The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Is the new Swedish A-rating a good way to promote gender equality in film?

with 15 comments

A-stämpel_svartLast week a new rating for films was launched in Sweden. It’s called “A-rating”, where “A” stands for “approved”. The seal is meant to be used for movies that have passed the Bechdel test. (In case you’re unfamiliar with it, the requirement to pass is to have at least two named women in it, who talk to each other about something besides a man.)

Behind the initiative are four independent cinemas in cooperation with the organizations Women in Film and Television and The Agency Equalisters.

This announcement has stirred quite debate in Sweden, dividing the film critics.

The critical voices accuse the Bechdel test for not measuring equality in an accurate way. A movie can have a very strong female perspective and yet fail at the test, for instance because there’s only one female character in the movie. And a film that displays every sexist stereotype you can think of can still pass the test thanks to a throw-away scene. A rating based on the Bechdel test risks to be counterproductive and misleading.

The supporters on the other hand admit that it’s not perfect, but argue that it’s better than the alternative: nothing at all. If anything, it’s a beginning. And if someone can come up with something better, they’re welcome to take an initiative. For now being, this is what we have.

An eye-opener
So where do I stand in this?

I’ve written about the Bechdel test before at my blog, and while I’m perfectly aware of its shortcomings, I still think it’s valuable to raise awareness about the imbalances in how men and women are depictured in movies. It’s a good starting point for a conversation with people who never have reflected about those things before. You might even call it an eye-opener. For me it definitely was one. It wasn’t until I heard about this test that I started to pay attention to how often the conversation that women have with each other in movies end up being about men, as opposed to men, who talk about their careers, plans and views on the world. It’s not a perfect tool to evaluate movies, but I still think it’s got its place and I love that it’s started to pop up pretty often in the conversation we’re having in the film fan community.

But the Bechdel test is one thing and turning it into a formal rating with a stamp to be used on posters and in advertising is something else.  Do we really need more ratings of movies? We already have the age rating (which I’m fine with.) In Sweden we’ve got a theatre chain that has achieved an eco-labelling. Admittedly this doesn’t refer to the movies as such, but to the organic snacks they’re serving. However I wouldn’t be surprised if someone would come up with the idea to rate the movie from this aspect as well.

Other possible ratings
Right away I could think of a bunch of possible ratings:

C-rated (C is for climate): this movie was recorded at one spot. No air plane journeys were made during its production and only environmental friendly fuel was used in the cars.

E-rated (E is for ethnical): the same requirements as the Bechdel test, but change gender to skin colour.

ANIM-rated (No animals were harmed during the recording of the movie.)

ANIM+ – rated (Same as ANIM-rated, with the addition that only vegetarian food was served to the production crew.)

And so on. I haven’t yet come up with the requirements for LGTB-rating and D-rating (D for disabled) or B-rating (B for tolerance for different religious Beliefs), but I’m positive thereare already suggestions for this, from people who take it a lot more seriously than I do.

And frankly I think this is just wrong. Labelling of this kind may work to some extent to help consumers to make better choices in a food store, but the film market is a different creature and I can’t see how the dynamics of labelling could work here.

Movie goers won’t shop around in the theatre lobby, looking at the posters to check out what seals different movies have. At least I won’t. I base my picks of movies on my experiences of previous works by the people involved in it (directors, screenwriters, actors) and on the reputation of the movie, what ‘ve read and heard. As the feminist I am, the issue whether a movie has passed the Bechdel test or not is the last thing on my mind when I make my decision about what to watch next.

Stirring a discussion
I don’t think the A-rating will spread any further than to the four theatres that launched it. The thought occurs to me that maybe that wasn’t the idea in the first place? Most of all it seems to me like stunt, meant to start a conversation and raise awareness about how women are portrayed in movies. And if that was all this was about, they’ve certainly succeeded. I haven’t seen media paying this much attention to the issue for a long time. The question is how long it will last. Tomorrow is another day. The piece of news about the A-rating will be swapped for the latest gossip about the recent cosmetic surgery of [insert random movie star].

