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Nov 07 2013

The Bechdel test in Södermalm

Movie theatres in Sweden are introducing a new rating system to highlight the scarcity of women in movies. It’s a Bechdel test rating. That’s not even a joke or a figure of speech: they’re using the Bechdel test.

I love Sweden.

To get an A rating, a movie must pass the so-called Bechdel test, which means it must have at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.

“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,” said Ellen Tejle, the director of Bio Rio, an art-house cinema in Stockholm’s trendy Södermalm district.

Bio Rio is one of four Swedish cinemas that launched the new rating last month to draw attention to how few movies pass the Bechdel test. Most filmgoers have reacted positively to the initiative. “For some people it has been an eye-opener,” said Tejle.

It’s especially pathetic about Harry Potter, isn’t it. J. K. Rowling is after all a woman.

Beliefs about women’s roles in society are influenced by the fact that movie watchers rarely see “a female superhero or a female professor or person who makes it through exciting challenges and masters them”, Tejle said, noting that the rating doesn’t say anything about the quality of the film. “The goal is to see more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens,” he added.

In the hope that maybe, someday, a few centuries from now, people will at last start to realize that women aren’t quasi-human or partly human or almost human, but really actually fully human.

The A rating is the latest Swedish move to promote gender equality by addressing how women are portrayed in the public sphere.

Sweden’s advertising ombudsman watches out for sexism in that industry and reprimands companies seen as reinforcing gender stereotypes, for example by including skimpily clad women in their adverts for no apparent reason.

Since 2010, the Equalisters project has been trying to boost the number of women appearing as expert commentators in Swedish media through a Facebook page with 44,000 followers. The project has recently expanded to Finland, Norway and Italy.

So where are the people shouting about radical feminism? Oh, they’re there.

“If they want different kind of movies they should produce some themselves and not just point fingers at other people,” said Tanja Bergkvist, a physicist who writes a blog about Sweden’s “gender madness”.

Good thinking. If the culture ignores women, just make a new culture yourself and not just point fingers at other people. That’s easy enough isn’t it? Making a new culture single-handed? Producing better movies because you want better movies?

Research in the US supports the notion that women are under-represented on the screen and that little has changed in the past 60 years.

Of the  top 100 US films in 2011, women accounted for 33% of all characters and only 11% of the protagonists, according to a study by the San Diego-based Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

Another study, by the Annenberg Public Policy Centre at the University of Pennsylvania, showed that the ratio of male to female characters in movies has remained at about two to one for at least six decades. That study, which examined 855 top box-office films from 1950-2006, showed female characters were twice as likely to be seen in explicit sexual scenes as males, while male characters were more likely to be seen as violent.

And if you don’t like it, it’s up to you as an individual to create an alternative. Your time starts now.

 

39 comments

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  1. 1
    Ophelia Benson

    Eesh. The comments on that article are of a stupidity that defies belief.

    The ‘test’ is pure bunk. Why would anybody wish to see an irrelevant dialogue between 2 unnecessary female characters for 1 minute that does not include reference to the main character, which in a large number of cases is male? It’s poor story telling, flabbly editing and completely irrelevant to most sane people.

    http://discussion.theguardian.com/comment-permalink/28623712

  2. 2
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    It’s a Bechdel test rating. That’s not even a joke or a figure of speech: they’re using the Bechdel test.

    I love Sweden.

    So do I.

  3. 3
    moleatthecounter

    This is interesting. I hadn’t really thought of this specifically before… I must admit. I hadn’t heard of this test at all.

    I feel this has raised awareness in one person at least.

    And that’s me – which is a good thing.

    This is what I love about web sites such as this, and PZ’s, and Jerry Coyne’s, and RFD, and John Loftus’ site, and Maryam’s etc… I read the written provisions and I am able to think differently about subjects that I had no idea were even ‘problematic’!

    I may not – in fact do not – agree with all points, ideas and criticisms, but they make me think! And thinking is SO important… Isn’t it Baldrick?

    Thank you.

  4. 4
    Martha

    I particularly hear you about Harry Potter. I suspect a study comparing the movies and the books would be able to find quite a few ways in which female power is muted in the former compared to the latter. And, as you point out, there’s no need to do that when the main character is a boy in the first place.

  5. 5
    latsot

    I think this is a bloody brilliant idea. “Oh, you want to go and see a sexist movie, do you?”

    Very well played.

