Swedish Cinemas Grading Films on Gender Representation? Good.

So, a few Swedish cinemas and the Nordic television film channel Viasat Film are using the Bechdel Movie Test to give films grades based on gender representation? When I say “a few” I mean around four cinemas. Not every cinema in Sweden. Four. Predictably, the decision by these theaters — as well as a statement of support by the national Swedish Film Institute — has generated considerable media attention.

What is the Bechdel Test, exactly? Well, to “pass” the test a film must have:

1. At least two [named] women in it

2. Who talk to each other

3. About something besides a man

That’s it. It was an idea floated in jest by a cartoonist 20 years ago. It’s painfully simple, unscientific and broad. And passing the test tells us little to nothing about whether an individual film is or isn’t promoting pro-social gender balance. For example, two female protagonists can talk with each other about shopping or make-up and the film will pass. Or, a film made up entirely of men who discuss the dangers of patriarchy will fail. Thus, the reasoning goes, the test is worthless. But, to me, these arguments miss the point.

Particularly illuminating examples of this missing the point can be seen in the headlines given by various newspapers around the world to the same Associated Press story on the decision by these few cinemas to give the rankings. Headlines such as:

Swedish cinemas launch feminist movie rating” – USA Today

‘Star Wars’, ‘Lord of the Rings’ deemed sexist after failing ‘Bechdel Test’ for female characters” – The Australian

‘Harry Potter’ not feminist enough for these Swedish theaters” – Red Bluff Daily News (California)

It’s not so much that Harry Potter and Star Wars are sexist – which they are – that matters in the Bechdel issue: it’s the cumulative effect of the lack of female protagonists discussing issues divorced from men in popular culture that is key. In addition, it cannot be denied that the decision by these few cinemas in Sweden to use the test has triggered a broader debate on the representation of women in film and television. That’s good. And if you think it isn’t, you really need to wake up.

I would argue that the fact that a small number of mainstream films would actually pass the Bechdel Test causes far less debate and discussion than the test is being used in Sweden shows exactly why the test is needed. Those who cry “soft censorship” and over-zealous feminism in response to this initiative (about 98% of whom are men, by my non-scientific estimation) clearly have no idea what the words “censorship” or “zealous” mean.

Censorship isn’t just state regulation and prior restraint, it’s also the by-product of repressive social and economic structures which limit the ability of certain artistic voices to emerge. In this case, women in the film industry. Zealousness isn’t just seen in defense of a cause, it is more often found in the brutal protection of power. In this case, male power.

A recent study by Fandor showed that in 2011 women made up 5% of the directors in Hollywood. And, if you think that things are always improving, that’s actually a decrease from 7% on 2010 and 9% in 2009. In the 85 years of The Oscars, a woman has been nominated for Best Director four times, and won once (Kathryn Bigalow for The Hurt Locker). And, of the top 100 grossing films between 2002-2012, 4% were directed by women.

The Bechdel Test isn’t about feminism. It’s about patriarchy.

About chrchristensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

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