Sitting down in a movie theater often has a peaceful effect, probably because the audience is getting a break from reality by being submerged in a fictional story for a couple of hours. While quietly consuming concessions, many audience members are not aware they may be watching a film perpetuating issues of gender inequality.
To avoid this situation, movie theaters in Sweden began to rate films based on gender biases. Using the Bechdel test, the movie theater scrutinizes the portrayal of women in popular media and the roles given to women on the big screen. The concept for the test was derived from Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic entitled “Dykes to Watch Out For.”
The test has three very simple requirements. There must be two named female characters, and both must converse with one another about a topic other than men. A film meeting all three conditions will earn an “A” grade under the Bechdel test. This evaluation seems simple, right? We fear not.
According to a survey done by Bechdel Test Movie List, only 55.7 percent of 4,537 graded movies meet the current demands. With lax requirements, it comes as a surprise that the majority of films being screened do not meet the standards necessary to receive an “A” grade.
Here at City on a Hill Press, we commend Sweden for taking steps to promote gender equality in films and media. We also urge filmmakers and filmgoers alike to consider how women are silenced in the film industry.
Surprisingly, many cultural classics are listed among the flunking films. Although “Star Wars” continues to be a cultural phenomenon, only two of the six movies in the franchise meet the requirements set by Bechdel. “Lord of the Rings” also fails the test. These sagas have both garnered cult-like followings despite their lack of positive, female characters and interactions.
The movies that passed the Bechdel test are not to be congratulated, either. These basic standards still do not engage the conversation about the substance of the roles given to women. While we recognize not every movie or storyline warrants a female lead or role, we urge the need for the inclusion of females in positive roles, big and small.
Many of us are accustomed to seeing women in the familiar sidekick roles or roles that make them the subject of the male characters’ fantasies. Furthermore, when two women converse, their dialogue is often centered around a male character. According to the Bechdel Test Movie List website, many films feature women characters but the women never meet or speak to one another. This creates the illusion that a female presence on the screen is dependent on a male counterpart.
According to a study done by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State, females accounted for only 33 percent of all characters in the top domestic grossing films of 2011. In that same year, females comprised a mere 11 percent of the protagonist roles.
The situation gets even more dire when we think about the roles given, or not given, to women of color. According to the same study, 73 percent of female characters are white while only 8 percent are African-American, 5 percent are Latina and another 5 percent are Asian. The study also mentions that “moviegoers are almost as likely to see an extraterrestrial female as they are to see a Latina or Asian female character.”
We at City on a Hill press think media should begin to double-check projects to ensure they not only meet but exceed the primary standards presented by the Bechdel test and put a halt to the stereotypical roles and dialogues of women on the big screen. We also encourage moviegoers to consider gender biases when at the box office. For as long as these films have an audience, they will continue to be made and women will continue to be underrepresented and negatively portrayed by the popular media.