ON FILM

SIDE­KICK, DAMSEL IN DIS­TRESS OR LOVE SEEKER – THESE ARE THE ROLES THAT A LEADING LADY LANDS IN FILMS. BUT A GROUP OF SWEDISH FILM EX­ECS ARE TRY­ING TO STOP THE ROT, AND THEY'VE CALLED ON A 28-YEAR-OLD CARTOON FOR HELP. WHICH MOVIE DID YOU SEE LAST, AND DID

Emirates Woman - - Features/womenincinema - Writ­ten by Sean Wil­liams

M on­sters Univer­sity, Pa­cific Rim, An­chor­man 2. They've all got one thing in com­mon: they all fail the Bechdel Test, cin­ema's own fem­i­nism-o-me­ter. In Novem­ber Swe­den took a stand in de­nounc­ing the movie in­dus­try's woe­ful record in gen­der in­equal­ity by of­fi­cially em­brac­ing the Bechdel Test. Four Swedish cin­e­mas and the Scan­di­na­vian TV chan­nel Vi­asat Film in­cor­po­rated it into some of their rat­ings – a move cham­pi­oned by the Swedish Film In­sti­tute.

Cue a re­ac­tive mael­strom as fans, buffs and ex­ecs rushed to de­fend/at­tack the move. But facts, as you'll soon dis­cover, don't lie: the sil­ver screen is as gen­der­seg­re­gated as ever. Can the Bechdel Test stop a rot that's been set­ting in for a century? Or is it a straw man for male-dom­i­nated en­ter­tain­ment?

First off, it's handy to know what the Bechdel Test ac­tu­ally is. For­tu­nately that's a sim­ple task. Ac­cord­ing to the test's three tenets a film must: 1) have at least two women in it, who2) talk to each other, about3) some­thing be­sides a man

It seems sim­ple enough, but barely half of all films pass. The test was less de­vised than drawn by

Amer­i­can car­toon­ist Ali­son Bechdel, who con­jured it in her 1985 strip Dykes To Watch Out For. Bechdel since cooled on her as­so­ci­a­tion with the test, but its thrust has en­dured as a mo­tif for fe­male filmic sub­servience. And whether you're for or against its use as an of­fi­cial yard­stick, some­thing's very wrong with cin­ema.

It's as­sumed that, these days, women have it bet­ter in and on film than in the old days. Not so. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port by San Diego State Univer­sity in the USA, among 2012's 250 top­gross­ing films, women com­prised only 18 per cent of all di­rec­tors, ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers, pro­duc­ers, writ­ers, cin­e­matog­ra­phers and ed­i­tors. That's a change of zero from 2011, and just one per cent bet­ter than 1998. Male di­rec­tors out­num­ber their fe­male coun­ter­parts nine-to-one, a fig­ure that hasn't changed in al­most two decades.

At last year's Academy Awards 140 men were nom­i­nated ver­sus 35 women. There were no fe­male nom­i­nees for di­rect­ing, cine­matog­ra­phy, film edit­ing, orig­i­nal screen­play or orig­i­nal mu­sic score. This year the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia re­vealed that the num­ber of speak­ing roles for women in 2012's top hun­dred movies rep­re­sented the low­est fig­ure in five years. Just six per cent of those films had equal num­bers of male and fe­male speak­ing char­ac­ters, which is of lit­tle sur­prise con­sid­er­ing 78 per cent of films had no women writ­ing on them at all.

At last year's Em­pire Film Awards, Dame He­len Mir­ren used a win­ning speech to crit­i­cise a lack of progress over the years. ”When I first came into the film in­dus­try, it was a re­ally blokey world,” she said. But women still com­prise half of all movie ticket sales (and, by the way, half the world's pop­u­la­tion). What gives?

For all the in­ac­tiv­ity be­hind the cam­era, not much is chang­ing in front. Roles for women have barely changed since the ad­vent of colour, and a big por­tion of

”IN FILM THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF ROLES FOR FE­MALES, THE GIRL WHO WANTS THE GUY OR THE GIRL WHO WANTS TO BE THE GUY. NEI­THER ARE PAR­TIC­U­LARLY BAD; THE PROB­LEM IS THAT MOST

FE­MALES SIM­PLY DON'T FIT THIS MOULD...”

fe­male roles re­duce char­ac­ters to gig­gling, chaste school­girls care­fully placed to tease out a male lead. Hol­ly­wood's in­fat­u­a­tion with fe­male sex­u­al­ity is also a road­block: in 2012 32.6 per cent of fe­male speak­ing char­ac­ters wore sex­u­ally re­veal­ing clothes, the high­est per­cent­age in five years. Over half of teenage char­ac­ters were dressed provoca­tively. ”It's a part of the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try,” says Os­car-win­ner Jennifer Lawrence, who has ad­mit­ted to hav­ing turned down roles for which she was asked to slim down. ”Sex sells. And for some dis­gust­ing rea­son young sex sells even more.” What's more, men write 82 per cent of all film re­views .

