Editorial issue 66: The Bechdel Test and the Biases of Cinema
By Daniel Lindvall.
Recently four Swedish cinemas, all run by Folkets Hus och Parker (‘The People’s Houses and Parks’, an organization with roots in the labour movement), decided to start rating the gender balance of their films according to the so-called Bechdel test. The test, named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel and introduced via an unnamed character in a 1985 instalment of her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, asks whether a work of fiction features at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Films that live up to that criteria are labelled with an A (for Approved)-rating. The initiative predictably caused a bit of a stir in Sweden and also received some international attention when an Associated Press article was republished (or rehashed) in the English-language media (including British dailies The Guardian and The Telegraph, as well as on the sites of Yahoo and NPR). In Sweden the publicly funded Swedish Film Institute came out in support of the initiative and the site of the Scandinavian cable TV channel Viasat Film followed suit and started to use the rating for their reviews.Critical voices in Sweden (and abroad) have ranged from versions of the inevitable conservative notion that the rating threatens the ‘freedom of art’ to more reasonable arguments about the bluntness of the Bechdel test. True enough, a lot of bad, sexist movies, including pornographic ones, do pass the test, while films like Run Lola Run (1998) or the recent Gravity (2013) will fail despite being dominated by strong, female characters. The Bechdel test is certainly not, foremost, a quality test, as was also pointed out by Ellen Tejle, director of one of the four cinemas behind the initiative (Associated Press 2013). On its own, it says relatively little about an individual film, but it has a great advantage in being an objective, easy-to-use test that very clearly reveals the gender inequality in our film culture as a whole. The fact that little has changed, in terms of numbers, when it comes to female under-representation on the screen over the last six decades, is reason enough for me to support the use of the Bechdel test as a guideline by cinemas and public funding bodies alike.
But the Bechdel test is not enough. Films and culture are biased in so many other ways, in favour of the middle-class, straight, white male and the glossy world-view of corporate capitalism. Given the labour-movement connection of these four Swedish cinemas, why not introduce a C-rating – Classified as labour friendly – for films that feature two named working-class characters who talk to each other about something other than crime, violence, drugs or sex? Or what about an M-rating, for means tested, as suggested by regular Film International contributor Wheeler Winston Dixon? Sick and tired of films that feature people, who have a middle- or working-class income, living in the homes of millionaires, Dixon suggests that such a test would take the assumed income of the on-screen characters and figure out what kind of apartment they would be likely to live in if it were real life. And then there’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, body size, disability – all areas where film culture is decidedly biased.
When I buy food products I want the label to tell me not just who made it and where, but what kind of nutrition I get from it. The same might be a good idea for one’s film diet. Feel free to e-mail me your own rating suggestions at daniel.lindvall @filmint.nu.
This is the final issue of Film International as a bimonthly. From 2014 we transform into a quarterly, while adding 30 pages to each issue. This new, book-sized Film International will focus on essays and interviews. The shorter reviews, that now make up the bulk of the reviews section, will move online, in order to reach you when the films reach your screens – not six months later. New regular columns and longer, reflective review essays will also be part of our new identity. We’ll met in March 2014.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.