Four Swedish Movie Theaters Are Now Rating Lady-Friendly Films Using The Bechdel Test

If you think of something that would be cool for society to do in order to address inequality, Sweden has probably done it or is thinking about it.

Nov 8, 2013 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

Those silly Swedes and their “gender equality.” It’s like they think we live in a biased world or something and it’s their personal mission to eradicate, uhm, what do you call it when people are mean to women because they’re women? That never happens here, so I totally can’t think of the word.

Oh, right, misogyny.

Sweden is a bit of a trailblazer when it comes to breaking down the gender barrier, starting in childhood and working through adult life. It’s the nation that’s heavily promoted gender neutrality in children’s toys, clothing, and learning environments, arguing that early exposure to gendered narratives can make women internalize harmful ideas about themselves. And it’s a country where people have heavily promoted employment parity, extended maternal and family leave, and all kinds of other initiatives and benefits for women.

If you think of something that would be cool for society to do in order to address inequality, Sweden has probably done it or is thinking about it.

This week, the big news out of Sweden is that four movie theaters have started providing some additional rating information to supplement the already available details about the level of sex, violence, and naughty words. They’re applying the famous Bechdel test, named for the cartoonist who inadvertently created it in one of her strips, and determining whether films pass.

The Bechdel test requires that a film must have at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. (Some variants require that the characters be named.) It seems simple, but it’s actually surprisingly difficult to come up with media that meets the standard, illustrating the role that sexism plays in film (and television, for that matter). Many beloved blockbusters don’t pass the mark at all, while others, like “The Hunger Games,” manage just fine.

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Alison Bechdel, looking snazzy as usual. 

Photo: Chase Elliott Clark.

This isn’t about singling individual productions out for shame, but about highlighting a larger trend in the industry. There are fewer female than male characters in general, and they’re less likely to be protagonists of the drama. They’re also more likely to be used as props to advance the emotional and intellectual journey of the men, or to act as caregivers to the male characters on set, which pushes them into the background and doesn’t give them agency as their own characters with their own wants and needs.

Feminists in the US and beyond have been talking about the test for years and using it in feminist media analysis, even as they acknowledge that it is also flawed. It’s possible to pass the Bechdel test and still be misogynist, for example, and the test doesn’t speak to other issues of representation: it says nothing about characters of color, about disabled characters, about trans characters, and about characters of other minority groups.

And, of course, it doesn’t address nuance; it’s designed to be a simple barometer, rather than an all-encompassing determination of whether something is feminist enough. (After all, a film could fail on the first criterion and still be quite feminist in sensibility.) The goal is to provide an opening for discussion, not a definitive and final comment on a film.

The cinemas using their Bechdel rating system (an A is a passing grade) recognize that it’s not ideal, but that it also provides a great opportunity for both opening up discussion and giving audiences more information so they can make more articulate decisions about which films they go to see. And this isn’t just a wild project of some hairy-legged Swedish bra-burners: the Swedish Film Institute backs the idea, as does Viasat Film, a Swedish cable channel, which is celebrating my birthday with a marathon of movies that pass the test.

I’m a big fan of the idea, because it has the potential to make Swedish filmgoers really think about the movies they’re going to see. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean that people only attend films with A grades, but they might start noticing the scope of the problem when they’re reminded of it every single time they go to the movies. Especially if it was rolled out on a national level and it spread to neighboring countries, something that sounds like a gimmick could turn into a revolution.

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Check out that A!

Photo: Mark Turnauckas.

In the US, the MPAA rating system, flawed as it is, had a profound effect on the nature of film. Sometimes it’s pretty negative (it’s still bizarre to me that scantily clad women in misogynistic plots are fine but if someone has consensual gay sex it’s not), but the institution of a rating system sparked a conversation about film and public sensibilities. I find the MPAA largely useless because of the way it rates films and essentially considers itself a morals policing agency (nipples=NO!, gratuitous violence=A-OKAY!), but what if we had a different way of rating film in the US?

What if, instead of rating film on the basis of perceived “moral values,” we rated it on actual content, and let viewers decide what they wanted to watch on that basis, instead? Would we see a shift in how films are made and how filmmakers respond to criticism? Filmmakers today cut and alter their films to turn NC-17 to R, or R to PG-13...could we someday see them adjusting their work to get an A?

I can’t help but think about this in the context of “Gravity” (which would fail the Bechdel test, because it contains only one woman). As I wrote after I went to see it, “Gravity” is a film that defies what Hollywood has to say about what kinds of movies appeal to the masses. It’s a female-driven film that primarily features a woman adrift alone in space, it’s a thought piece, and it’s exactly the kind of movie that people claim to find boring, but audiences flocked to it.

Singlehandedly, “Gravity” is illustrating that a slow shift may be underway in Hollywood and beyond. If Sandra Bullock can helm a movie alone, what other lies has Hollywood fed us about women in film?

There is, of course, the inevitable backlash to the application of the Bechdel test to films in Sweden as people complain that Sweden is getting too extreme about this whole gender thing. It raises an interesting question: since applying these optional film ratings doesn’t directly affect you unless you want it to, why do so many people care? Oh, right, because it bothers people to be forced to think.

And why is the reaction to legitimate criticism of imbalance in media so often: “well, just make it yourself if you don’t like what’s available?”

It’s a response I encounter a lot and it makes me puzzled in the context of the larger discussion about media and pop culture. The whole point of this conversation is that people can’t make it themselves because they are shut out of the larger studio system, because they have trouble accessing investors, because they have to work three times as hard for half the results. There’s a reason media and pop culture are dominated by white men, and it’s not that they just happen to be really good at their jobs.

Take, for example, the initiative in (surprise!) Sweden to increase the number of female presenters on television. The issue here isn’t that there’s a lack of qualified women in news presentation and related fields, but that women face a number of barriers that men do not, including a higher appearance standard, a tendency to be shunted into “soft” news, and lack of internship and learning opportunities. Even the most determined woman trying to make it for herself recognizes that what she’s doing takes place in the context of a larger social framework.

It’s not like women want to be woefully underrepresented in media and pop culture, or that they’re just too lazy to do anything about it. Rather, it’s that women are consistently blocked out of opportunities. Discussions about imbalances in media and pop culture with tools like the Bechdel test as a starting point highlight these forbidden opportunities and open up a larger conversation about how we actually go about fixing the imbalance.