This morning I read an article about a new initiative by the Swedish Film Institute to use the Bechdel test to rate gender bias and equality in movies. To get an A rating, a movie MUST pass the Bechdel test. In theory, passing is simple. All you need are two women with names who have at least one conversation that doesn’t involve men. The reality is different.
This test doesn’t differentiate between a group of girlfriends talking about the new Hottie McStuffins who just moved in down the hall that they all want to stuff it to them in a sex-fill romp before proposing to one of them and marrying her in a fairy-tale wedding and a life of luxury, a couple perfect kids, and an endless bank account to buy shoes and Botox all day, or a movie about a few sisters taking care of a dying father and reminiscing about their lives with him. If that second scenario doesn’t have a conversation about the family dog or the mortgage or something that doesn’t involve the father, then it will fail. The first scenario, on the other hand, includes discussion about shoe-shopping, and so passes the test. The first one is considered more gender-balanced and feminism-positive than the second. This test also leaves out about every other factor under the sun.
Now I would not be writing about this topic that Jenny Trout so wonderfully covered a little over a week ago if it weren’t for Sweden’s plan to emphasize the movies that do pass and skip over those that don’t. Viasat Films will only play the films that pass the test, a shining endorsement. What could go wrong?
Well, Harry Potter, with its strong female characters, doesn’t pass. Who cares that Hermione’s skills have been vital to their survival almost every time they turn around and they all would have died without her. Because conversations tend to be with the male friends who see her as an equal or even their better, or with other girls and those convos are usually about the male bad guys, that’s not a good movie for gender. Let’s not forget the sweet Luna who is a brilliant young lady with a mind more open than even Hermione’s. She’s true to herself even when others hassle her, and she forgives them and finds reasons to be happy. Who didn’t cheer inside when Mrs. Weasley screamed at Bellatrix and killed her? Oh, it also doesn’t matter that Dumbledore was officially gay, a show of inclusionism. Those movies can’t get an A-rating because they don’t pass the Bechdel.
Disney’s Mulan…need I really say more? Mulan runs away from home to impersonate a man and spare her elderly father from a war in which he would certainly die, and then saves her entire army regiment, and opens a can on the bad guys and literally saves all of China. This movie even pointed out that women were ignored when dressed as women, and it wasn’t painted as positive. So when she was revealed to be the one who saved everyone’s butts and the emperor bowed to her, followed by thousands of people, it was poignant. But this movie isn’t good for gender bias. It fails the Bechdel.
I’m not a Silence of the Lambs fan, but can’t deny that Clarice was a strong woman character. She and her fellow female FBI agent naturally talked about what was relevant to the movie, and that was the male bad guys. Should a conversation about shopping have been shoe-horned in to get this movie to pass the Bechdel? That’s right. This movie is bad for gender because Clarice’s focus was on the criminals who happened to be men and on not waiting around to be saved.
Now guess what movie is going to pass the Bechdel. Fifty Shades. Ana and her roommate, Kate, talk about Kate being sick as the reason for Ana to go meet Christian. This is the catalyst event to the entire trilogy. The books have homophobic themes that will undoubtedly carry over to the movies (it was a big relief to Christian’s family realizing he wasn’t gay), and Christian repeatedly refers to his birth mother as “the crack whore” even though she never hurt him, and blames her for her pimp burning Christian after she had died. It’s all his dead mother’s fault. She needs to be punished by proxy, which is why he looks for women who look like her to fuck and punish (he admits this in the books). It’s Ana’s job to pacify him, and if he gets mad and beats her, she blames herself. But because of a few conversations with Kate in passing, these books pass the Bechdel, as will the movie, and so are positive examples of gender bias, or lack of.
Requiring passing this test to get an A-rating is going to inadvertently promote movies that are harmful to women and gender while looking down on movies with strong women characters and that are either inclusive or at least make no derogatory statements about gender and sexuality. Making one scratch-the-surface test the litmus of whether or not movies or books are good examples for women that include strong women characters and a lack of gender bias against us is as faulty using the BMI scale as the litmus of health. You’re healthy if you’re in the “normal” category even if a typical meal is beer and crack, but can’t be healthy if you’re five pounds over and regularly run marathons and shuns all drugs, alcohol, and non-organic foods and processed sugar.
All of a sudden this topic is all over the place, and I will be watching to find out if the wave of the future is to add in an unnecessary conversation just to keep books about strong women from being considered non-feminist bad examples.