to be aged in her 20’s, compared to just one male in that age bracket picking up best actor gong in that time, possibly indicating a greater value on age and attractiveness being placed on women in Hollywood; and / or limited opportunities for older actresses.  As well as disproportionate opportunities for female talent, there is a disproportionate representation of nudity when it comes to female performers.  The 2016 Mount Saint Mary’s University, California, Annual Report on Status of Women showed that 26% of female characters in the US Box Office top 100 films for 2014 appeared nude or partially nude, compared to 9% of male characters.

All in all, it was great to see Suffragette, a film about equality struggles faced by women, featuring a number of great female performers of varying ages, directed by a female director.  And, of course, it passed the Bechdel test.

Whoah there.  The who, what, which is that you say, Baz?

Some of you may be familiar with the Bechdel test, but many people I speak to (feminists included) have not, so here it is.  Named after the American cartoon satirist Alison Bechdel, the test is a simple one to apply to a film, and you would hope it should be easy to pass.  To do so, all the film requires is to have a minimum of two named female characters, who at some point have at least one conversation, which is not about a male character.  Not much to ask is it.

According to bechdeltest.com 42% of films fail this test.  I actually thought it was even more, but nonetheless, that does not sound good enough to me.

Now there are limitations to the Bechdel test of course.  For example, what constitutes a conversation?  The female characters could still be appallingly two-dimensional or stereotyped, and the film could still be sexist.  But it is a least a starting point to measure disproportionate representation.

There are other tests – such as the Mako Mori test (named for a character in the 2013 film Pacific Rim).  To pass this test, a film needs to have at least one female character, who has her own narrative arc, which is independent of any male characters story arc.  Ideally, and quite reasonably, films should be passing both these tests (in my personal opinion).

Now, I am sure that there are many more experienced bloggers and film writers who have discussed the Bechdel test, analysed it’s various merits and the wider issue in depth.  That is not exactly what I have produced this article for though.  What I would like to do is to use the Bechdel test to help stimulate change.

There are many sources for us film fans to judge the quality of films, or whether they might personally appeal.  IMdB, Rotten Tomatoes, Empire Magazine, Total Film magazine, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies etc., etc.  There are many insightful and well written reviews.  There are many ratings for films (sometimes clashing – opinion and interpretation are a big part of this art form).  For example, Empire and many others rate films on a scale of 1 – 5 stars.

So what I am thinking is, how difficult would it be to add one small thing: Bechdel test passed – yes/no?  Apart from anything else, it wouldn’t be long before a lot more people were aware of what the Bechdel test was, and the point of it.  Then be thinking more about the importance of it.  Yes, the Bechdel test may be limited – but it is a starting point, and every little helps.  It just may make the conversation louder, and instigate the use of ever more effective tests, and prompt demands for action to take place.  So why not?

Thus I would like anyone who agrees with me to help lay down this challenge to Empire Magazine (www.empireonline.com); Total Film magazine (www.totalfilm.com); Sight & Sound magazine (www.bfi.org.uk); Little White Lies (www.lwlies.com); Guardian Film, or whatever publication you take you film review and ratings from, here in the UK or wherever else you are reading this (otherwise I’m going to look silly trying to do it on my own!).  Email them.  Tweet them.  Annoy them.  Make this small but important addition to your film rating.  Bechdel test pass: yes/no.

Change it Hollywood!  Help them change it British Film Press!

Thanks for reading – the next article shall return to my ongoing narrative about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and broader issues around mental health.


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