The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Thoughts on top selling Swedish movies failing the Bechdel test

with 18 comments

bechdel
For years Sweden was the highest ranked country in the world in terms of equality between the genders. According to the latest reports, we’ve now been bumped into fourth place, behind our Scandinavian neighbours, but I still feel lucky to live in a part of the world where the shape of my genitals is less of a hindrance than elsewhere.

It’s safe to say that Sweden has earned a bit of a reputation in this aspect and you would expect that this would reflect in the Swedish movies. Sadly it doesn’t.

Failing the test
Dagens Nyheter, the biggest morning paper in Sweden recently checked out how the genders are represented in the Swedish movies that ranked highest at the box office over the last ten years. As their measuring tool they used the Bechdel test.

The simple rules of this test are that a movie needs to have at least two named women who talk to each other about something besides a man. It turned out that this was too much to ask for, even in the progressive Sweden.

Two out of three movies failed, and the only way you can describe this result is: poor.

It turned out that there wasn’t any notable difference between female and male directors in this regard. Movies directed by women appear to fail the Bechdel test just as often as movies directed by men.

Anna Serner, who is CEO of the Swedish Film Institute, commented on the results:

I have worked actively with the gender issue for 15 years and I haven’t reacted against this until recently. This shows how accustomed we are to women being in a supportive function towards men. It’s the norm and it helps to create a perception about men being cowboys and women being good looking, young and docile. You really have to take the test to see the structures.”

 I couldn’t agree more.  Just look at The Intouchables, a French success movie from last year. As you might remember it received quite a bit of criticism, especially in North America, with accusations of racial stereotyping. But very few of the critics mentioned the objectification of women or how the protagonist kept groping a female colleague who clearly didn’t want to be grope and how this was presented as a bit of fun rather than as the sexual harassment it actually was.

Anna Serner again:

It’s a problem, because we know that movies help forming the identity of the one who is watching. You use film to understand yourself and your identity. If you try to achieve equality in the society overall, the work for it will become much harder if movies aren’t working in that direction.”

Bechdel tests and film fast
So if we have a problem where half of mankind is presented as subordinated the other half in movies, is there anything we can do to change this? Is it the duty of a feminist oriented movie goer to pick movies that present a different picture?

There are options available. One of the VOD companies in Sweden has decided to give all their movies a consumer marking, where they inform weather a film has passed the Bechdel test.  It’s up to the viewer to make the call. If you’re so inclined you can decide to boycott all movies that aren’t Bechdel proof.

Would you do that?
I wouldn’t.

I find the stereotyping and the lack strong female characters in movies a problem, especially in regards of the influence it has on the next generation a problem (eloquently described by Colin Stokes in a TED talk, thanks to Hauke for sending me the link!).  But I can’t imagine refraining from watching movies such as The Hobbit, Looper, Life of Pi or Frankenweenie for gender political reasons, just to make a statement.

Equally I’d never submit myself to a “feministic film fast”, another Swedish phenomenon, where the idea is to only watch movies made by female directors. My favourite film of 2012 – We Need to Talk about Kevin – happened to be directed by a woman. And so is Zero Dark Thirty, which will be a strong candidate on the 2013 list. But they have those positions in their own right, not because I’ve actively been looking for female directors, excluding male or excluding movies that don’t pass the Bechdel test.

However I think initiatives like this are valuable since they get a lot of attention in the media and help raising awareness. The movie going audience hopefully starts to reflect over how women are presented in movies, question it and talk about it. And this is  the first step in a long process towards a change. I wonder if it will happen during my lifetime though.

If Swedish movies can’t pass the Bechdel test, we’ve got a long, long way to go.

Written by Jessica

March 9, 2013 at 7:24 am

18 Responses

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  1. For what it’s worth, Bergman is the first thing I think of when I think of Sweden. And he passed the Bechdel test at least a few times, including one of his most popular films- Persona.

    Not that it changes the modern Swedish film industry. But at least Sweden still has the same reputation for being progressive that you’d think it does.

    John

    March 9, 2013 at 7:40 am

    • To be honest I think the reputation is well deserved. At least from what I see when I look around in the world. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas that still need improvement. I know that the Swedish Film Institute prioritizes gender/equality issues and hopefully this will contribute to the development.