  6. 6
    rq

    Heh, love this idea. I wish more countries would implement it.

  7. 7
    Alex

    Hearing of the “Bechdel” dtwof test for the first time is kind of an epiphany, isn’t it? Ever since I know it I can’t stop applying the test to stuff I see simply because it’s fun and often surprising.

    I’ve noticed that independently of the social justice issue, passing the test usually has a positive impact on how I perceive movies or TV series subconsciously, usually in the sense of “this one has nicely written characters and dialogue… wait a minute…

    I just love the comment cited above how having women talk to each other is poor storytelling :D
    I suppose this is the caliber of target audience Hollywood producers have in mind, isn’t it?

  8. 8
    Tony! The Queer Shoop

    What a great idea.
    Wonder what the odds are of seeing the same in the US…

  9. 9
    aziraphale

    Of the Potter books I only have Chamber of Secrets to hand. A quick look finds Hermione talking to Madam Pomfrey about magic, and to Moaning Myrtle about Myrtle’s feelings. Admittedly these are not major plot points.

  10. 10
    Amy Clare

    A cynical person might suspect that JK Rowling made her famous protagonist a boy to have a better chance of getting her books published. Children’s books and films are notorious for having mainly male protagonists, and the argument is often put forward that while girls will identify with a boy protagonist, boys won’t identify with a girl protagonist. IMO that only becomes true if you bring up your boy-child to believe that girls are inferior and liking girls and girly things is wrong.

  11. 11
    carlie

    I was so mad at the first Harry Potter movie because of how they cut down the Hermione character. When they’re fighting to get to the stone, there’s a challenge that plays to each of their strengths, and the one for Hermione is a complicated potions riddle setup that she has to reason through. In the movie, all she gets to do is wave a wand at some errant weeds for a few seconds to magic them away as they’re running through a corridor. I remember at the time that the director said the whole story was too long so they cut some things. Yeah, and one of them just happened to be the one time the girl got to show off some serious mental skills by herself for a few minutes.

  12. 12
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Of the Potter books I only have Chamber of Secrets to hand. A quick look finds Hermione talking to Madam Pomfrey about magic, and to Moaning Myrtle about Myrtle’s feelings. Admittedly these are not major plot points.

    There’s an interview with JK Rowling where she mentions how hard she had to fight to keep her kick-ass female characters in the movies, especially in the last ones when all the fighting is done.

  13. 13
    oursally

    >liking girls and girly things is wrong

    girly things? What might that be?

  14. 14
    medivh

    It’s amazing how many people completely fail to comprehend the concept of a female main character, or the possibility of a female supporting character that has a significant impact on the plot. The possibility of an all-female conspiracy among the antagonists, even. That one should be easy for MRAs to envision, surely?

  15. 15
    echidna

    Carlie,
    I was pretty ropable about the way Hermione was minimised and the most interesting task was missing. My young sons were too.

  16. 16
    khms

    @10 Amy Clare:

    Children’s books and films are notorious for having mainly male protagonists, and the argument is often put forward that while girls will identify with a boy protagonist, boys won’t identify with a girl protagonist.

    Strange, my (completely unscientific) impression was that children’s books (I don’t do films) were at the forefront of strong female characters. Probably a sign of how I select my reading – I’ve noticed that I statistically seem to prefer books by female authors, or that have female protagonists, even though I do not consciously apply those criteria.

    In any case, I can easily identify with male, female, and other protagonists, as long as they’re well-written and the story is the kind I like – I don’t much like stories based on social misunderstandings or violent political intrigue, for example, no matter what the protagonists are like (Could one sum that up as stories about people being stupid or evil? That would mean I prefer stories about people being nice and intelligent … I guess that’s not much wrong.).

  17. 17
    Maggie Mayhem

    Ratings aside, I do NOT like Swedish feminism at the moment because the “Swedish Model” of sex work, that is to say the decriminalized status of prostitution for the seller but a criminal status for the buyer is putting sex workers at grave risk. Moreover, it wholly excludes any sex worker input. (We’re viewed as too damaged to have credible input into the legal direction of our lives.) Swedish feminists see sex workers as victims without agency who need feminists to save them. Lives have already been lost.

