At least two women, talking to each other… can’t be too hard, can it?
Last week four independent cinemas launched the A-rating for films that pass the so called Bechdel test, which requires that a film has a) at least two female characters b) that they are talking to each other and c) that they are talking about something else than men.
But critics say you should not quantify art.
The A-rating can be stamped on film posters, ads and programmes and shown on the screen before the film starts. The A stands for “approved” if a film has passed the Bechdel-test. It is also A for Alison, as in Alison Bechdel whose comic strip from 1985 has lead to the test, sometimes also knows as the Mo Movie Measure, after a character in the strip.
This cartoon, called “the Rule”, shows two women outside a cinema.. “Wanna see a movie and get popcorn?” one asks.. “Well.. I donno, I have this rule you see…”.
The rule is easy enough: at least two women, talking to each other – about something other than men. And you’d think that is not too much to ask. But as has been noted time and again, there are surprisingly few films that actually fit the bill.
“In March the Swedish newspaper Bechdel-tested 30 films, of which only 10 passed. Looking at it from a democratic perspective, it matters because as it is today there is an enormous imbalance in who’s story and perspective we receive on the cinema screen,” says Eva Beling, producer and chairman of the Swedish branch of WIFT, Women in Film and Television.
“The test was developed almost 30 years ago. So it should really be a non-issue by now, in 2013. Sadly there has not been much of a positive development, so by co-operating to develop the a-rating system, we hope to speed up this process,” says Eva Beling.
But an A-rating does not really say anything about how women are portrayed in the films. Critics have been quick to find examples of films that do have two or more women talking to each other about something else then men, but still give a very stereotypical image of women. Either they’re just talking about shopping or – as in the 2010 film Burlesque – the women are objectified as exotic dancers.
A film that has won a lot of acclaim for the strong female lead and for reversing the gender roles is the German film Run, Lola, Run. But – as Lola does not have any conversation with another woman in the film – it does not pass the test.
But Eva Beling says that you should not over-analyse the result of the test. The A-rating does not say anything about the QUALITY of the film, she says.
“The A-rating is more like an alarm clock. If it is there, the audience will get the message. If it is not there, they will not think of it,” she says.
Other critics are against the whole idea of labelling films in this way. A really good film, they say, will touch you, provoke you, make you reflect and perhaps learn something. A crude measure like counting the number of women, or – if you like, the number of non-white people who talk to each other – will just give the impression that art can be quantified in numbers and columns.
But Frida Mörtsell at the agency Equalisters, which promotes diversity in media, culture and business, thinks that’s just a lazy excuse to keep things as they are.
“This is a way of raising awareness about who gets to talk in movies today, whose stories are being told. It is not supposed to tell whether it is a good movie or not, or whether it is an important movie or not, it is supposed to show people and to make them aware of whose stories are told,” she says.
“I think it is a very comfortable opinion to say you can’t measure this and can’t measure that, because it is a comfortable way of getting away with doing the things you have always done and not needing to think once more,” says Frida Mörtsell.