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
- There must be at least two women (usually interpreted to mean two named women characters)
- They must talk to each other
- 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.