When I wake up and look in the mirror, I see a woman. My afro probably has me resembling Rick James, but I'm definitely a woman. At Haggerston station I politely swerve the latest Watchtower mag thrust at me by the jolly Jehovah Witnesses, mainly of whom are women. Once on the platform and crammed in a carriage I'm surrounded by women and at work my boss, and her boss, are indeed women. We women make up around 50% of the population, so why does Hollywood struggle to reflect this?
This year's Oscars exclusively reward movies with a male lead with their masculinity in peril. Whiplash, American Sniper, Selma, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood, Birdman, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything make it one big chummy bromance. It's as if films about women weren't made in 2014 and the ones that were weren't good enough which is nonsense to anyone who saw Under The Skin, Gone Girl,Wild, Only Lovers Left Alive, Still Alice...
But just being on screen isn't enough. What they do and who with is the real test, a test that inspired Alison Bechdel's comic The Rule which instigated The Bechdel Test which in 2015 celebrates its 30th anniversary.
The test signals if a film has:
- Two named women
- Who talk to each other
- About something other than a man.
Passing that should be easy, but only half the titles in this year's Best Picture list limp over the line and in a study by Five Thirty Eight 1,794 films released between 1970 and 2013 have a 57% fail rate. Even the ones that pass can hardly flaunt feminist stripes as they reveal women as background noise, and to throw another stat into the fire, the Geena Davis Institute claim there are 2.24 male characters for every female character with 30.9% of the speaking characters being female.
Positive representation on screen does not mean playing someone's wife, sister, mother, or lover to leverage a man's narrative. Female roles need depth of character because that's how women work in real life.
This despairingly lazy splattering of women in Hollywood has its detriments if you think how many of us acquire our understanding of the world through a whirring lens. My teenage self felt robbed of cruising the 'mall' or halving a 'prom' like my heroines in Clueless and Kingsland Shopping Centre and my school fete didn't match up to the illusions that Hollywood insisted and Hackney lacked.
Colin Stokes' Ted talk How Hollywood Shapes Masculinity discusses The Bechdel Test in tandem with cinema's influences. He talks of the sloppy representations of Hollywood wiring questionable moral codes into his children and how these values differ between genders. The chucklesome observation ends on a poignant message on how movies can gear our treatment of one another. Using the stat that one in five women have been sexually assaulted, he questions the root of this sad frequency and although not strictly blaming movies, he wonders where these offenders are failing to learn what being 'a man' is and what constitutes a 'hero'.
It's important, but tricky, to keep tabs on how groups of people are being represented and despite its flaws The Bechdel Test is a start in tallying females on film. Alison Bechdel didn't intend to create this measure and has no intention of being the next film certification board, but as a lifelong feminist she's happy people are asking the question 'where are the women?'
I aim to answer this with my new year-long film festival The Bechdel Test Fest. As it's the 30th anniversary and because despite what Hollywood projects there are hundreds of movies that pass the test with flying colours, I thought it could only be done justice with a 365 day cinema soirée to celebrate dynamic female leads.
The launch has coincidentally coincided with the Oscars being marred with misogyny which may have spurred on our fantastic response. People are confused by cinema's brevity of women and want change - I aim to attempt that by highlighting the positivity going on for females in film and prove that movies with fantastic female protagonists exist in every genre. After our successful launch in Feb 'Reclaim The Rom-Com', our next event is Little Women Big Stories where we'll explore coming-of-age movies with fantastic female protagonists.
On screen women should be heroes and villains and navigate narratives that reassure us that the crap we go through isn't just us and we can aspire to be more than just a Bond girl. We need to gatecrash this boy's club that Hollywood is and encourage more females to make movies that tell our stories.
Alison Bechdel admits The Rule was a 'bit of fun' and I aim to continue in that vein, but there's many a truth said in jest and it's time to demand credible visibility and better representation if we're to see change in the depiction and treatment of women, and the relationships we have with ourselves.
The Bechdel Test Fest's next event Little Women Big Stories is around London from March 23rd