      Jessica

      March 9, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    • Considering the “twist” of Persona, I don’t think it really does pass the Bechdel test. If you think about it, you’ll know what I mean 🙂

      stevekimes

      March 10, 2013 at 8:29 pm

  2. I do think there are limits to Bechdel…just thinking about some of the failing films you mention like Looper (Emily Blunt’s character is a well rounded one, even if she doesn’t talk to any other women) but I do like the idea of some sort of labeling that can make filmmakers have to think in advance of the impact of their decisions. How about if in rating a film, alongside language or violence of nudity, it had sexism. Wouldn’t that be interesting.

    Bondo

    March 9, 2013 at 8:40 am

    • It’s true that the Bechdel test isn’t perfect. Some movies don’t pass that are perfectly good from a gender perspective, it’s just that two women speaking did’t fit into that particular story. And sometimes a movie may pass the test and still be full of sexism. Yet I think it’s a quick and dirty test that can be pretty revealing sometimes. It’s an interesting thought to have a sexist rating, though I doubt that the movie companies would agree to it. Violence can be a sales argument, while very few movies have anything to gain by being labeled as sexist.

      Jessica

      March 9, 2013 at 7:53 pm

  3. Interesting write-up. Great to read. I can’t speak for anywhere but here in the United States, but a lot of the movie roles gets down to movie preferences from audiences plain and simple. If it doesn’t make money, there isn’t much of a chance of it being made. It’s shallow and unfortunate and it shows what little range most have in movies, but that’s how it is.

    I do have to speak about the Intouchables, a film I really liked. First the racial argument. There were those who argued against the movie because of that here. The problem is “racism” has become politically charged so much so that its almost more about politics than equality. Talk about backwards. I found nothing even slightly racist about the film. Simply because Driss was black its assumed that the filmmakers are stereotyping and entire race. That’s much too strong of an accusation for these U.S. critics to flippantly throw out yet its done here all the time.

    Now to the objectification of women in the film. I don’t remember the groping but I do remember the harassing repeated pick-up lines and ogling. But honestly, that didn’t bother me because HE was the one who came off looking like an idiot EVERY time. Even at the end we find that he was the one being played. Was he a pig? Absolutely, but he was a pig who was always put in his place.

    Anyway, sorry for rambling. This is just such a great post to spark some good discussion.

    keith7198

    March 9, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    • Oh on the whole I really liked The Intouchables, even loved it. I gave it a high rating and it was one of the funniest movies I watched last year. I don’t understand the criticism against it for being rasist. However I did reflect over its view on women as I watched it, thinking to myself that it was probably typical French in this aspect (yes, I admit that I have prejudices against France when it comes to the view on women.) As opposed to you I didn’t feel that the movie took a stance against his piggish behaviour; it was presented with a smile and a wink so to say.

      Anyway: thank you for your thoughtful comment. I really love to dive into this kind of discussions!

      Jessica

      March 9, 2013 at 7:57 pm

  4. I don’t want to hijack the comments, but I wrote you a mail to the mail address in the side bar around a month ago and just don’t even know if you got it. I recommended a TED talk about how movies teach manhood: http://www.ted.com/talks/colin_stokes_how_movies_teach_manhood.html .

    Hauke

    March 9, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    • You’re not hijacking anything! I included a link to the talk in the post, but I could have made it more clear. I’ve corrected it now so no one will miss it. Thanks again for sending me the idea! Cheers! (and your next drink is on the house!)

      Jessica

      March 9, 2013 at 7:47 pm

  5. Great post. I do wonder about the oft-questioned connection between art and social morality. Is it art’s place to shape social morality or to imitate it? Of course, with movies, the answer is, more often than not, art’s place is to make money. And making money is not even about reflecting social morality, but telling narratives that we are comfortable with.

    Thanks for sharing that Ted Talk, Hauke. Good stuff for me as a parent to think about. What are the movies that teach us to be team players in a co-ed society?

    stevekimes

    March 9, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    • Thank you for your kind words and thoughtful comment Steve! The question you raise is interesting and as often is the case with such questions, I don’t think the answer is black and white. Yes, a movie needs to make money and I think I’m a lot less sniffy about box office hit movies than many other bloggers, having a midbrow approach to film. But I don’t think commercial success necessarily rules out passing the Bechdel test. It’s possible to do both.