    You’re talking about movies but I do hesitate to endorse this because many countries now look up to Sweden as the most feminist country to follow. Countries like Germany where indoor sex work is decriminalized are thinking of adopting the Swedish model. I oppose it outright. There’s no way to involve police with guns and stings and arrest operations without bringing violence into the lives of sex workers who are predominantly female. I would like to see more statistical scrutiny of Sweden’s policies before they’re applauded. What are the outcomes? Why are they endorsed so immediately? I care more about outcomes than intentions within policy making.

  18. 18
    Brony

    It’s especially pathetic about Harry Potter, isn’t it. J. K. Rowling is after all a woman.

    Careful there, the article says movies. Does anyone know how much control Rowling had over the movie content?

    I love that Sweden is doing this and I was reminded about this test a couple of weeks ago. It’s been surprisingly less depressing than I expected but that might be because of my entertainment choices (no I’m no counting what my name is based on :) )

  19. 19
    opposablethumbs

    khms, just reminded me of reading Melissa Scott’s The Kindly Ones (sci-fi, first person narrator whose sex is never known (though set in a universe where there are two sexes (but gender roles do not necessarily match the ones we’re used to))). Interesting because we’re so used to relating to a character based partly at least on their sex; I caught myself sometimes thinking of the narrator as a bloke who feels no need to be stupidly macho, sometimes as a woman who feels no need to masquerade as a shrinking violet, and sometimes consciously reminding myself that I didn’t know the narrator’s sex. You probably know it already, but if not and if you like sci-fi it’s well worth a read.

    Re children’s books, while I agree that there are some good modern (and older) ones available with decent female protagonists, you do still have to actively look for them. Most protagonists are still boys.

  20. 20
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    That’s awesome. I do the Bechdel test* all the time for the media I watch and books I read. The results are pretty dismal.

    *two female named characters discussing something other than a man for a minute (for full-length movies), 15 seconds (for 43 min tv shows), at all (for 22 min tv shows and novels).

  21. 21
    Pierce R. Butler

    I predict “Bechdel scenes” in which two women have their little 60-second chats, carefully scripted for cuttability in areas where such “PC run amok” criteria do not apply.

    Or, such scenes will be done with enough skin showing that many in the audience can happily disregard the audio for the duration.

  22. 22
    besomyka

    If the culture ignores women, just make a new culture yourself and not just point fingers at other people. That’s easy enough isn’t it? Making a new culture single-handed? Producing better movies because you want better movies?

    Hmm, where have I heard that before. I wonder what would happen if we actually did that. I bet the entire enterprise would be attacked as an assault on men. Reverse-sexism, misandry, etc.

    The fact is that because they are bigoted assholes, there is no correct answer. The best option, then, is the one that helps us the most in the now, without regard to what the bigots want. If that’s making our own movies, fine! If that’s boycotting poorly written sexist garbage, fine!

    One thing is for certain: I don’t care what that commenter thinks. He can take his own advice once the matriarchal hegemony takes over. Or something.

  23. 23
    latsot

    @Pierce:

    Ha, someone as cynical as I am :) That occurred to me too.

    But my hope is that the initiative might raise the consciousness of movie goers, who might in turn begin to hold movie makers to higher standards. I think it’s an inspired attempt and I’d love to see it taken up elsewhere.

    Cynics can be optimistic too.

  24. 24
    Ophelia Benson

    Pierce, seriously? Because of four movie theaters in Sweden?

    I predict no reaction whatsoever from commercial movie-makers.

  25. 25
    moarscienceplz

    ‘The Heat’ probably has the best Bechdel rating of any recent big Hollywood movie. Wikipedia says it earned $158 million, which is quite good for any movie without aliens or robots. I liked it, but I’m an old dude. What do you women think of it? Could it be the prototype for a series of women buddy movies?

  26. 26
    Amy Clare

    @13 oursally: I mean activities, objects and/or interests stereotypically associated with the female gender.

    @16 khms: The following is an interesting article citing a study on children’s literature, showing that sadly they’re anything but the forefront of strong female characters:

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/may/06/gender-imbalance-children-s-literature

    However – I know you said you don’t do films, but Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Arietty, etc) does buck the trend by creating fantastic female characters.

  27. 27
    Crimson Clupeidae

    Given the time that it was written, I can’t really fault LotR, or the Hobbit movies. But otherwise, this is a cool idea.

  28. 28
    Shatterface

    This is a test that hardcore porn set in a women’s prison would pass, and a sixty second advert in which two named women discuss lipstick would pass, but Rebecca and The Innocents – two movies centring entirely on unnamed female protagonists – would fail.

