The Bechdel Test – Wrong Solution to a Clear Problem?

It is a sad truth that mainstream cinema is dominated by films made by men for men, with male actors, writers and directors much more in demand, and indeed more highly praised. News emerged last week that Swedish cinemas are introducing a further advisory guideline along with the typical warnings against nudity, drugs, profanity; new releases will be judged by the Bechdel test. Does the movie have two named female characters, who have a conversation about something that’s not a man? This rule was first used in an 80s cartoon, but its application to new releases is restrictive and worrisome.

What started out as an interesting piece of social commentary on the lack of female representation in cinema has been extrapolated into a supposedly infallible guide to the gender discrimination of the film-makers. Guidance about whether a film is full of gore, or effing and jeffing, is simply to make one aware of the dangers of the content; it’s not for the faint-hearted, for kids, or for anyone feeling unwell, essentially. But what does this Bechdel test tell me? That I better be wary because there’s only one named woman, or a similar violation of this absolute code?

It’s like Bentham’s hedonic calculus, one can’t precisely quantify the fair portrayal of women – it’s an abstract concept! – and especially then you  shouldn’t use it as a tool for deciding whether to see it. Obviously, films can play up to their predominant gender; the publicity for Bridesmaids clearly played up to it being a film about women, but it certainly wasn’t only aimed at women. Films that are both terribly misogynistic or just plain terrible (think Halle Berry’s Catwoman) can easily follow the rule. Pictures with a tiny cast conversely cannot satisfy this system (take Gemma Arterton in The Disappearance of Alice Creed).TDAC_still2

Online, people have the opportunity to get so anal about these criteria: whether “Andy’s mom” from Toy Story is a named character, and whether her conversation about her son constitutes the discussion of a man, are just some of the pernickety topics that bare no relation to the important issue of sex discrimination in the film industry.

There is something to be said for mainstream cinema and its portrayal of women: Star Wars, all but one Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the majority of Pixar’s output, most James Bond, Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. They’re all glaring examples of dramas not just led by men, but overwhelmingly and disproportionately populated by them. It’s alarming when you think about it.

Some might say that there are whole genres where it’s acceptable that women are less prominent: westerns, action films, sword-and-sandals; but that’s just being old-fashioned. We’re in an era of sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters, and a drive for strong, complex female leads, where women can be just as dynamic and in the heart of the action as the traditional heroes.

I, your humble section editor, offer my three favourite films, three stand-out works in my opinion, but only one actually adheres to the rule. Fargo, despite Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning performance as Marge Gunderson, has only two named women, who never meet and so never converse. Pulp Fiction, an intelligently crafted and original drama with interesting performances from Uma Thurman and Amanda Plummer, similarly never has these characters meet. Brief Encounter is the only saving grace, and only because of the tea-shop owner absent-mindedly talking to Celia Johnson.

In sum, it’s a flawed system, with too many loopholes and unnecessarily complicated. We should indeed be angered by Hollywood’s desire for a quick buck, in doing too much to cater to the narrow-minded, too scared to watch a female-driven drama. But this creativity-stifling quota is not the solution.


PHOTOS\\ leblow, screencrave


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