Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sweden and the Bechdel Test

I heard this radio story about a new initiative in Sweden where they are putting all movies through a new rating system.  Well, "new" isn't exactly correct, it's actually about 25 years old.  It's called the Bechdel test and it rates the female roles in movies.

Swedish cinemas take aim at gender bias with Bechdel test rating

A little bit of background.  Alison Bechdel published a cartoon in her strip Dykes to Watch Out For called "The Rule" in 1985.


With it's humble origins, it's somewhat surprising that this has become, to quote Wikipedia's unnamed sources, "the standard by which feminist critics judge television, movies, books and other media".  This went from a suitably humorous cartoon to some sort of general rule for feminist ratings.

What they are doing in Sweden is putting ratings on the films based on the Blechdel system.  A movie that has two female characters with names, that talk to each other about something other than men, receives an A rating.  They still show the full range of movies that they would normally show, but they are adding the ratings to try and increase or decrease sales based on "gender equality".

Now, I have a couple issues with all this... which I'm sure doesn't surprise any of you readers.

First, I understand the desire by some to have a rating system to judge gender equality but what exactly does the Blechdel system mean for women?  What is the significance of two women characters that have names talking about something other then men?  This could be Beth and Ann complaining about parking and then getting shot by bank robbers.  I'm sure that means a lot to the feminist movement.

The Blechdel system is a fairly arbitrary set of rules.  I mean, let's look at some of the movies that pass the Blechdel test from the website Blechdel Test Movie List:

GI Joe: Retaliation
Iron Man 3
Machete Kills
Parker
Sharknado
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D
Malibu Spring Break
SWAT
Underworld
Zombie Strippers
Striptease
Twilight
The Blair Witch Project
Easy A
Mean Girls 1 and 2
Wedding Crashers
Snakes on a Plane
Silent Hill
Slither
Sucker Punch
Resident Evil 

Lets see some that fail:
Lara Croft
The Trial of Joan of Arc
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Breakfast at Tiffany's
Girlfight
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, the first female director to win Best Picture and many other awards.  Arguably should be a role model for feminists despite the non-female oriented movie)
50 first dates
Haywire (This is an pretty good action movie with a female main character)

Ok, these are fairly predictable results based on the requirements.  Most children's movies passed because they tend to have a large number of female characters that don't talk about sex (I didn't bother to list all the Children's movies).  Most horror movies pass because they have many scantily clad women and they talk about monsters/killers/diseases/disasters rather than sex.  Most sexist movies, usually male "coming of age" stories where they try to get laid pass simply because there are a lot of scantily clad female characters.  About half the action movies pass because they have one or more female characters that talk about action rather than sex.  I don't think anyone would argue that horror movies or action movies portray female characters particularly well.

Many female based movies pass because they have a variety of female characters that talk about a variety of topics.  Many of those are about sex but invariably there is something in the mix that isn't, so they pass too. What is so frustrating is that there is no way to measure the quality of these movies, just that they have female characters that talk about something other than men.  That's the opposite side of the coin from "The Hurt Locker", which should be hailed by feminists because it was an awesome, successful movie, and the director Katheryn Bigelow was the first female director to win a Oscar for Best Picture (and she's hot, that's a winning combo in my book).

Another aspect of these results show that "Woman making it in a man's world" films don't typically pass the test.  Especially female action movies like Lara Croft, Haywire, or Joan of Arc.

What this shows is that the test passes movies with a large number of female actresses, regardless of the quality of those characters.  It fails movies that have strong female leads with few female actresses, regardless of the actions or behaviors of those characters.  That's probably the biggest reason that this rating system doesn't make much sense.

The second biggest reason that using a rating system like this is stupid is that it won't make any difference.  It "proves" that the sexist-ish movies that we always knew were sexist don't pass the test.  We know most hollywood movies will have a white, attractive male lead character and generally a white, scantily clad, attractive female lead for eye candy.  Add in a quirky friend (usually an ethnic minority) for comic support, some explosions, car chases, vanilla sex scenes, a happy ending and you have a blockbuster.  We know this, we expect this, and yet that formula still makes millions of dollars at every release worldwide.

Is that sexist or has Hollywood figured out what makes the most money and they stuck with it?  They could make movies about anything but they keep making the same basic movies over and over and over.  And we keep watching them.  We know exactly what to expect and yet we still buy tickets.  They have years of experience and spent countless millions of dollars figuring out how to make the most money.  It's easy to call those movies sexist, or racist, or whatever... but it comes down to what people will pay to see.  If movies with strong female characters, that wear enough clothes, or make good decisions, have a decent plot, and different races made a lot of money they would make those instead.

It's the same reason that almost all actors and actresses are fit and attractive.  And find many excuses to reveal their fitness.  That's what people will pay to see.

If feminists or any other media consumers want to make a difference in the quality of female portrayals (or race portrayals, or any other changes) they need to make their argument monetarily.  Spend money on the kinds of movies they want to watch, make them more profitable, show the major production companies that those are the kinds of movies that make enough money that they should produce them.  Until then hollywood has no incentive to change a system that has been working for them.

In a way, that's what Sweden is trying to do with the rating system, make the more gender equal films more economically viable.  But we've already shown that the rating system is BS, and rating systems play almost no role in what we decide to watch, and even if they did one country isn't going to play a large enough role to change anything.  They'll take their F-rating from Sweden's Bechdel scale and laugh all the way to the bank.

And if somehow the stars cross and Sweden's new rules catch on around the globe, which they won't, then what happens?  Every major film company will make sure to add two minor female characters that talk to each other for two seconds before going back to the rest of the movie and get their A rating.  Big win for feminism.


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