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.

An inspiration to fight on

I had planned to produce the next post in my ongoing narrative about OCD by the close of 2016.  Truth be told, I started writing it yesterday, then started re-writing it today.  I’m a bit stuck.  After growing anxious and disillusioned by this, I’ve decided that it’s ok.  In therapy I’m taught to focus on what I have achieved – and I have achieved something by starting the narrative.  The next part will come right, and I’ll post it soon enough.

However, I still wanted to post something by the end of the week.  It’s traditional as we come to the end of the year to reflect and look forward.  I hear and read a lot of people saying that 2016 has been a bad year; either personally, in terms of celebrated artists and entertainers passing away, divisive political votes, the triumph of those propelled by a rhetoric of hatred, refugee crises and a feeling that the peoples of the world are being driven apart.

I, personally, have had a shitty couple of years.  The most difficult period of mental illness has, excuse my language, fucked me over no end.  But I did start making progress in a difficult battle in 2016.  For those of you that are friends of mine on Facebook, you would have seen a rather emotional post a couple of weeks ago, celebrating that I had made a significant step forward in my recovery.  I genuinely was very emotional, realising just so strongly that I can win, that I will get better, and I am getting close.  My therapist told me that I am right to celebrate that.

So it has been quite difficult to swallow having had a more difficult patch over the past week.  Then something very sad happened, and despite it being very sad, I think it helps remind me not to think of this wobble as a backward step, and difficult as it is, to remember my strength and that I am getting closer to winning.

Last night the actress, author and mental health advocate Carrie Fisher died, aged 60, and I am deeply saddened.

Star Wars has been a massive, positive, part of my life; as indeed, it has been a massive, positive part of our culture for the past 40 years.  Aged seven, Princess Leia was the first love of my life.  But what I have to say here is more than a fan-boy lament for a beautiful princess.

Leia is far more than a beautiful princess.  She endured wrongs, and loss, and pain, but stood stronger for them, never giving up hope, fighting for what was right and just with a fierce independence, influencing those around her to find their best selves and move forward.  I believe in that character as a cultural and feminist icon, who influenced millions in a hugely positive way.

The power of the character worked, because those qualities and values were Carries Fishers, and this great actress was strong and funny and true.  She was alll this in the grip of a bi-polar disorder that rather than bowing under and hiding from (which would be understandable), she stood up to and spoke honestly about.  She did so with a honest frankness, and a fuck-you attitude: she accepted the fight she’d been given, did not back down from it or any other, whilst remaining herself, her funny, don’t give-a-shit self who did not care what anyone thought of her.  This brilliant self was an amazing example to the millions who loved her; an example to be yourself and stand up for yourself, to speak out about the struggle and do not give up, just like the rebel princess she portrayed.

So I’m going to speak up honestly about how I feel this week – not good.  And I’ve not produced the blog article I wanted.  But I will endure, I will fight on.  My recent emotional celebration was not in vain.  If I stand up to it, and believe that I am nearly better, I will get there soon.  Thankyou Carrie for the example you led by, and the inspiration to others to speak out about their mental health.

And thankyou Leia for showing what you do when confronted by darkness.

R.I.P. Carrie Fisher.  May the Force be with you, always.