Can A 4-Point Checklist Really Cure Sexism In Movies?

gravity-bechdel-testPhoto: Courtesy of Warner Brothers.
Wouldn't it be cool to know whether a movie would be woman-positive before you shelled out cash to see it? Sounds like a crazy dream, right?
Except that it's about to be a reality in Sweden. Enter the Bechdel Test. It derives its name from the 1985 comic Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel, and is a basic way of telling whether or not a movie is woman-friendly.
Here's the criteria. The movie must have:
  • At least one scene with two women.
  • Said women need to have names.
  • They also need to talk to each other.
  • When they do talk to each other, the conversation needs to be about something other than a man.
Easy, right? And, yet a whole lot of movies, including the entire Star Wars series and pretty much every superhero flick, fail at this.
So, here's where the Swedish plan comes in. Some of the theaters there are adopting a new gender-themed rating system. Forget about R and PG-13: From now on, any movie that passes the Bechdel Test will get an "A" rating in Sweden.
It sounds rad. But, will this be a quick and easy way to determine which movies are sexist and which ones aren't? Not exactly.
bride-wars-bechdel-testCourtesy 20th Century Fox.
The Swedish film critic Hynek Pallas told the AP, "There are far too many films that pass the Bechdel test that don't help at all in making society more equal or better, and lots of films that don't pass the test but are fantastic at those things."
He has a point. Sort of.
Some of the most popular and beloved movies in history don't pass the Bechdel Test. The Lord of the Rings? Nope. 12 Angry Men? Obviously, a no. Quite a lot of Shakespeare wouldn't pass muster either. But, while those movies fail the Bechdel Test, some of them still feature some pretty important female characters who don't deserve to be kicked out of the club. Galadriel may not have a lot of girlfriends, but she's pretty badass all by herself.
Just because a movie has a scene where two women talk about something besides men doesn't mean it's any good. What if that scene is just two women talking smack about a third woman? What if that scene is little more than a chick-flick cliché? Take the movie Bride Wars as an example: Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson's characters talk to each other plenty, and they definitely have names. But, they spend most of the movie hating each other and treating each other like dirt. They may pass the Bechdel Test, but they don't pass the Awesome-Supportive-Female-Friendship Test. Or, take the utterly awesome Gravity, which features Sandra Bullock as a strong, empowered heroine. It doesn't pass the Bechdel Test, because her character is all alone in space with two men. That's what makes her so fascinating, but should we skip this movie because it doesn't meet a predetermined set of criteria?
clueless_fuera_de_onda_1995_8Courtesy Paramount Pictures.
Simply asking that a movie have two women talking to each other about something other than a dude will not single-handedly cure sexism. And, that scene won't necessarily be interesting to watch. What if the two women just talked about obscure parts of existential philosophy? That would pass the Bechdel Test, but it wouldn't be super entertaining.
But, the thing about the Bechdel Test is that it's a pretty low standard that an embarrassingly small number of filmmakers manage to reach. For some reason, something as basic as two women having names and talking to each other about anything other than a dude is an incredibly difficult standard for many movies. Writing one scene in an entire movie where female humans are treated like people, not plot devices, is apparently too much to ask for.
Let's take a look at a movie that nailed it on the Bechdel Test as well as on a normal human level: Clueless. There aren't just two women, there are three female leads and several supporting characters. They have names. They talk — sometimes about men, sometimes about other stuff. And, they're also funny, smart, and relatable. This movie rocks the Bechdel Test and, more importantly, it stands the test of time. It was also written and directed by a woman, Amy Heckerling.
While there are plenty of great movies that pass the test and plenty of great ones that don't, there's no single barometer that can tell you which movies you'll like. That's what art's all about — it's subjective. But, we have to shout out Alison Bechdel — and now, the nation of Sweden — for at least trying to come up with a quantifiable way to figure out whether a film is pro-woman or not. It's not an exact science, but it's a pretty solid start.
Until female screenwriters, producers, and directors are given more leeway to write and create movies about normal women and their real lives, the Bechdel Test is one way to measure a movie. But, won't it be wonderful when we live in a world where the Bechdel Test is a hilariously outdated fossil?
What are your favorite movies — the ones you watch over and over again? Do they pass the Bechdel Test? To the comments, please.

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