Swedish cinemas are setting out to highlight movie misogyny, applying a rating to films depending on whether their portrayal of female characters meets certain criteria
The Bechdel test asks whether a piece of fiction features least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.
And though it may seem self-evident that all films would contain this simple scenario, some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters fail the test.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy, all the Star Wars movies, The Social Network, Pulp Fiction and all but one of the Harry Potter movies do not pass.
Although the Bechdel test is nothing new (American cartoonist Alison Bechdel developed it in 1985) showing movies a rating based on their gender bias at the cinema is a fresh initiative. Movies that pass the test will receive an A rating.
Ellen Tejle, is the director of Bio Rio, an art-house cinema in Stockholm, and is one of the four organisations piloting the scheme.
He told the Associated Press the rating system was important as society’s beliefs about women are informed by “a female superhero or a female professor or person who makes it through exciting challenges and masters them. The goal is to see more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens.”
He added: ”For some people it has been an eye-opener.“
Sexism in Hollywood is nothing new and sadly appears to be getting worse. A 2013 study from Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, Elizabeth Scofield, & Dr. Katherine Pieper at the USC Annenberg Center found that ‘females are grossly underrepresented on screen in 2012 films, with less than a third (only 28.4 per cent) of the speaking characters females. Unsurprisingly perhaps, this sexism just gets worse behind the scenes, with only 16.7 per cent of the directors, writers and producers of the 100 top-grossing films of 2012 being women.
The Bechdel test doesn’t rate the quality of the movie or how ‘female-friendly’ the film is overall, just whether or not it conforms to this most basic of standards.
Some have argued against the test, especially in works of fiction, insisting that artists have a responsibility to portray things as they are, and if misogyny is part of that, they should not be penalised for it.
Swedish film critic Hynek Pallas criticised the state-funded Swedish Film Institute – the biggest financier of Swedish film – for vocally supporting the project, telling the Associated Press a state institution should not ”send out signals about what one should or shouldn't include in a movie“.
Additionally films that are not sexist can fail the test just because they are set in an all male environment, for example in a monastery or historical army barracks. Movies that may be sexist may still pass the test too.
Virginia Woolf is attributed as being one of the first to talk about the themes covered by the Bechedel. In A Room of One's Own, she writes: “And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. [...] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen's day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.”
Sweden is considered to be one of the countries with the greatest gender equality, coming fourth in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, compared with the UK who came 18th.
A year ago, Sweden the introduced the new gender-neutral pronoun hen, neither the masculine han nor the feminine hon, into its official National Encyclopedia.