Last month, four Swedish cinemas decided to start adding Bechdel-test ratings for movies in order to address gender parity in the film industry.*
The Bechdel Test, as we know, is simply a way to evaluate female representation in a film. It is not a test of quality or of feminist themes, only of female representation (or racial representation for Racial Bechdel). For example, Mononoke-hime is a Bechdel-passing film with fully-fleshed out female characters and feminist themes; Twilight passes the test but is not considered a feminist work; and The Avengers does not pass the Bechdel because despite having Black Widow, Pepper Potts, and Agent Maria Hill, none of them ever hold a conversation with each other.
Using the Bechdel test as part of the MPAA ratings is perfectly in line with the purpose of the ratings, which do not rate quality of the film in terms of the narrative structure or technical details but rather the quantity and severity of plot elements. How much and what kind of cursing is there? Are there sexual elements, and, if so, how explicit are they? Is there violence, and how graphic is it? All of these are distilled into 5 ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17) that act as basic guidelines.
I’m certainly not saying that the MPAA ratings or the people who vote on them are perfect. A sex scene with two adults and “enthusiastic consent” could earn the film a PG-13 or an R, depending on how graphic it is, but a film that objectifies women and “porns” the shots of their bodies (long, lingering body pans; undue focus on breasts, butts), might earn the same rating despite the deleterious effects of the male gaze in films. Nudity for male actors is rare (9.4%), but for female actors, partial nudity is much more common (26.2%). (NYFA, 2013).
In addition to the rating, the MPAA’s newer rating have descriptions: s a film PG-13 for nudity and “sensuality” or is it PG-13 for violence? Having to consider female representation along with other basic quantifiable standards seems perfectly logical. For the qualitative elements, there’s film review and plenty of us film scholars out here on the Internet, journalism, and in academia to handle the discussion of the finer points.
Finally, regarding the reaction to the new ratings, I always find it particularly troubling when measures taken in response to inequality in representation in the media are treated as ludicrous, as if representation either didn’t matter or as if it infringed on the rights of others (read: the clothed men who would lose screen time). In light of criticism of the new standards, Anu Koivunen, Ingrid Ryberg and Laura Horak wrote a fantastic follow-up piece to the Guardian’s press release on the new rating (26 Nov. 2013). They write,
This rejection [of the test] is too hasty, disregarding crucial dimensions. Rather than ridiculing the test, we suggest taking the challenge it poses seriously. The A rating has proved to be an activist provocation that works, and it is important to ask why. It has caused critics to warn against increased simplicity, as if the idea of two named women talking to each other was diametrically opposed to the notion of quality. This criticism evokes a long history of devaluing women’s genres and women as readers, viewers, and media consumers. (emphasis mine)
I highly recommend reading the full piece. What does it mean, precisely, when a new basic quantifiable standard for film ratings strikes fear into the hearts of film-goers and Internet commenters? It’s time to really examine our cultural fear of female representation and the categorical dismissal of films with female leads–and even whole genres of film –as “chick flicks.” This has the potential to be a watershed moment in film history. Let’s hope it catches.
*Edit: I initially had a link to Reel Girl’s ratings, but in light of her Jezebel article, which included a lot of misguided and problematic language about sex workers, sexuality, and race, I’ve decided to back away from the blog. I would, however, suggest that you read the comments on the Jezebel piece. My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.