The problem with Sweden's feminist film rating

A scene from <i>Beasts of the Southern Wild</i>.

A scene from Beasts of the Southern Wild.

No one needs to convince me of how awesome Sweden is. A recent study by the Social Progress Imperative found that it takes best care of its citizens in terms of “basic needs, foundations of well-being and opportunity”.

A combined Harvard-Duke University study in 2010 found that a whopping 92 per cent of Americans would prefer a Swedish model of income distribution (just don't call it socialism). 

Sweden is one of the top five countries in which to be a woman, and is second only to Finland in having the lowest pregnancy and infant health risks. It also has the most generous parental leave scheme. 

Given these credentials, it comes as no surprise that Sweden is the world's first country to adopt a rating system for films that promote gender equality.

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In applauding films for the absence of gender bias, Sweden is taking as its gauge the well-known Bechdel Test.

The test was devised by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel and the requirements are very simple:

1.     Does the film have more than two women?

2.     Who have a conversation?

3.     About something other than a man?

You would be surprised how many films fail. In fact, as one of the directors of a participating Swedish cinema told reporters: "The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, all Star Wars movies, The Social Network, Pulp Fiction and all but one of the Harry Potter movies fail this test."

Films that don't fail the test will be given an “A” rating. At the time of writing, the initiative has four participating cinemas, and the state-run Swedish Film Institute backs it.

This is a great idea in theory, but unfortunately there are three significant problems with adopting the Bechdel Test in this way.

The first is that the test is a very low barometer for measuring whether a film is gender diverse. It was not devised as a means of discerning whether or not a film promotes gender equality or even if it depicts women in a positive way. Rather, it was only meant as a means of highlighting how peripheral women are in movies.

The test made its debut in the comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, where it was called “The Rule”. This is how the full conversation plays out: 

“Hey, wanna go see a film and get popcorn?”

“Well, I dunno … I have this rule, see. I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it … who, two, talk to each other about, three, something other than a man.”

“Pretty strict but a good idea.”

“No kidding. Last movie I was able to see was Alien … The two women talk to each other about the monster.”

“Wanna go to my house and make popcorn?”

“Now you're talking.”

The punchline is that not only did Alien screen in cinemas a full six years before this comic came out, but even in that film the female characters talk, not about anything to do with themselves, but a third character.

Clearly, “The Rule” is not meant to be indicative of a feminist film but more of a pointed reminder that even when you set the bar as low as this, films that qualify are all too rare.

As blogger Jennifer Kesler wrote, in 2010: “Imagine how hard it would be to avoid a scene in which two named men chat about something other than women. Why do you suppose that is? Because virtually every movie and TV show contains multiple, developed, relevant male characters who have some part in advancing the story. See?” 

The point of the Bechdel Test is not to pass but to force us to acknowledge the dearth of non-peripheral female characters in film. Rather than a means of grading a film, it is a baseline from which we should be looking to improve.

If films that pass in such a low level playing field are given an “A” grade then it essentially makes it acceptable for screenwriters to insert a single scene of two female characters discussing something completely unrelated to the main plot. This says nothing about whether the film is sexist or not. It is just too easy to cheat on this test and pass.

Which brings me to the second problem. There are plenty of films that pass the Bechdel Test that are hardly positive in their depiction of women, including the recent made-for-television disaster movie Sharknado, which Wikipedia succinctly but gloriously summarises as a film about “a waterspout that lifts sharks out of the ocean and deposits them in Los Angeles”. 

Conversely, some films that do have relevant female characters that are central to the plot fail the test, the most recent of which is the blockbuster Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock. Beasts Of The Southern Wild, the independent film that starred six-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, who became the youngest ever best actress Oscar nominee, also fails.

This does not mean that we should give up on the Bechdel Test. Far from it. It is important that we are even discussing it in mainstream circles (even if it is 30 years after it was devised) and the Swedish initiative should be applauded for at least bringing this issue further into the consciousness of movie-goers.

But it is dangerous to think that the point of the test is to simply tick all three of the boxes and - viola! - instant gender equality. It simply does not go far enough, and it wasn't meant to. Bechdel's “rule” was simply a clever means of bringing the lack of female representation in films to our attention.

On this note, I'll leave the last word to Kesler: “Whether or not your story includes the Bechdel scene says absolutely nothing about whether it's sexist or not. The measure of sexism is whether your story denies women the opportunity to participate in it.” 

 

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