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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Why are films so sexist?


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Why are films so sexist? I do not have the answer, but they are. In spite of grumpy government ruminations that film studies is a ‘soft’ subject, the medium is a vital expression of our cultural values. Films are mesmerising propaganda tools too. The recent The King’s Speech (which I have not seen, and thus am not reviewing) makes use of the ‘personal triumph against adversity’ genre, which any filmgoer will know, and molds it around one of the richest and most powerful men of his time (he liked people to call him Emperor of India) overcoming a speech impediment. Thus, we have a film in which we hoi poloi and made to root for power and establishment, despite the fact that when applied to life it is against our best interests.

There are many who blithely will tell anyone who cares listen that feminism is no longer necessary as we have sexual equality. Such people will cite all sorts of anecdotes to say it is so, but refuse to listen to the evidence that every sphere of power and money in the UK is dominated by men, be it government, banking, board rooms, chief police officers. And film operates as an amplifying feed-back loop on our society: film reflects our values, intensifies them and dictates them back to us. That is why film studies are necessary, and how they gratuitously exacerbate inequality.

A few days ago, my friend Hannah introduced me to the Bechdel Test. It seems that everyone else knew about this but me. The Bechdel Test was created by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For to demonstrate the overwhelming sexism of film medium. It is a very simple set of three criteria that any film should be able to pass easily, but almost all fail. The criteria are that a film must contain at least one scene in which

  1. There must be at least two women (usually interpreted to mean two named women characters)
  2. They must talk to each other
  3. They must talk about something other than men

The threshold is set ridiculously low in the Bechdel Test, yet on-screen women seem to major in being nothing more than props for on-screen men. Both The King’s Speech and, my recently reviewed, Black Swan are among the minority that pass the Bechdel Test, but many more do not even come close. The extent of sexism in film can be emphasized by applying the Reverse Bechdel Test: two named men who talk to each other about something other than women. Almost all films fulfil this exact opposite while failing the Bechdel Test. There are a rare handful of films that buck the trend by meeting the Bechdel Test while failing the Reverse; Juno is one, and perhaps Black Swan is another (although I’m stretching my memory on that one). I think things are improving, but the jaw-droppingly blatant sexism persists in film. Obviously, the macho films are going to do badly on this, but those films often relegated as ‘chick flicks’ often do equally badly (as women just talk about men, or don’t even talk to each other). Even when a film fulfils the Bechdel Test, it doesn’t make it a paragon of feminist values, as the Sex and the City films demonstrate, but simply shows that there are a handful of films that portray women as autonomous human beings that are not perpetually obsessed with men. Children’s films tend to fail the test badly as a genre.

Why are films so sexist? Why do scripts fail to meet even the simplest of thresholds for sexual equality? I still do not know, but this amplified feedback effect that the medium has shows us that it takes its cue from wider society and then reinforces the cultural and societal trends that exclude women.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

6 thoughts on “Why are films so sexist?

  1. I think the first, obvious reason is that films are made by men who treat women as a ‘minority’ audience.

    Secondly, I think there is a kind of feedback loop. Books, films, and television have tended to fail the Bechdel test for many years. A result is that while men have different characters women all tend to have the same kind of character. Because writers (and directors) now make films based not on life, but on other movies they have no idea that women may be as diverse as men. Abbas Kiarostami described the history of cinema like this: the first generation of film-makers (in the silent era) looked at life and made films; the second generation (e.g. French New Wave) looked at life, looked at the films of the first generation and made films but the third generation (e.g. Tarantino) only looked at the films of the first two generations before making films.

    The idea of man as active and therefore heroic is centuries old and as narrative forms change very little it is not surprising that women are still prizes in many films. I found ‘The Girl who Played with Fire’ particularly interesting because it turns the stereotype on its head. It is quite instructive because watching it makes you realise how unusual it is to see an active hero.

    • Thank you, Joseph, for your comment. Yes, the big film studios support a far greater number of male film-makers, who often have the tendency you suggest. Women film-makers tend not to win acclaim in the industry unless they make films ‘like the men’. A woman who makes films that meet the Bechdel Test, or even go a little farther, is likely to be branded a feminist film-maker and not taken seriously. That’s not to say that feminist film-making is unimportant, but that women making films from their own point of view are not considered to be ‘mainstream’. However, I would want to add that as film is a communication medium, the viewer is also a part of the equation. Market-driven film-making in Hollywood tends to single out the 14-year-old white boy as the key to seeing financial returns, and likewise film-making becomes focused on marketing niches, and all women are served up is the ‘chick flick’. Both film makers are thus shoe-horned into making films they wouldn’t necessarily want to make, and film viewers are likewise given little other choice but watch the films they wouldn’t necessarily want to watch.

      Your quote from Kiarostami about film-makers becoming more introverted resonates with the ever-increasing drive for remakes, sequels and spoofs, as well as original film-making that does nothing but explore the memes and genres of cinema’s back catalogue. Thank you for sharing it.

      I haven’t seen ‘The Girl who Played with Fire’, so I cannot really comment there. It surely passes the Bechdel Test, and it has a strong leading woman. However, I notice that some feminist reviewers have criticized both the novels and the films for their near pornographic portrayal of violence against women, and that the strong woman detective and seeing justice being done is little more than a moral figleaf that allows the reader/viewer to enjoy the titillation of sexual violence without feeling bad, even feeling good about it. I wonder what you might think about such criticisms. Even so, it might demonstrate the fact that the Bechdel criteria are so low that, even if a film passes them, it doesn’t make it a feminist film.

  2. I just realised I should have said “active female hero” at the end of my last post.

    I personally found the sexual violence in the “Dragon Tattoo” films horrifying and would think that anyone who didn’t had quite severe problems, but the issue of violence is always tricky. I’m not sure that I would call it a feminist film.

    I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that audiences have no choice. It might take a little effort to find them but other films are available.

    What I find a shame is that we have in this country some very talented female directors like Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsey who get very little support from an industry more interested in cartoon gangsters and Richard Curtis.

    • Well, I did say ‘little other choice’ rather than ‘no choice’, because, although we can see films beyond the market-driven Hollywood fare, there are far fewer place to see them. Low-budget films usually get next to no distribution, and are almost impossible to see outside of a restricted showing at an arts centre or college. In most towns and cities, seeing a Hollywood blockbuster is easy, anything else is difficult. Add to that the media exposure and promotion of Hollywood films against negligible advertising of other films.

      I agree totally with your observation that there are a great many talented women film directors. It does seem that public funding of creative film-making makes a huge difference, as market-driven film-making tends to play safe and replay stereotypes. Given the cutting of the Film Council, I think things will only get worse.

      • Point taken. I live in London so don’t really ever consider life in the provinces.
        On the other hand, the internet and digital TV do provide greater choice, regardless of geography. I think Hollywood knows it is fighting a losing battle so resorts to tired formulae and safe bets. Also the gimmick of 3D. Mike Figgis has said that the whole thing is economically unsustainable (stars earning almost as much as bankers, ridiculous budgets, etc) and will collapse within a few years. I hope he’s right.

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