When choosing what to watch on the big screen, cinemagoers are often guided by age ratings determined by a film's representation of issues such as sex and violence. But a new rating allows fans to pick a movie based on its feminist credentials.
The 24th Bath Film Festival, which opens on Thursday, is introducing an F rating for films that have strong female leads, a female director or screenwriter, or feature women's issues. The new category is inspired by the decision last year by four Swedish cinemas to apply an A rating to films that passed the Bechdel test, developed by the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which asks whether a piece of fiction has at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.
However, the Bath festival rating, which organisers hope encourages debate about the representation of women in film, has broader criteria. "When we looked into it more, there were lots of films that didn't pass [the Bechdel test] but should because they have amazingly strong female protagonists," said festival producer Holly Tarquini. "So Gravity, for example, doesn't pass it because Sandra Bullock doesn't talk to any other women, and yet she's clearly an amazing female lead.
"We wanted to take it a step further and highlight films which either had a senior figure in production who was female – a director or a screenwriter – or had very strong female leads or women's issues."
Seventeen of the 42 films being shown during the 10-day festival are F rated. They include Wild, in which an Oscar-tipped Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, who hiked more than 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail to come to terms with her mother's death, and Testament of Youth, an adaptation of Vera Brittain's First World War memoir.
Juliette Towhidi, screenwriter for Testament of Youth, said it was "very, very hard" to get female-centred films made so she welcomed the festival highlighting the debate. "But, ultimately, for things to change, what we need is for audiences to go and see the films that are the exception to the rule and are more female centred," she said. "Until that happens and [the people in] finances are reassured [and] know these films really work at the box office, sadly it's not really going to shift."
The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found females made up 15 per cent of protagonists, 29 per cent of major characters and 30 per cent of all speaking characters in the 100 top-grossing films of 2013. Women are also under-represented off screen: they made up 14 per cent of directors and screenwriters of UK films released in the UK last year, according to the British Film Institute.
Director Elaine Constantine's debut feature Northern Soul is F rated at the festival but she does not think women should be judged separately, because they are just as good as men. "I'm always a bit sceptical if someone says, 'can we highlight you're a woman doing this', because I cannot work out what it is that may or may not have held me back," she said, suggesting class could have as much impact as gender.
Kate Kinninmont, chief executive of membership organisation Women in Film and Television UK, welcomed the F rating for raising awareness but said a balance needed to be struck between creativity and equality. "I don't think we should start having quotas of films that must pass the Bechdel test or attain an F rating, or refuse to fund films that don't comply with these standards," she said. "But I believe if we draw attention to these inequities, if we highlight the bizarrely skewed values of so many films, then audiences will notice, critics will pay attention and the culture will start to change."
But will an F rating help attract audiences? Helen O'Hara, deputy online editor of film magazine Empire, thinks not. "I think certain people would be inclined to mock it, and that would probably balance out the positive effect that it would have," she said.
The director of a Swedish cinema chain that introduced an A rating last year to highlight sexism in films says the campaign has been "an eye-opener" for the industry and has led to "positive changes" around the world. Ellen Tejle, who is in the UK this week attending the Underwire Film Festival, said: "Film must be something bigger and better than the story of men by men."
The A rating (A for "Approved") is granted if a film passes the Bechdel test, which asks whether there are more than two named female characters that talk to each other about something other than a man.
"I lost count of the number of cinemas, distributors and festivals now using the rating globally," said Tejle. "It's way too easy finding data showing inequalities in film. An A rating is not the solution to these challenges. Our goal is to raise awareness about how it looks today, and hopefully it's something the film industry can take to heart."
Many of Hollywood's blockbusters fail the Bechdel test, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy, all of the Star Wars movies and all but one of the Harry Potter movies.
"Gender inequality is obviously a problem and the film industry indeed holds a responsibility," Tejle said. "Film influences people, and therefore a conservative film industry will hamper progress."
Gabriella Apicella, screenwriter and co-founder of the Underwire Film Festival (11-15 November, Yard Theatre, east London), which champions female film-making talent, said: "Women are bored by seeing themselves presented in the same way, and the resurgence of feminism has brought these conversations into the mainstream.
"The A rating simply enables audiences to make selections based on the portrayals of women. If this begins to affect box-office takings, it really could make a difference."