Gender Representation in Hollywood: Rated B for Bechdel-Approved (and why it’s a mistake)

BY CHRISTOPHER HEIM

When it comes to movie rating systems, what do you expect to see?

Usually it’s a letter assessment such as G, PG, PG-13, or R accompanied by some generic explanation to how much sexual content, nudity, profanity or violence the film in question contains. That is, until four Swedish cinemas recently started incorporating a brand new rating system to highlight a movie’s gender biases and level of female representation, or the lack thereof, which is the Bechdel approval rating.

Unlike the other system, where the amount of questionable content such as sex and violence determines the final rating, this newly implemented one has a clear cut pass or fail evaluation. To get a passing A-grade, a feature film must pass the so-called Bechdel Test.

For those not familiar with the term “Bechdel test,” which has been growing in usage among mainstream critics in the 2010s, it was first introduced within the famous Alison Bechdel comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” in 1985. The strip titled “The Rule,” featured an unnamed female character saying to her friend that she only watches movies that fulfill the following requirements:

1. It has to have at least two women in it.

2. They have to talk to each other.

3. They have to talk about something besides just men.

After the friend comments on the rules being strict the unnamed female character retorts, “No kidding, last movie I was able to see was ‘Alien’,” which came out six years before the strips publication. A witty but somberly depressing commentary on the gender bias and lack of female representation in conventional Hollywood cinema.

At first glance, these reasonably objective standards seem like easy ones to meet, especially given that women conversing to each other about anything besides men obviously takes place every day. However, once this test is applied, there are a surprisingly large amount of movies that do not satisfy these three simple rules.

Films like “The Godfather,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” all the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, original “Star Wars” trilogy, and two of the “Harry Potter” films (“Goblet of Fire” and “Half-Blood Prince”) certainly do not pass. How many movies you like pass this test?

What about if it’s reversed and changed to the following:

 

1. It has to have at least two men in it.

2. They have to talk to each other.

3. They have to talk about something besides just women.

A lot of Hollywood features would have no trouble passing this Reverse Bechdel Test. If men are named and speak to each other about something other than women in practically 90% of Hollywood films every year, then why is it that women (who constitute half of the US population) seem to not get nearly the same level of representation? Wouldn’t it be considered not only jarring but also problematic if men only constituted about one-third of speaking roles in last year’s major films?

If the thousand hours of TV and movies we consume in our lifetimes were to be taken as a subtle mirror of societal beliefs and values, then what does it say when female protagonists seem to be a rarity?  Instead it still seems to be commonplace for women characters to slip into the role of supporting the male character’s development or engaging in a romantic relationship with said male character, and plenty of times both. This isn’t to generalize and say that females are always minor characters. Two of the highest-grossing movies of 2013, the “Hunger Games” sequel “Catching Fire” and Disney’s “Frozen” had female-leads and have also been lauded for their portrayal of women. Although, the fact that it’s considered newsworthy for female-lead films such as “Catching Fire” and “Frozen” to be box-office successes demonstrates that Hollywood movies with female-centric plots are still considered an exception, not the norm, as with movies containing male-centric plots.

Women obviously don’t see themselves as minor roles in their own lives, so it’s easy to see how the Bechdel Test has gained prominence as a device to open up dialogue pertaining to the presence of well-rounded female characters in mediums such as movies, TV shows, video games, and even comic books. At its best the test can be a friendly yet insightful thought-experiment. However, the way it’s being utilized by the four Swedish theaters as a sexism litmus test or a report card on a film’s “women-friendliness” is a huge mistake.

The reason it would be a mistake is because the Bechdel test is just way too flawed to be applied in such a manner. A movie can fail the test yet can still be considered a feminist work or contain strong female characters. One example is “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” which contains one of the most iconic female badasses of all time, the iron-willed but devoted single mother Sarah Conner. She is not only a main character, but she is also tough and can more than hold her own in a fight yet is still vulnerable enough that she never becomes a Mary Sue (Characters that are so perfect, they are boring and annoying, like Tauriel from “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”).

Another example is from the recent Best Picture nominee “Gravity,” which also fails the test, although this is due to the fact that there were only two characters throughout the movie, which were astronauts Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Nonetheless, Ryan Stone proves to be a very compelling character that only happened to be female. Not only did she get her own character arc, but the writers also did not go for the typical cliché Hollywood ending where the leading man and woman predictably romantically tie the knot at the end. The relationship between Kowalski and Stone is instead kept purely platonic. She did not end up as just a romantic interest that purely exists to be the symbolic reward for the male character.

On the other side of the coin, movies that pass the Bechdel test could still prove to be sexist or misogynistic. A major examples of this is the infamously bad “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” which not only portrays its female characters as submissive weaklings in need of male protection, but as also sexual objects coveted by men.

The judgment of a movie’s quality should also never be decided by the test, mainly because the test only makes objective observations and never entails the conclusion that we should throw away classic films such as “The Godfather,” “Apocalypse Now,” “12 Angry Men,” or a modern example such as “The Dark Knight” just because they fail. It just wouldn’t be fair, especially if feminism is not a central theme of the movies in question. Not only that, but it would be a sad low standard if we were to be simply delighted when a movie studio depicts a small incidental snippet of non-dude-related dialogue between two women. The fact that “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” technically passes the test only due to a few-second political mumbo-jumbo dialogue exchange between Queen Amidala and one of her maidens does not entail that the film is NOT bad nor does it automatically make Amidala a strong well-rounded character.

Once again, the test can be a useful tool to start a conversation about gender bias, but it should never be a key focal point of the conversation. Due to this, I hope that the Bechdel test-inspired rating system concocted by the Swedish cinemas does not start becoming commonplace within American theaters.

It would be absurd to imply that sexism doesn’t continue to persist in society in some form or another, however, the last thing that should happen is Hollywood starting to force screenwriters to make changes to their scripts just for the sake of passing the test or haphazardly throwing female characters into a story just to superficially appease the feminists. As has been established within the article, it is not critical for film to pass the Bechdel test.

In the end, the least that can be asked for out of mainstream Hollywood cinema is to just give audiences compelling characters despite their gender, even if they are not at the center stage of the narrative.

 

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