When deciding what movie to go see, moviegoers are used to a rating system providing them with a few basic facts. The level of violence in the film, for example, and whether there’s sex or cursing. Now theaters in Swedish cinemas have added something new to their ratings system: Whether the film passes the Bechdel Test.
A quick intro for those not in the know: The Bechdel Test was created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel as a sort of litmus test of a flim’s gender bias. To pass the test, a film (or TV show, or book, etc.) must: A) Have two female characters (a variation says the characters have to have names), who B) talk to each other, about C) something that’s not a man. If this is your first time hearing about it, congratulations: You will now not be able to unsee how few films pass.
Films that pass the Bechdel Test will be given an A rating by four Swedish cinemas, including Stockholm’s Bio Rio arthouse theater. Ellen Tejle, Bio Rio’s director, notes that “For some people [the ratings system] has been a real eye-opener.”
Though only four cinemas use the new Bechdel Test-inspired rating, the state-funded Swedish Film Institute supports it, and the TV channel Viasat Film says it plans to start including the ratings in its film reviews. So it would hardly be a surprise if the program starts to get more play, especially given Sweden’s history of taking a proactive approach to fighting gender inequality. For example, the country’s Equalisters project has been working to raise the number of female expert commenters appearing on news programs since 2010.
My feelings here are mixed. The Bechdel Test is a great starting point to discuss representation of women in film, but too often it’s treated like the be-all-end-all of determining a film’s value in terms of gender representation. There are films with wonderful, well-developed female characters that don’t pass the test. The Avengers, for example, where Black Widow saves the day multiple times over and comes second fiddle to no man. Would it have been wonderful if The Avengers had passed the Bechdel Test? Absolutely. But sexism in film is far too complicated an issue for any one thing to “crack the code.”
(Though I do like Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Sexy Lamp Test: “If you can take out a female character and replace her with a sexy lamp, YOU’RE A F*CKING HACK.”)
Reservations aside, a Bechdel Test rating is a good way to get people thinking critically about the issue of gender bias in film, which is a definite plus. And Tejle for one notes that the rating has nothing to do with a film’s overall quality; “The goal is to see more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens.”
The new rating system has faced some criticism; for example, physicist Tanja Bergkvist, who writes a blog about Sweden’s “gender madness,” suggests that “If they want different kind of movies they should produce some themselves and not just point fingers at other people.”
Ah, yes. The old “If you want [x], just make it yourself!” argument. It completely discounts that there are tons of indie filmmakers, specifically female ones, who do progressive, gender-positive work and then get passed over when the studios overwhelmingly choose their male counterparts to direct their big-budget flicks, but OK. I guess I just didn’t realize how easy it’s been all this time to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to make a studio movie that’ll actually get to cities outside of major markets without having the support of a studio. Silly me.
Swedish film critic Hynek Pallas also notes that “There are far too many films that pass the Bechdel Test that don’t help at all in making society more equal or better, and lots of films that don’t pass the test but are fantastic at those things,” which in my mind is a far more valid point.
What do you think? Is a Bechdel Test rating a good idea, or does the way the test oversimplifies a complex issue mean it’s better left out of movie theaters? If the rating were adopted in your country, would it have any impact on what movies you’d choose to see?