Ratings films for Sexism

Four theaters in Sweden have added a sexism rating to their movies, resulting in a great deal of publicity for these theaters and a Scandinavian cable channel that also plans to use the rating. It’s a simple pass/fail of the Bechdel test.

The Bechdel test is from a 1985 comic by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who credits the idea to Liz Wallace. It’s a deceptively simple test that few movies pass: Does the film have at least two female characters, who talk to each other, about something besides a man? Whether this is truly a test of sexism is debatable. It is possible for a highly sexist movie to pass, and for a film with a positive portrayal of female characters to fail. The test does not look at other genders, also under represented in films, and their portrayals.

Under representation and misrepresentation of genders in film is a frequent topic of essays and articles about the movie industry, including the classic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” by Laura Mulvey, from 1975.  Buried in the pop psychology that mars much film analysis is the notion that film is a male dominated tool where women are passive objects who exist only for the pleasure of the active straight male characters and the straight male audience. Beyond sexism, movies have many other sins of ideology, such as promoting the consumer society or glorifying individualism.

The Ontario Film Review Board came close to gender based ratings in the 1990s. The 1991 version of Cape Fear included a “Brutal Violence” warning, in part because a woman is attacked. Toronto Star columnist Michele Landsberg supported the call for an additional “Violence Against Women” warning for such scenes. The chair of the film board rejected the notion, stating it would be unfair to “elevate violence against one gender to a higher level than violence against the other.” The NDP government supported the introduction of a “Violence Against Women” warning. They appointed a new board chair, but the furor over approval of explicit sex scenes following the Supreme Court Butler decision shifted priorities and the warning was never established. The board has continued to be gender neutral despite occasional complaints. For example, the board was criticized for not specifying that the “Sexual Content” in Brokeback Mountain concerned two men.

For the past fifty years, most of world has used movie ratings solely to label what is appropriate viewing for children. The criteria is relatively objective: How many swear words are used, how detailed is the violence, and how much sexual activity is shown. Sweden explicitly takes this approach. The Swedish Media Council only classifies films intended to be shown publicly to children under 15, and only for the risk of harm, not suitability. Using the Bechdel test to rate films provides more information about film content, not a bad thing, but it also sets a precedent for rating a film’s suitability for adult audiences. Beyond sexism, movies have many other sins of ideology, such as promoting the consumer society or glorifying individualism.

At best, film ratings are a crude measure of film content, and the Bechdel test as a rating is particularly crude. All it tells you is that at some point two women will talk about something other than a man. However, that’s a rare enough occurrence in movies that it may be worth noting.

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

1 comment

  1. what i thought was interesting, was the intention behind this rating. unfortunately, a few critics have pointed out that the test is misleading and would incorrectly classify films as well as distract from the larger issue.The critic’s point was that movies such as “Gravity” with a strong leading female character would not pass the Bechdel test. It’s definitely a complicated issue that deserves a more thoughtful and complete approach.


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