Is This Film Feminist Enough? Swedish Theaters Add New Rating System

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  • Alison Bechdel
    American cartoonist, author

It’s always nice when ratings can clue you in about a film’s sex-violence-profanity level before you settle in with your popcorn. But what about the sexist factor? That’s remained a mystery — until now, perhaps, thanks to some Swedish cinemas that have begun implementing a feminist rating system called the Bechdel test.

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The litmus test has actually been around for a while—since 1985, when American cartoonist Alison Bechdel (author of “Fun Home”) created it for her long-running “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic strip. It eventually became common film parlance, at least among movie buffs and reviewers. To receive Bechdel's new “A” rating (for "Approved"), a film has to meet three seemingly simple requirements: It must contain at least two female characters, those two characters must converse, and they must talk about something other than a man. Sounds simple, right?

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Not exactly. “The entire ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, all ‘Star Wars’ movies, ‘The Social Network,’ ‘Pulp Fiction’ and all but one of the ‘Harry Potter’ movies fail this test,” director of Stockholm's Bio Rio cinema tells the Associated Press. Bio Rio is one of four Swedish theaters — along with Roy (in Göteborg), Spegeln (in Malmö) and Röda Kvarn (in Hälsingborg), all under the same management — to launch the new rating system in October to raise awareness of how few movies pass. And for some filmgoers, she notes, “it has been an eye-opener.”





The Bechdel test is an unofficial rating system in the Swedish cinemas, though the state-funded Swedish Film Institute supports the idea, according to the Associated Press. Scandinavian cable TV channel Viasat Film also says it will start using the ratings in its film reviews, and has scheduled an A-rated "Super Sunday" for Nov. 17, for upcoming screenings of "The Hunger Games," ''The Iron Lady" and "Savages."

At least one more recent film that’s gotten an A is “The Heat,” according to Bio Rio’s screening schedule.

“The ‘A’ rating does NOT indicate whether a movie is good/bad, fair [to women] or not,” Bio Rio is careful to note on its Facebook page. “However, from a larger perspective, the Bechdel test says something very important about the state of movies, because the reality is very few movies actually manage to pass this seemingly simple test.”

New York filmmaker Jennie Livingston, whose work includes the documentary "Paris Is Burning," applauds the effort. "I think any tool, given the paucity of good female characters with names and story lines, is fantastic," she tells Yahoo Shine. "The fact that Bechdel's test has entered the lexicon already begins to change how people think about whether or not there are good, solid, plentiful female characters in mainstream cinema."

Still, some feel the test does not go far enough.

“I love the Bechdel test as much as the next girl, but I think incorporating it into a movie ratings system is a kind of silly if eye-catching stunt,” longtime New York film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum tells Yahoo Shine. “Yep, representation of women is really crappy in a lot of movies. Noted. If those Stockholm cinemas want to be really Swedish about it, they should mix it up: one week a rating of representation of people of color, another of LGBT characters, another of Muslims, another of serious Christians. Oh, and don't forget movie representation of people of weight!”

Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, has mixed feelings. “While the Bechdel test has certainly raised people's consciousness regarding the underrepresentation of female characters in film and the nature of their roles, I would suggest that this test sets the bar far too low,” she tells Shine.

Lauzen’s 2011 study of women's onscreen representations in the top 100 domestic (U.S.) grossing films found that females account for 33 percent of all characters in film but just 11 percent of protagonists. Her 2012 study of behind-the-scenes representation found that women constituted just 18 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.

To those points, she notes, a far better standard would be to require that more films feature more female protagonists and/or employ greater numbers of women in powerful behind-the-scenes roles as directors and writers.”

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