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I think that the Bechdel test is a fantastic idea. It’s not going to be a magical cure for the films industries problem with female representation. It may not immediately instigate the much needed changes. And to some it may sound like a petty, inconsequential, token gesture. But what the test has done is introduce a necessary debate about the use of actresses in films, particularly films from Hollywood.
There is a huge problem with the use of women in the film industry and this could possibly spell the beginning of the end. In hundreds of films a year women are used as little more than padding to a male-dominated plot, frequently treated as vapid sexual objects or damsels in distress, as shown this summer when someone working on Star Trek Into Darkness decided it was important to have a scene where a female doctor was shown stripped to her underwear, as opposed to, you know, doing doctery stuff. Oscar-winning actress Jenifer Lawrence recently spoke of how she grew up without a female hero in the acting world and how girls grow up seeing bodies they can’t imitate in real life everywhere and the power that the film industry has to subvert that image. However, when it comes to the role of women Hollywood and the cinema image, filmmakers are abjectly failing. The sexism in the film industry isn’t overt but when you think of how many leading ladies, that aren’t sexualised, there actually are then it comes becomes obvious there is a problem we need to talk about.
The Bechdel Test should be a test any film that seeks to represent a 21st century country should pass but if you apply the criteria to many famous films then they fail quite miserably. All three films from the original Star Wars trilogy are abject in their representation of women. In the trilogy there are three women with speaking roles and if you take Princess Leia away you may struggle to remember the other two. Similarly the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the most successful trilogy in recent memory, has one woman fighting in the battles for Middle Earth and then some window dressing. This does not undermine the quality of the film but we should ask whether films should be trying to break down gender barriers or supporting them.
It’s no good dismissing works of fiction as irrelevant to the real world; the fact is they can be just as, if not more, influential than works based on real life. The Bridget Jones series does little but reinforce the stereotype that women , despite their careers and other achievements, seek no more than a man to keep them company and a bit of retail therapy in between. When you think about, that its popularity is slightly depressing.
It could too open up necessary debate on other sections of entertainment. There is for example huge inequality in the portrayal of women in video games. In a previous issue of SCAN, Erik Apter raised the important point that Grand Theft Auto V seldom portrays women in anything regarding a positive light which is true and it’s the case for many video games. It is a salient fact that the most successful video game series in history is yet to produce a single positive female character. Finding games with a leading woman is hard. Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider series comes to mind, but the perfectly toned, well-endowed leading lady subject to numerous pervy camera angles in each game cannot necessarily be seen as a torchbearer for female equality.
There needs to be wholesale change in Hollywood as well as in other industries and it won’t come easily, but the Bechdel Test is providing people with important information for choosing a film. It’s not intrusive or forceful but just informative. And it helps cinema-goers to choose between a film that gives accurate portraits of women and one that treats women like a sub-species undeserving of a place at the same table as men. There’s certainly nothing wrong with offering that choice.