Beyond 'The Bechdel Test': Film's First Female Character Consultant

Interesting and rounded female characters are gleaning critical and commercial rewards, and it is my sincere hope that a change is afoot. It is crucial to recognise that adherence to The Bechdel Test, is no guarantee that a film will either be feminist or of high quality.

Beginning as a satirical comic strip in the mid-80s, known only to more radical feminists until the late 2000s, the Bechdel Test rose to international importance in 2013, not only forming the basis of a new system of regulation for films in Sweden, but also regularly referred to by mainstream film critics as an important consideration. Findings that demonstrate over half of the highest grossing films of 2013 passed The Bechdel Test might even mean that for the first time investors start to look more seriously at the depictions of female characters onscreen.

While the nominations at this weekend's Golden Globes omit women in virtually all technical categories, it is interesting to note that the acting categories are overwhelmed with portrayals of women who meet all of The Bechdel Test criteria. There is

1. more than one female character, who is named,

2. and they talk to one another

3. about something other than a man in:

Blue Jasmine, Frances Ha, August: Osage County, Enough Said, American Hustle (though only just), and even Disney's Saving Mr Banks.

Interesting and rounded female characters are gleaning critical and commercial rewards, and it is my sincere hope that a change is afoot. It is crucial to recognise that adherence to The Bechdel Test, is no guarantee that a film will either be feminist or of high quality (noted 2013 films that don't pass include Gravity, The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug, Captain Philips, A Selfish Giant, Rush, Her). However, its value in reflecting equality and frequency of diverse and compelling characters is clear when looking at a simple graphic of the regularity with which films have passed the test since cinema began:

Amusingly, when asked to name any films that would fail a "reverse Bechdel Test" where men are unheard, unnamed and irrelevant to the plot, How to Make an American Quilt and The Women sprang to the minds of these filmgoers, though Terminator is briefly offered for consideration!

Having recently taken up the unique role of becoming the first Female Character Consultant on Oliver Purches' feature film project I Am the Prizeit is extremely exciting to be working to ensure from script stage that the female characters are fully realised, avoiding objectification and stereotyping. I will be consulting on the project all the way through to post-production, and while I will have an eye on The Bechdel Test, I will also be keeping a keen eye on costume, and the active / passive behaviours demonstrated throughout.

I Am the Prizeis a romantic comedy based around the immature, misogynistic and ludicrous practice of pick-up artistry. Used by con artists, wannabe playboys, 40-year-old virgins, the socially inept, and the dazzlingly bewildered to win a woman like one might win a stuffed toy on a shooting range, pick-up artistry posits the notion that all the women in the world could be available if only you know the combination of behaviours to affect. Filmmaker Oliver Purches' script satirises this practice, not only showing the buffoonery and desperation of those who believe that there is an easy-to-learn trick that will unlock the hearts of all women, but also the hilariously grotesque propositions women endure at the hands of those who view them as nothing more than an attractive prize.

Interesting and dynamic onscreen representations of women have been of great importance to me for some time, and in 2010 when co-founding the UnderWire Festival with Gemma Mitchell, we created a category for entries that specifically reflected this. The XX category, as previous Festival Director Helen Jack described in 2012, aims to showcase woman-centred short films that defy stereotypes, and reflect an authentic portrayal of female characters.

When producing my own short film Honest Lieslast year, it was of great importance to me that the main character of a woman involved in prostitution was not depicted along the lines seen in mainstream productions such as Secret Diary of a Call Girl or Pretty Woman, but reflected the authentic style and mannerisms of the women I have worked with, and the woman who wrote the original story the piece was based on (i.e. that she dressed conventionally and behaved with sensitivity and grace, because surprise surprise, women in prostitution are human beings too!!)

Having taught a workshop on "Writing Female Characters" for Euroscript for a couple of years now, I have found that it is by no means intentional that bland and objectified tropes sashay through screenplays requiring little more than perfect hair, and a need to be stalked by men they have barely met. Indeed it was after being asked for help in this specific area that I began the course in the first place, with male writers asking my advice in making their female characters more interesting. So entrenched are the stereotypes that they have become the easy short-hands, reappearing in film after film for decades and embedding themselves in film language.

For this reason, creating the role of "Female Character Consultant" is both a refreshing and ground-breaking approach by Oliver Purches. Recognising that while he has no intention to fall into the pitfalls of stereotype, objectification or even crudeness when depicting his female characters, Oliver aims:

"to demonstrate a willingness to engage with and be responsible for creating a film that is respectful towards both sexes equally: I foresee the idea of a Female Character Consultant becoming adopted regularly by male filmmakers keen to demonstrate a desire for sexual parity in their work."

This inclusive attitude that values the perspectives of women, and wants to ensure we're in on the jokes in this delightful comedy, not degraded by them, is something I can only hope kickstarts 2014's Bechdel Test trend!

Gabriella's Writing Female Characters workshop is next being held on Wednesday 29th January


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