I was browsing through the xkcd forums recently and stumbled upon a thread about the Bechdel test. The originator was complaining that the test was being used to label particular movies as sexist – something it was never intended for. And I’d have to agree.
For a movie to pass the test it has to meet three criteria; it has to include at least two women, they have to have a conversation with each other, and the conversation has to be about something other than a man. So among others Back to the Future, Up and Shawshank Redemption all fail. Now, if anyone told me that Back to the Future was a sexist movie just because it failed a simple test I would have thought they were a bit daft. In fact, if anyone used any reason to tell me that Back to the Future was anything less than one of the best family movies of the 80’s I would probably think a bit less of them.
But when you apply the test to a large cross section of movies and compare it to a male version of the test, it becomes relevant and brings up some interesting questions. As you can see from the Bechdel Test website, the number of films that fail is very high, yet you can be confident that almost all of them would pass a male version. As an indication I looked at the top 10 movies on the IMDB top 250, and only one film passes the female test (Schindler’s List), 3 others could scrape in with a contentious pass mark, but all 10 pass the male test with flying colours. Of course, looking at such a small number of films goes against what I’ve just said, but sorry, I didn’t have time to look at the whole list.
This all begs the question, “why is it so?”, and I think the theories would fall into three main camps; sexism in the film industry, sexism in society, and actual differences between men and women.
Personally, I think it’s a bit of all three.
Looking at the industry, a quick Google search seemed to confirm my suspicions that women are underrepresented behind the scenes. According to one site, 21% of the top 250 grossing films of 2007 (a little outdated I know) failed to employ at least one woman as a director, producer, writer, cinematographer or editor, but all 250 had at least one man in these roles. To my mind, a lack of women behind the scenes is sure to cause a lack of women on screen, especially in the case of writers, as people tend to write what they know and give their protaganists similar characteristics to themselves. And sure enough, the same site says that female writers only accounted for 10% of the writers working on these films.
But that can’t be the whole story. If we think of all the films about war, police, politics, corporate big-wigs, firefighters, detectives, rock musicians etc. – these are all fields that are still somewhat dominated by men. Not that it should be that way and a lot of progress has been made in the right direction, but for the moment that’s the way it is. One school of thought is that film should be helping to change all that. Showing women in these jobs, whether they’re “good guys” or not, could let other women know that there’s nothing unusual about it. A glut of female cop movies would be sure to cause a noticable rise in the number of impressionable young women signing up for the force (not that I’m wanting to paint a picture of girls as putty minded, doe-eyed drones – guys are just as easily influenced). However, the other school of thought is that it has never been the role of film (or art in general) to try and directly change society. Instead all art can hope to do is “hold a mirror up to society” and hope that people see the error of their ways. And as someone who likes stark realism just as much as whacked-out fantasy, I prefer this point of view. So, looking at it this way, the film industry can’t take all the blame. The issue runs much deeper.
My last point is a little tricky to approach as I tend to be overly cautious when pointing out any differences between the sexes. I’m scared that someone will call me sexist and then I’ll spend three weeks obsessing over it, asking my fiance “am I really sexist?” over and over until she gets so sick of it that she bludgeons me unconscious with a Germaine Greer book just for the irony of it. But alas, here goes …
Men are more likely to do entertaining things than women.
“Woah!” I hear you say. “The 1950’s called and they went their chauvanism back!” And you know what, you’d be right. In fact, let me rephrase that …
Men are more likely to do really stupid things, that also happen to be entertaining as long as you’re not actually involved and don’t have to live with any of the consequences.
The best example is crime, especially violent crime. Looking at the top 10 of the IMDB list again, the plot of all 10 revolve around crime (mostly murder). And what group commits far more murders than any other? You guessed it. According to Wikipedia, a male is 10 times more likely to kill someone than a woman (based on USA statistics from 2004).
Of course that is not something that any man should be proud of. I’d be much happier if us guys gave all the violence a rest and let the stats even out, but the fact remains that murder is entertaining and in real life it is mostly commited by men. From Scorcese to Shakespeare to the ancient Greeks, violent death has always been a part of art.
So I don’t think we’ll see true equality in films during our lifetime. It would require an upheaval of the industry and wider society, as well as making fundamental changes to the way we all think.
However, it’s a noble thing to aim for. So as long as everyone takes it easy on Back to Future or any of my other favourite movies, I’ll be happy to see more Bechdel approved films hitting our cinemas.