It’s no secret
that Hollywood filmmakers
have a very serious problem
Not just with how they are portrayed, but also with how often they are portrayed. Not only do male characters dominate the plots of most films, but this inequity can also be found literally lurking in the background.
According to research commissioned by the Geena Davis Institute On Gender in Media (which—as its name suggests—was founded by the Academy Award winning star of Thelma & Louise and The Fly) many crowd scenes that in real life would show no gender bias feature as little as 17% women in the overall mix. Apparently this is enough for filmmakers to feel as though they are visually achieving diversity, even though they are sending the subliminal visual message that women are not a crucially important part of the everyday world in which we live.
But the most famous way in which the mainstream film industry devalues women was perfectly summed up in 1985 by a cartoonist named Alison Bechdel in her underground strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”.
In this specific strip two unidentified women are shown walking down the street next to a movie theatre. As they pass along posters advertising a couple of action movies one says to the other:
“I have this rule…I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. ONE, it has to have at least two women in it, who TWO, talk to each other about THREE, something besides a man.”
Despite the underground nature of the strip, Bechdel’s “test” eventually caught on and grew in popularity over the nearly 30 years that have followed its creation. Its genius lies in its simplicity. It’s a test that would take virtually no effort to pass, so the fact that many—if not a majority—of films fail to do so serves as a somewhat stunning indictment of the industry.
As a means to highlight the absurdity of how poorly women are represented in film, it’s probably the best and most enlightening tool we have. You can literally see epiphanies occur on people’s faces when you expose them to it for the first time. But recently there have been moves towards using it in a much more specific capacity.
Last year, a small group of Swedish cinemas and the Scandinavian TV channel, Viasat Film, decided that it would include the Bechdel Test as part of a film’s rating. This was seen by many as a praiseworthy and progressive move forward. People should be allowed to know how well women are represented in a film before they pay money to see it, especially if they—like the nameless character in the comic strip—are unwilling to see any movie that doesn’t pass the test.
The problem with this is that the inherent simplicity that makes the Bechdel Test such an effective demonstration of women’s lack of cinematic representation, also makes it an equally terrible tool with which to judge films on an individual basis. It says a lot about how women are treated in films in general, but it says literally nothing about how women are represented in the specific films being judged.
The best way to demonstrate this is to talk about two very different films.
Gravity came out last year and there is a very good chance you have seen it, since it was a major international blockbuster that received some of the best reviews of 2013. It won more Oscars than any other film this year and was the most singularly impressive technical achievement in filmmaking I’ve experienced in at least decade.
It’s a tense and nerve-racking tale of strength and survival—as Sandra Bullock’s character overcomes her fear, inexperience and unhappy past to find the will she needs to make it back home. It is easily the best role the she has ever had the chance to play and she nails it, giving us a complex, sympathetic and empowered lead character who serves as an excellent example of exactly the kind of hero Hollywood needs much more of.
Like all films, where Gravity succeeds and fails as a work of specific ideology is open to debate, but even those who might criticize the length with which director Alfonso Cuarón’s camera lingers on Bullock’s body when she peels out of her spacesuit (like a less-campy Barbarella), would probably end up agreeing that the film’s social impact is much more positive than negative—especially in its depiction of such an indomitable female character.
It’s exactly the kind of film that those who have brought the Bechdel Test to prominence would do well to promote—a clear example of a mainstream work with a female lead that excited audiences around the world and proved extremely profitable as a result (especially for Bullock, who reportedly received as much as $70 million for her work).
And it completely fails
the Bechdel test.
The other film I’m going to mention is much older than Gravity. Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS came out the same year I was born—1975.
Starring the voluptuous Dyanne Thorne, Ilsa was a low-budget exploitation film set in a Nazi concentration camp, filmed on the same location where they made Hogan’s Heroes a decade earlier. To say it is not a tasteful portrayal of the horrors of Nazi wartime atrocities would be one of your more outrageous understatements. It is a film whose entire existence is built upon eroticizing the bloody and painful torture of women.
It’s a Sadean effort, devoid of cleverness, satire or reflection—one aimed at purely satisfying the prurient desires of those who get off on seeing women being hurt and abused. Its title character is a feminist nightmare—an actual “FemiNazi” whose horrific efforts are meant to prove her pet theory that women make better soldiers than men because they are capable of withstanding more pain.
After long days subjecting her captives to her inhuman experiments, she spends her nights with male POWs, who don’t feel so lucky afterwards when they learn that once they can no longer perform to her expectations, she will literally castrate them.
The film is so shameless that it actually supplies us with a hero able to overcome Ilsa’s monstrosity through his ability to maintain a constant erection—making this the only film in history where priapism plays a role in the downfall of the Third Reich*. (It’s an effort so inexcusable that its producer—legendary exploitation mogul, David F. Friedman—admitted it was the only film in his entire career he was ashamed of and used a pseudonym for.)
And—you guessed it—
it passes the Bechdel Test
with flying colours.
So, on the one hand you have a truly thrilling, award-winning film that not only serves as a jaw-dropping and epic technical achievement, but also features a powerful and complex female lead character both men and women can identify with and it fails the Bechdel test.
And, on the other, you have a dirty, grimy exploitation film predicated on giving boners to misogynists who enjoy seeing former Russ Meyer starlets being whipped, electrocuted and raped, and it passes that same test with ease.
The Bechdel Test is a great tool, but one tool alone isn’t capable of getting the entire job done. If we truly want to change how Hollywood portrays and uses female characters we can’t rely solely on accounting to accomplish the task. Each film is different and forcing any one of them to abide by arbitrary measurements could serve as the death knell of art and creativity.
What we can do is support the films we feel get it right and portray women the way we want to see them on screen—regardless of whether or not those films pass or fail any specific test.
*For a great discussion about Ilsa, please check out episode #91 of the Trash, Art & The Movies podcast, where Erin Fraser and Paul Matwychuk discuss it in comparison to The Reader (and kindly mention yours truly in the process).