Your Favorite Movie is Probably Filled With Rampant Sexism

Avatar and sexism

Swedish cinemas are introducing a new rating system that screens films based on their gender bias. The rating system is called The Bechdel Test, and it was named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who made a cartoon about the rating idea in 1985.

The test is simple and follows these guidelines:

  • Are there at least two female characters with names?
  • Do those characters have a conversation about something other than a man?
  • Are there strong female presences in the film?
Bechdel test sexism
Cartoon by Alison Bechdel with original idea for Bechdel Test

If a film meets the criteria, it is given a rating of “A.” Unfortunately, the Bechdel Test doesn’t rate films based on quality, so there might be some crappy movies that pass with flying colors. Also, since it doesn’t test for stereotypes, a movie may meet all the criteria above, and still not place women in a very empowering light. (For example, a film about two women talking about shopping and makeup for 2 hours would get an A rating on the Bechdel Test.)

Still, the results are shocking. A study at San Diego University in 2011 found that only “11 percent of protagonists in the top 100 films of 2011 were female.” In fact, films like the Matrix, The Social Network, Avatar, and the entire Lord of the Rings and original Star Wars Trilogies fail the Bechdel Test.

Am I Blind to Sexism?

I’m a guy, and I consider myself to be pretty aware of sexism in the media, so I was surprised to see some of my favorite movies fail the test. How did I not notice that there wasn’t a single conversation between two women in any of those movies? That’s outrageous. I wonder what the results would be if we did the equivalent test for men? (2 men having a conversation, not about women, and with a strong presence on the film). I think seeing those results would really drive the point home of how lopsided and biased our movies are towards favoring the male perspective.

How did I not notice that there wasn’t a single conversation between two women in any of those movies?

Where Are the Female Filmmakers?

I think that part of the problem is lack of female filmmakers. One example that comes to mind is Catherine Hardwicke. Hardwicke found early success directing the indie hit “Thirteen,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2003. She was then tapped to direct the first installment of the Twilight films, which went on to break opening weekend records for a female director, and eventually grossed over $400 million. “I thought after ‘Twilight’ my life was going to be easy,” Hardwicke says. “I was the first woman to do that. But no, it hasn’t been easy.” Hardwicke was dropped from the following installments of the Twilight series, but she still expected to have other lucrative deals come knocking at her door. Unfortunately, they’ve been scarce. In the latest major film she directed, the 2011 horror flick Red Riding Hood, she had to take a pay cut. Hardwicke says, “I guess I thought after the success of ‘Twilight,’ I might have had a bigger opportunity instead of a smaller one.”

A study at the University of Southern California analyzing Sundance films from 2002 to 2012, found that women had directed only 23.9% of all films in the study. Even more shocking, only 4.4% of the top 100 films each year were directed by women. I think that’s a huge disparity, and society as a whole is seriously missing out by not having more female film directors.

The Way Forward

Because my blog is a place for solutions and action, here are some organizations to support and resources to help you get involved. I don’t believe that women will ever be fully and accurately portrayed in film and media until women make up a larger part of the creative process.

Women in Film (WIF): Women In Film’s purpose is to empower, promote, and mentor women in the entertainment and media industries.

Alliance for Women in Media: The Alliance for Women in Media (AWM) is a non-profit, professional organization of women and men who work in the media and allied fields. AWM is the longest-established professional association dedicated to advancing women in media and entertainment.

Women Make Movies: Established in 1972 to address the under representation and misrepresentation of women in the media industry, Women Make Movies is a multicultural, multiracial, non-profit media arts organization which facilitates the production, promotion, distribution and exhibition of independent films and videotapes by and about women. They also have a ton more stats about women in film here.

I know there are a lot of resources that I’m missing. If you have one that should be included here, please share the link in the comments below!

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