Wow, I hadn’t noticed how low the standard is

25 Nov

I’ve been meaning to post on this because it just blew my mind when I first read about it: according to the Guardian, “cinemas in Sweden are introducing a new rating to highlight gender bias, or rather the absence of it” (

The rating is based on the Bechdel test, named after US cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who created the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In order to pass the test, a movie: “(1) has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man” ( (Btw, that’s a link to view the strip in which Bechdel debuted her test.)

Let me repeat: Wow, I hadn’t noticed how low the standard is.

Really, that’s all it takes to pass this test? Must be easy, right?


Ellen Tejle, who directs an art-house cinema in Stockholm, observes, “The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, all Star Wars movies, The Social Network, Pulp Fiction and all but one of the Harry Potter movies fail this test.” This despite the fact that 33% of all film characters are women, according to a study by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film in San Diego.

I am both surprised… and not that it is apparently too much for the average movie to have a non-heteronormatively-obsessed interaction among that entire third of the screen population. (And why women constitute only a third of characters, and 11% of protagonists is also an issue.)

Definitely something to think about if your Thanksgiving holiday plans include catching a flick.

But my point here isn’t just what the Bechdel test reveals. It’s also that I didn’t even notice. I really didn’t get how appallingly bad the roles for and representations of women in film are. I mean, I knew it wasn’t great, but… yowza. And so I for one am grateful for Sweden’s implementation of the Bechdel test.

What this makes me think about is the importance of clear standards, specific criteria and quantifiable outcomes in the assessment of multiculturalism, inclusion, equity and cultural competence. What is the standard for diversity in your community? What is good enough? What is the quantity, quality and diversity of representation that symbolizes inclusion and equity? And is that, in fact, good enough?

Because it ain’t all about feelings or intentions. Not that it’s all about data (this isn’t an either-or proposition), but data–tangible outcomes–has its place in holding a community accountable for what it says it values.

… And in case you’re curious, movies that do pass the test comprise a much shorter list, but include The Hunger Games, The Iron Lady and Savages. (Not to short shrift biopics, I am particularly heartened that a flick can both pass the test and be a blockbuster a la The Hunger Games.)

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