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New feminist movie rating a noble but misguided venture

The Bechdel test has gained a lot of public attention recently, mostly because it provides social activists with a simple method they can use to quantify the representation (or lack thereof) of women in movies. The test has become so popular that, back in November, a handful of independent theatres in Sweden created a new movie rating system based on the criteria of the test.

Unfortunately, while there is nothing but good intentions behind this decision, I’m afraid that a movie rating system based on the Bechdel test will only confuse and misinform socially progressive movie-goers about which films they should pay to see because the test itself is inherently flawed.

For those who do not know, in order for a film to pass the Bechdel test it must satisfy the following requirements: 1) It must have two (named) women in it. 2) They must talk to each other at least once in the film. 3) Their conversation must be about something other than a man. Under this new Swedish rating system, films that fulfil these prerequisites are awarded with an “A” rating, while movies that fail do not receive this official stamp of approval.

However, what’s troubling about this development is that many are willing to overlook the fact that the Bechdel test is a severely flawed system that cannot accurately measure positive representations of women in movies.

This is mostly because the logic behind the test is extremely short-sighted, since it is primarily concerned with gauging the quantity of female representation in a film, while offering absolutely no judgment whatsoever on the quality of this representation. As such, in the context of this new Swedish rating system, the test implies that a significant female presence in film is always intrinsically meaningful and positive in and of itself.

However, this is simply not true, since there are plenty of female centric films out there that contain dubious subject matter that are quite regressive in terms of their portrayals of women. For example, films such as Spring Breakers, Showgirls, and The Bikini Carwash Company all pass the test with flying colours, despite the fact that they prominently feature scantily clad, airheaded females as main characters. The entire Twilight franchise also gets a giant pass from the test, even though these movies feature some seriously backwards gender politics. And don’t even get me started on the test in relation to lesbian porn.

On the flipside of this, there are plenty of strong, independent female characters that get totally shafted by the test, simply because the structures of the films they are featured in don’t conform to the test’s narrow criteria. As such, this new rating in Sweden runs the risk of telling its audiences that female figures in the vein of Hermione Granger (Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows Part 2), Dr. Ryan Stone (Gravity), Mako Mori (Pacific Rim) and Sarah Connor (The Terminator) are not worth their time.

While the Bechdel test certainly works well as an eye-opening social exercise, it has absolutely no place in telling people which movies they should and shouldn’t watch, especially since the subjectivity of film isn’t usually susceptible to arbitrary, empirical categorization in the first place.