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Film

Sex, violence...and gender bias? Swedish cinemas test the Bechdel

The world often looks to Scandinavia as a haven of equality, but fresh attempts in Sweden to highlight gender bias in film have led some to question whether the tradeoff could stymie creativity and culture.

Arriving at a cinema and deciding which movie to see can often be a process of elimination. If the decision hasn't already been made beforehand, judgment calls are made based on the actors, the genre, or what kind of rating it's been given in the media, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

In Sweden, that decision could be made a little easier, or harder, depending on one's view, because of a new test being added to the mix. A group of four small independent cinemas has started to rate films on the omission of gender bias.

To pass, women with names must be represented in speaking roles, discussing with each other a topic that isn't a man. The process of bringing the Bechdel test to fruition in Sweden took three years and was officially rolled out in those cinemas in late 2013.

Ellen Tejle, a director of Stockholm's Bio Rio cinema, has championed the rating system, named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who came up with the idea in the 1980s. Movies that pass the Bechdel test get a prominent "A grade" stamped on posters hanging in the cinemas, as well as online.

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"It means the movie actually has some kind of representation of women in it, but it's still like the lowest ever, I think. It's a little joke actually, and an ironic way to raise awareness about women's representation in film," Ellen says.

"It's not perfect, but it's a great start to actually get people talking about gender equality in the film industry. People are also shocked by themselves, they haven't really seen movies in this dimension, I think."

Warning label?

Tejle likens the Bechdel test to other types of consumer information on films, such as whether they contain violence, but concedes it doesn't indicate whether the film is good or bad, or even if it actually contains sexism. In that respect, critics argue the test is too simple, and reduces film criticism to what's based in a script, rather than other aesthetic qualities.

Jan Holmberg, a Stockholm film historian, says many groundbreaking films and television series do not pass the Bechdel test, even though they might arguably have promoted gender equality. An example he gives is Ingmar Bergman's 1973 "Scenes from a Marriage," which details the marriage breakdown of its main characters.

"It also reportedly increased the divorce rate in Scandinavia," Holmberg says.

"Not that I'm saying divorce is the best solution, but in this case I think it indicates a crucial aspect of women's liberation in the 70s, where a film, or in this case, a television series, could actually have that kind of impact questioning their relationship and questioning their role in this relationship. But that certainly would not pass the Bechdel test, because well there is just one woman in the film, and what they're doing is all the time talking about the relationship," says Holmberg.

50 Shades of Blue

French director Abdellatif Kechiche's lesbian romantic drama "Blue is the Warmest Color" garnered rave reviews this year, amid controversy over graphic sex scenes, and took out the top honor at the Cannes Film Festival. Holmberg says it's problematic that this film would receive an ‘A rating'.

"It certainly passes the Bechdel test, but it also has gained a lot of criticism because of some explicit sex scenes that have been, to some at least, viewed as pornographic, and having very little to do with lesbian love other than stimulating male members of the audience."

A still from the film, Blue is the warmest color shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2013

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"On the other hand, openly feminist films by [women filmmakers] Maya Deren, Marguerite Duras, Chantal Akerman or Claire Denis, wouldn't pass the test."

Cinema highjacking?

Research from the US suggests that the under-representation of women in film has stayed fairly consistent over the past 70 years, with a ratio of two male characters for every female one, according to an analysis of more than 850 box office films from the University of Pennsylvania. San Diego's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film says only a third of characters in movies are women, and just one out of every 10 are main characters.

Although it seems simple, only about a third of movies screened by Cinema Rio in Stockholm since it began ‘A rating' movies have passed Alison Bechdel's gender test.

So what to do about the rest? The cinemas using the test insist they're not out to stop those films being made; rather, they say, it's their responsibility to a put a female perspective on a conservative film industry, that overwhelmingly tells stories driven by male characters at the expense of other narratives. Critics have argued that it's not necessarily the job of cinema to shoulder a burden belonging to wider society.

A film still from the Die Hard Franchise - A good day to die, showing one character pointing a gun at another in front of a car.

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"I'm certainly for feminist analysis of films and I think that every time a film has some kind of ideology…which needs to be exposed, then critics should do that. I just feel that the Bechdel test is not the best possible tool," says Holmberg.

"My problem with the Bechdel test has more to do with reducing art and cinema in particular to a tool, an instrument for social change. Although I would applaud the social change, I don't necessarily think all cinema for instance should be the instrument to do it."

Cinema's battles

Internationally, Tejle says the response to the test has been positive. At a recent conference of European cinema distributors in Greece, which focused on the industry's struggle in the face of digitalization, she managed to spread the word and get a number of colleagues on board.

Cinema-goers in Sweden have responded warmly to the A-rating system. "It's been like an eye opener for our audience," says Tejle.

"And they're just positive about it and think it's a fun and important thing to do."

DW.DE

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