So, last week on the plane back to England, I watched a movie called Mental. I’d never heard of the film before; Aer Lingus’ in-flight entertainment tends to feature more international and fewer mainstream American films, so I was basing my choice purely on the bits of it I’d seen on the screen of the woman in front of me (for some reason, movies on other people’s screens always look better to me – I think it’s the same principle behind the way that whatever meal the person at the next table got looks better than anything listed on the menu).
The Australian film features a family of five daughters, with their mother on the verge of a breakdown and their father largely absent, but technically sticking around because he’s the town mayor and has a reputation to uphold.
When the film was finished, I found myself thinking about the fact that such a film probably wouldn’t get made in America, and that that was a bit of a shame (its opening weekend in the US earned just $750). The film is messy, sometimes disturbing, and doesn’t quite fit into any neat movie-genre formulas; just when you think you know where it’s going, it takes a turn for the unexpected. Eventually, I also realized that I think it might not get made in America because of the way that it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.
Now, I hear you thinking… “Bechdel Test… where have I heard that before?” Well, if it sounds familiar, that could be because it got some coverage late last year when Sweden decided to “take aim at gender bias” by rating films based on the test – films would have to pass the test to earn an A rating.
What, exactly, is the Bechdel Test? Introduced in 1985 in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” the “rule,” as it was then called, is explained by a character who says “I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it… who, two talk to each other about, three, something besides a man” (many people who use the test also stipulate that the female characters must be named).
This test has been taken as a way to tell if a movie is or is not sexist (I’ve seen it referred to as the “Bechdel Test for Sexism”). Now, obviously, that’s a problem, as there are PLENTY of films that pass the test that are anything BUT woman-friendly (for instance, all four Twilight films pass). Furthermore, a film can pass on a very small conversation (Love Actually passes because of the conversation between Emma Thompson and her daughter about the fact that her daughter has been cast as a lobster in the school nativity). Finally, the test does not take into account any other factors; if we added a stipulation about women of color, trans women, or lesbian women, I could imagine that the number of films passing would be embarrassing.
Now, personally, I always thought that the test was more useful as a light but effective way to point out that many films actually DON’T pass the test, as opposed to a serious way to check whether or not a particular film is or is not sexist.
Either way, the Bechdel Test has gotten people talking more about women in film.
While you’d think that nobody could disagree with the idea that women and men should be represented in films pretty evenly (considering that each makes up approximately half of the population, give or take), this isn’t always the case. For instance, this article outlines some complaints that were made that there were too many women onstage at the recent Golden Globes award ceremony, then goes on to provide statistics about how far women are from actual equality in the film industry, while this one discusses why the lack of racial diversity in the ceremony was a huge problem. The articles make some compelling points about the relationships between Hollywood and politics, showing the parallels in percentages of women to men, and about the uncomfortable way that the Golden Globes’ whiteness this year is representative of the place of people of color in the film industry.
Lest you think it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that gender representation in Hollywood and politics have anything to do with each other, Geena Davis, founder of the Institute on Gender and Media, points out that crowd scenes in films average about 17% women – anything more than that, and the average viewer sees the scene as overrun by women. She believes that it’s no coincidence that women make up only about 17% of corporate leadership positions: “that’s the ratio we’ve come to see as the norm”. In an interview, she expanded:
We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men. (Source)
Davis proposed a simple but potentially effective way to fix this perception; cast crowds at a 50/50 male/female ratio, and change the names of a bunch of characters to women’s names, “and there you have it. You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue.” The same could be said for racial diversity in crowd scenes and casting.
While Davis’ solution seems almost too simple, she does have a point. We can’t magically make Congress or the Fortune 500 50% women, but filmmakers and TV producers can effectively change the way we look at women taking up space on-screen and, eventually, in the world. And if doing the right thing isn’t enough incentive, think about this: in 2013, films that pass the Bechdel Test actually out-earned films that didn’t, and TV shows with more diverse casts AND more diverse writing staffs scored higher in the ratings. So maybe it’s time to make sure that all women are significantly represented on screen, and once we’ve achieved that, to set even higher standards for those representations.