Sweden puts the Bechdel test to the test
Sandra Bullock in Gravity is an anomaly as far as Bechdel’s rules are concerned
What’s all this whingeing about the under-representation of women in Hollywood movies? Barely a week goes past without our seeing some film in which a harried wife nags her husband about neglecting his family while he saves the universe, hunts down serial killers or finds out who really assassinated JFK.
“Couldn’t you at least have made it to Biff’s piano recital?” Mrs Protagonist says, while aliens march unrelentingly towards Washington. Lord, these women’s libbers are never happy.
You will, I hope, have detected the blunt irony above. It’s been an interesting few weeks for those who give a toss about the industry’s continuing gender bias. Certain cinema chains in Sweden have announced the introduction of a ratings system to assess the visibility of women within the week’s movies.
Not for the first time in these pages, we make mention of the admirable Bechdel test. Devised by the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the guide asks three reasonable things of a film: it has to have at least two women in it; they must talk to one another; they must talk about something other than a man.
The Swedish cinemas will add Bechdel’s reagent to each new release and publish the results for all to see. The number of films that fail the test is still quite remarkable. A website dedicated to the formula reckons that close to half those entertainments examined do not merit a Bechdel certificate. When women appear in mainstream pictures they are too often asked to worry in the pantry while Burt Hero kills all circling tigers.
So, you’d think the intelligentsia would welcome the Swedish move. Not entirely. Alfonso Cuarón’s much-ballyhooed Gravity presents the Bechdel community with some difficulties. We might complain that George Clooney’s kindly wiseacre lords it over his female underling in the opening sections, but there is no question that the film hangs around a strong, resourceful woman. Yet Gravity fails the test.
By some assessments (this rather depends on whether you allow unseen women to count), Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – one of the most important feminist pictures – also flunks the examination.
Such anomalies have allowed more than a few commentators to categorise the Bechdel test as pseudoscience to compare with phrenology or reflexology. This constitutes an almost wilful misunderstanding of its origins and intents. Never imagined as an impeccable measure of balance, the formula remains useful in assessing trends in mainstream film-making.
Not every movie is a suitable candidate: one doesn’t bump into many secondary characters in outer space; Ackerman’s picture is actually about the forced isolation of the suburban woman. Nobody is suggesting that we should boycott films that don’t measure up.
But the Swedes are to be applauded for highlighting a gauge of the industry’s reluctance to advance beyond the Precambrian age. We demand better.