    There has to be a better way of addressing gender imbalance than making a law based on a joke.

  29. 29
    rnilsson

    So where are the people shouting about radical feminism? Oh, they’re there.

    “If they want different kind of movies they should produce some themselves and not just point fingers at other people,” said Tanja Bergkvist, a physicist who writes a blog about Sweden’s “gender madness”.

    Good thinking. If the culture ignores women, just make a new culture yourself and not just point fingers at other people. That’s easy enough isn’t it? Making a new culture single-handed? Producing better movies because you want better movies?

    Producing New Physics from scratch? Even better idea! Corner the entire Nobel Prize Market in one fellow swop! Or HardonCollider. Or … Oh. CERN didn’t get it, right? Just that professor Higgins or whatever.

  30. 30
    rrede

    Shatterface The “test” is not meant to indicate any work is in fact egaliatian or feminist, simply that it is a sort of lowest bar that one might apply to texts as a rule of thumb. THe main thing is how many works completely fail (and not just those produced more than ten years earlier).

    Plus, while I am not an expert on Swedish law, but I doubt the movie houses are the font of laws–this is an additional rating system in addition to what they already do.

    Alison Bechdel has weighed in on the issue (including giving them her permission–go Swedish cinemas for asking!), here: http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/testy

    She also notes the irony in how OLD the original source for a joke her friend made that she picked up and used–i.e. Virginia Woolf in 1926:

    I was so relieved to have someone make that connection. I am pretty certain that my friend Liz Wallace, from whom I stole the idea in 1985, stole it herself from Virginia Woolf. Who wrote about it in 1926.

    And another great quote:

    I have always felt ambivalent about how the Test got attached to my name and went viral. (This ancient comic strip I did in 1985 received a second life on the internet when film students started talking about it in the 2000′s.) But in recent years I’ve been trying to embrace the phenomenon. After all, the Test is about something I have dedicated my career to: the representation of women who are subjects and not objects. And I’m glad mainstream culture is starting to catch up to where lesbian-feminism was 30 years ago.

  31. 31
    rrede

    moarscienceplz: I am a 58 year old queer woman who is a feminist who loved THE HEAT.

    Others mileage may vary, of course! (It’s rare for me to see anything that isn’t sff, so the film’s stars and the preview drew me out of my typical genre choices).

  32. 32
    Anthony K

    I have always felt ambivalent about how the Test got attached to my name and went viral.

    It’s simply Stigler’s Law.

  33. 33
    Stacy

    Shatterface, the Bechdel Test is a blunt tool. (Gravity also fails, but Gravity only has three onscreen characters (plus two voices) and most of the film focuses on a woman by herself.) It doesn’t work as a definitive judgment on any individual movie, but it can give a general idea of whether or not women are being represented in the movies. I try to apply it in a “spirit rather than the letter of the law” sort of way.

  34. 34
    Ophelia Benson

    Thanks for the link, rrede.

    I tweeted the link to Bechdel a couple of days ago. Secretly in the innermost vaults of my secret mind I hoped she’d reply, but I also knew she wouldn’t. Faaaaaaaaaaaandom.

  35. 35
    Stacy

    I’m so glad to see the test getting traction. When I first learned of it I had that “YES!” reaction you have when you feel validated about something most people don’t seem to notice. But I never expected to see it noticed by the mainstream or put to practical use. W00t!

    Not too long ago wanting women to be represented about half the time in movies and television was seen as a radical demand (or dismissed as a pedantic one.)

    (I know, I know. In some quarters it still is.)

  36. 36
    robert Lopresti

    I used to read Bechdel’s comic strip. I wrote a crime novel recently (It is still looking for a home) and a few months ago I realized it flunked the Bechdel test, so I changed the gender of one minor character. It improved the scene considerably.

  37. 37
    Ophelia Benson

    Hmmmmm. Robert, why just one minor character? Why a nearly all-male world? The real world isn’t nearly all-male, so why create a fictional world that is?

    I ask because I really don’t get it. It seems so distorted.

  38. 38
    aziraphale

    Ophelia: there are real-world environments that are entirely or mostly single-sex – monasteries, convents, some boarding schools, some military units…

    In fiction there’s Sheri S. Tepper’s “The Gate To Women’s Country”, which I’ve seen well reviewed by feminists.

  39. 39
    aziraphale

    Hmmm. It seems I’ve misremembered the Tepper. Oh well, there’s still Herland http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herland_(novel)

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