A cinematic smörgåsbord of interesting female characters

Sweden has introduced a test to stamp out gender bias in film, what a relief

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Exciting news this week, for people who actually think of women as people (or “feminists”, as we’re more commonly known); lovely lovely Sweden has introduced a ratings system in some of its cinemas to highlight gender bias in films. To gain an A rating, a film must pass the ‘Bechdel Test’; a test named after its creator, Alison Bechdel, who first came up with the rules in her cartoon strip ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ back in 1985.

For the uninitiated, the Bechdel Test is usually described as a sort of “litmus test” for movie misogyny. The rules are simple; the Bechdel Test sets a bare minimum of gender representation which stipulates that the film (or TV programme) must:

  1. Contain at least two female characters,
  2. Who speak to each other at some point,
  3. About something other than a man.

That might sound like the bare minimum we could possibly ask for in an equal society (some versions of the test state that the female characters must even have names – imagine the luxury of being granted a name!), but a frankly flabberghasting amount of our cinema fails the test dismally. It’s very much one of those “one seen, can never be unseen”; take a quick glance across your beloved DVD collection, if you don’t believe me, and try to work out how many of your favourites I’ve just ruined.

The problem seems to stem from an industry belief that, whilst both men and women will happily watch a film with a male protagonist, men – for whatever reason – are seen as incapable of engaging with stories that focus on the experience of a woman. Despite the fact that they can happily suspend disbelief in order to accept any amount of reality-bending plot-lines (spaceships, time travel, talking animals, anyone ever falling in love with Adam Sandler), apparently relating to a female protagonist as an actual human being is just, y’know, pushing things a bit.

We’re all familiar with the concept of the Everyman; a blank canvas for us all to project ourselves onto (think Martin Freeman, in, well, pretty much everything he’s ever done). The fact that there’s no real “Everywoman” equivalent is pretty stark. Even films ostensibly about a woman often revolve around men; just look at Bridget Jones, for example. All too often when a woman is included in a film it’s either as a sexual or romantic object, or as a tokenistic cipher. This can be particularly obvious in action films, which are seen as traditionally masculine; even if there’s a woman present on-screen and kicking the bad guy’s bottom, she’s usually some variation of the “fighting f**ktoy” trope; an over-sexualised fetish object couched in terms of female empowerment.

Of course, the Bechdel Test is by no means perfect. There are plenty of films with complex, nuanced women that fail – all but one of the Harry Potter films don’t pass, despite having a list of female characters as long as your arm – and plenty of films that pass but are chock-full of shallow, lazy characterisation.

As an awareness raising tool, though, its results can be impressive; Ellen Tejle, director of one of the cinemas trialling the ratings system, Stockholm’s Bio Rio, say that, “for some people, it has been a real eye-opener”. It’s that incremental eye-opening effect which can bring about real change in the public consciousness; after all, we’re the ones who control what media we watch, and therefore what media gets made. If we’re very lucky, we might just find that Sweden is paving the way towards a new cinema; one with less blatant gender bias, that depicts women with actual agency and actual names; one that represents women in all of our multi-faceted, messy, ridiculous diversity. A real cinematic smörgåsbord, if you will.

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