”In film there are two types of roles for fe­males,” says Bri­tish writer and di­rec­tor Samantha New­ton. ”The girl who wants the guy or the girl who wants to be the guy. Nei­ther are par­tic­u­larly bad; the prob­lem is that most fe­males sim­ply don't fit this mould... I've come into con­flict for writ­ing fe­male char­ac­ters that, in their strength, weaken the male lead. I don't know if films are wrong or if so­ci­ety is wrong.”

”Per­haps we're merely stag­nant in our ar­chaic ideas of male and fe­male iden­tity,” adds New­ton. ”Lit­tle boys want to be Su­per­man, be strong and save Lois Lane; lit­tle girls get to dream of their knight in shin­ing ar­mour. It's hardly in­spir­ing.” Di­rec­tor Rachel Zisser goes a step fur­ther: ”When people name­drop Kather­ine Bigelow, for me it doesn't mat­ter that she is a woman – she of­fers more of the same. The things that are miss­ing from films are not just fe­male roles but the at­tributes of fem­i­nin­ity. There are no good roles for women, but there are no good roles for men.”

So what's the cure? Ac­cord­ing to some in Swe­den's en­ter­tain­ment hi­er­ar­chy, the Bechdel Test. The frozen coun­try, home to just over nine mil­lion people, has a rich film­mak­ing his­tory, from di­rec­tors like Ing­mar Bergman and Lasse Hall­strom, to the screen skills of Greta Garbo and Stel­lan Skars­gard. Swe­den also gave the movie in­dus­try one of its strong­est fe­male leads in years with Lis­beth Sa­lan­der, the venge­ful pro­tag­o­nist of Steig Lars­son's The Girl With The Dragon Tat­too. It's no sur­prise the coun­try has moved first with Bechdel's jour­neyed trial.

The de­ci­sion has di­vided opin­ion. ”If they want dif­fer­ent kinds of movies they should pro­duce some them­selves and not just point fin­gers at other people,” says Tanja Bergkvist, a sci­en­tist who blogs on Swe­den's 'gen­der mad­ness'. The test's op­po­nents point out that some fem­i­nist movies would fail the test. Grav­ity, 2013's edgy space thriller star­ring San­dra Bul­lock as the lead char­ac­ter, would also have slid be­neath the mark, de­spite har­ness­ing one of the year's best fe­male roles.

”I think it's bet­ter not to rate movies and put a brand on them, out of just the Bechdel Test,” says Peter Modes­tij, a writer and di­rec­tor from Stock­holm. ”Ac­tu­ally I'm not sure I like the idea of brand­ing cul­ture at all. But I like the idea and the provo­ca­tion that the test brings, be­cause it's pro­vok­ing even to me, as a white male, that so few movies have passed the test.”

Lo­visa Siren, a short film di­rec­tor also from Stock­holm, agrees: ”I'm al­ways look­ing for movies with fe­male di­rec­tors and fe­male pro­tag­o­nists. I've had enough with men's movies. Last night I googled 'best films 2013', went to The Guardian's top 10 list and the films were all di­rected by men with nine out of 10 male pro­tag­o­nists. That needs to be changed.

”I don't think the Bechdel Test is a fair test of a film's fem­i­nist cre­den­tials. For me it's a comic way to high­light that men are the norm and so few women speak to each other in films.”

”For me, art at its best pre­sents a mir­ror to so­ci­ety,” says Samantha New­ton. ”It's 2014 and we be­lieve our so­ci­ety is head­ing in the right di­rec­tion to­wards equal­ity. But our mir­ror says other­wise.”

Per­haps it's not the most sci­en­tific way to deal with on-screen inequity, but there's lit­tle deny­ing the Bechdel Test can change the way we see our en­ter­tain­ment. And be­sides, bet­ter films for women mean more money: a re­cent study showed that 2013 movies that passed the Bechdel Test fared al­most twice as good at the US box of­fice, earn­ing US$4.22bn as op­posed to US$2.66bn. If sex sells, then so does fem­i­nism. n

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