      Jessica

      March 9, 2013 at 8:22 pm

  6. Great post, and a subject I am passionate about! I didn’t know there was a test …I can think of a few Bergman films that pass – Cries and Whispers, Autumn Sonata…but it’s tough tough, surprisingly so! I would say English Director Mike Leigh’s films mostly pass the test – Secrets and Lies, Another Year, Life is Sweet. In terms of more mainstream cinema though – much less.

    I’m glad people are talking about this – thought provoking article, good work, Jessica!

    georginaguthrie

    March 11, 2013 at 4:11 pm

  7. The more I think about it the more I have a problem with the way the Bechdel test has become the yardstick it has – simply because I have no idea what a good rate is. By that I mean many good non-sexist movies fail the test by reason of setting (any movie that only shoots from the point of view of a protaganist who happens to be male, or which focuses on a male-female pairing, or many historical films due to the nature of the story portrayed). Given these, what is a good rate? 70%? 50%? I really do not know.

    Secondly if the Bechel test continues to rise to prominence I can see studious creating a token conversation simply to pass the test. Tokenism being as rampant as it is in the industry it may already be happening. Admittedly any test runs this risk.

    Thirdly, I think part of me rejects it as a measure of equality because it is itself sexist at its core – it only focuses on the depiction of women. For all the Bechdel test cares (if you allow the anthromorphisation) men can go hang. Now men do generally suffer from less silly depictions in movies, but even so one does not have to think very hard for light relief with a man confronted by a baby needing a nappy change and looking clueless. Yet all the men I know are expert hands at nappy changing – indeed in our own household I do the majority of the nappy-changing when I am at home.

    Of course, the Bechel test is easy to apply. Its ease of use is partly behind its popularity, so we are probably stuck with it. Alas.

    stnylan

    March 11, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    • That’s some very relevant points you bring up here indeed. I agree completely that the Bechdel test isn’t a perfect measuring tool. And yet I think it’s a good thing that it’s used, because it sparks awareness and brings up a long needed discussion.

      I was actually thinking about a reverse measuring. How many movies would pass the test if you reveresed the genders. Are men allowed to talk to each other about other things than women? My instinct tells me that in most movies they are, but I would like to proof check it.

      Also I agree completely about the stereotyping of men as being just as clueless and harmless as stereotyping about women. Like jokes about them not knowing how to switch diapers. Old, untrue and really really stupid.

      Can we come up with some other kind of tool that is better than Bechdel and covers men as well?

      Jessica

      March 11, 2013 at 8:14 pm

      • I think your instinct is right – if only because men are often allowed to talk about “the plot” more often together, and so long as that plot does not revolve around a woman they are in the clear on a reverse-Bechdel.

        The “problem” with devising a better test than Bechdel is that it will, almost invariably, be more complicated.

        stnylan

        March 11, 2013 at 11:01 pm

  8. Interesting post! Gender issues have been a hot political topic here in the U.S. But we often forget that the messages about gender conveyed in arts and the media are often more powerful than anything on the table politically.

    I’d never heard of this test, but I’m betting it’ll be in the back of my mind, while watching movies, from now on. I agree that it isn’t necessarily an accurate measurement, but it can get people thinking and talking about the portrayal of gender in movies. So it seems valuable as a springboard for discussion if nothing else.

    Just a thought — what about the portrayal of men in movies? For example, I’ve recently seen several comedies in which it seemed like the guys could only talk about women and fellatio. 🙂 This seems as dehumanizing a stereotype as any inflicted on women.

    I don’t see the point of women only watching films made by female directors — that’s just another form of sexism. Nor would I boycott all movies that fail some sort of litmus test. But it’s great to see several talented female directors stepping into the limelight, and it’s important that these issues are being discussed.

    quirkybookandfilmbuff

    March 12, 2013 at 2:46 am

    • I agree the portrayal of men is lacking. As stnylan pointed out in his comment above men are for instance always pictured as incapable of nappy changes, which is a poor representation of how it really is today in many places. We need to take a look at that too. Equality isn’t only about the women. It’s as much about men.

      Jessica

      March 12, 2013 at 7:32 am


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