The show will go on. It takes more than an A-rating to change it.

Written by Jessica

October 25, 2013 at 12:36 am

15 Responses

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  1. Just the fact that they are aiming to continue for just a year and not have a longer goal points to a pr-stunt to raise awareness of the issue. And it did, as you pointed out, raise quite a buzz.


    October 25, 2013 at 1:09 am

    • Yeah, that is true, I forgot about the one year thing. It points to that this isn’t to be regarded as a permenent form of rating of movies.


      November 2, 2013 at 1:34 pm

  2. Honestly I think it’s a great idea as-is. I do think that the idea is just to raise awareness of it, and some of those other ratings could be used in the future, maybe one per year so as not to clutter things up.


    October 25, 2013 at 2:08 am

    • I guess that’s what this rating is: just something to raise awareness, not a serious attempt to label movies. I strongly doubt that more theatres will follow.


      November 3, 2013 at 1:29 pm

  3. That’s very interesting. I agree with you that the point of the Bechdel test is to raise awareness. To me, the test is only meaningful when looking at movies as a whole, or large samples of movies. Only 12 movies out of the last 100 that came out pass the Bechdel test? That’s meaningful, shows an imbalance and makes people question why this is the case. But looking at whether or not a single movie passes the test is not very meaningful. As you said, this test has nothing to do with quality.


    October 25, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    • Yes, it’s definitely useful to point out the differences on the whole. If you try to come up with films that pass the test you’ll soon noice how few and far between they are and this says something about the current state of cinema. But as a labelling tool it’s not that great at all.


      November 3, 2013 at 1:28 pm

  4. This is a tough one. My first thought when I read the beginning of this post was “Awesome, this is such a great idea”. And it’s certainly a good way to bring female perspectives in film up for discussion. I actually never thought of the downsides of the Bechdel test, although I don’t think it’s a perfect tool. But now I do see them, however, generally I would say again; this is a good way to put this issue into the spotlight.

    Mette M. K.

    October 26, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    • It definitiely is. And perhaps this is the whole point of it. I’ve seen some international blogs picking up this piece of news too, which is just great.


      November 2, 2013 at 1:31 pm

  5. I have to say that I find PC stuff like this infuriating. There is little worse than trying to impose a political view of the way the world is supposed to look on an art form – whether directly or indirectly. “Raising awareness” always seems to evolve to pointing fingers.

    And then there is the irony of such a test. All of the -isms of the world stem from our tendency to dehumanize individuals into an oversimplified set of characteristics. And yet, this is exactly what this test intended to call out sexism does to an art form. Has anybody actually thought about the criteria for this seemingly clever test? Are the massive number of different types of films from around the world really that reductive? I don’t know about you, but some of the best films I have seen in the last decade from women directors, giving a unique woman’s perspective, would not pass this test – e.g., just the films I have rewatched in the last month – ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, ‘Wendy and Lucy’, and ‘Maria Full of Grace.’


    October 31, 2013 at 9:54 am

    • Exactly. I still like the Bechdel test for being an eyeopener, making you ponder about why it is that women so often are very passive in movies and if that doesn’t need to change. But it really isn’t all that good as a guide of what to see and not to see.


      November 2, 2013 at 1:32 pm

  6. I reckon if you are going to the trouble of having a gender equity rating, do better than the Bechdel test.


    November 1, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    • Yeah, but what criteria to use? I imagine it must be very difficult.


      November 2, 2013 at 1:27 pm

  7. Apropos of this discussion, I thought you might be interested in this, Jessica. Some statistics compiled by the New York Film Academy about the presence of women (in all capacities) in films (mostly American/Hollywood films):

    • Oh dear. That was really depressing. Not surprising though. I’ve comme ted on statistics a few times before. It’s probably time for one of those posts again. I really wish things changed quicker than they do. Thanks for the heads-up.


      November 27, 2013 at 10:16 pm

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