Sweden adopts Bechdel test to measure gender bias in films


In the states, our standardized rating system is based around violence, nudity, and F-bombs. But Sweden is taking things a step further by using the Bechdel test to examine levels of gender bias in films.

American cartoonist Alsion Bechdel introduced the Bechdel test after she created a comic-strip called “Dykes to Watch Out For” in the mid 1980s. The rule to achieving an ‘A’ rating on the Bechdel test is simple—the film must portray two, significant (in other words, they at least have to have names) female characters who have conversations based on topics other than men. Still, a number of films fail this simple test.

“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,” said Ellen Tejle, the director of Bio Rio, an art-house cinema in Stockholm.

True, in a great deal of popular films these days, women are not generally the independent superhero, but rather the tired out “damsel in distress” character, or the rom-com “single gal” who’s always the bridesmaid and never the bride. Societal beliefs, including women’s roles in society, are greatly influenced by film and popular culture. Thus, it is a major negative that movie content rarely focuses around the adventures of successful, powerful women, and the tasks that they conquer.

The Bechdel tests aims to change this by highlighting the issues of gender bias.

“The goal is to see more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens,” said Tejle.

The Swedish Film Institute supports the adoption of Bechdel-based ratings, and Viasat Film, a Scandanavian cable TV channel, has announced it will also start rating the films it airs according to the Bechdel test. The channel has also scheduled a “Super Sunday” for November 17, when they will only air films that received an ‘A’ rating. These films include “The Hunger Games,” “The Iron Lady,” and “Savages.”

Adopting the Bechdel test is just one of many steps Sweden has taken recently to break down the walls of gender inequality. The Equalisters project, established in 2010, has aimed to increase the number of female commentators in Swedish media, and has a Facebook following of over 44,000.

However, there are some that have become fed up with the many initiatives in the quest for gender equality.

“If they want different kind of movies they should produce some themselves and not just point fingers at other people,” said Tanja Bergkvist, a physicist and blogger who discusses Sweden’s “gender madness.”

Others believe that the rules to the Bechdel test are ineffective.

“There are far too many films that pass the Bechdel test that don’t help at all in making society more equal or better, and lots of films that don’t pass the test but are fantastic at those things,” said Swedish film critic Hynek Pallas.

But research indicates that women are also underrepresented in films in the United States. Women made up only 33% of all characters of the top 100 films of 2011, and only 11% were considered protagonists—the study was conducted by San Diego’s Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

“Apparently Hollywood thinks that films with male characters will do better at the box office,” said Amy Bleakley, lead author of a study from the Annenberg Public Policy Centre at University of Pennsylvania. “It is also the case that most of the aspects of movie-making—writing, production, direction, and so on—are dominated by men, and so it is not a surprise that the stories we see are those that tend to revolve around men.”


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