Nov. 08--In Sweden, which likes to be on the cutting edge, several theaters have instituted a new rating system for the movies they exhibit. The ratings don't measure what might be offensive or frightening or unsuitable for children, except maybe in a philosophical or political sense: The ratings measure gender bias.
First of all, this is how ratings should be done, not by the government, not by censorship, not by a phony trade organization working for the studios, but by private citizens -- by people pointing out something to other people about the movies getting made. Second, before you start thinking that the Swedes are holding movies to some rigorous straitjacket of political correctitude, you should know -- they're merely applying the Bechdel Test, developed by the American author Alison Bechdel in 1985.
To pass the Bechdel Test, and get an A rating from the Swedish theaters, a movie must contain three elements: It must have at least two women in it -- who talk to each other -- about something other than a man. That's it. If two women talk to each other once about something other than a man, the movie passes.
Few pass test
Yet you'd be surprised by how few movies actually pass that simple test. The vast majority of Hollywood films made over the last 50 years do not. Meanwhile, a reverse-gender version of the Bechdel Test, in which men talk to each other about something other than a woman, would be just about every film ever made.
Now it should be said that there are some great movies prominently featuring women that do not pass the Bechdel Test. These are films in the category of romantic drama, in which women and men do nothing but think about, talk about or see each other. In those movies, both sexes are equal, and equally preoccupied. In "Romeo and Juliet," for example, you could argue that Juliet is the dominant character, and yet all she ever talks about is Romeo, or Paris, or Tybalt or when she ought to be married.
Yet, even then, how many romantic dramas does modern Hollywood make in the course of a year? In the studio days, it made dozens. These days, it makes one or two, at most.
The great value of the Bechdel Test is that it points out this general tendency, helping people notice something that is so pervasive that they can't see it anymore: Hollywood is just not into women. In the course of any given year, about 400 movies are made in the United States, and of those, only 15 to 25 titles, depending on the year, feature a woman in the starring role. And by the way, I'm counting romantic comedies, in which men and women have equal billing.
The rest of the films usually have a woman in the cast, in a nominally co-starring role, but as the cop's wife or as the lawyer's girlfriend. They are there as sounding boards and reflecting pools, and this has two negative effects: (1) The careers of woman are very short. Most actresses disappear at mid-career; and (2) Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet notwithstanding, some of the very best and most vivid actresses end up working the least, because they're the ones most unsuited to playing the gentle prostitute or the CIA agent's worried wife.
Actresses such as Parker Posey, Ashley Judd, Amanda Peet and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who would have had careers on the order of Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck in the studio days, have to struggle for roles, for the simple reason that, if you put them in a movie, the audience thinks the movie is about them. They are natural movie stars in a Hollywood that mostly requires its women to be boring, or at least to blend in and not steal focus from the real star, which is the man.
Waste of principle
Yet this isn't only about the waste of careers, as awful as that might be. It's about the waste of the female principle, about an industry that has turned its back on thoughts, feelings, internal life and introspection in favor of commotion, violence and external struggle. It's about an industry out of balance, reflecting and feeding a culture out of balance, and if takes the Swedish theater owners to remind us how we're screwing up, so be it.
As it stands, the only movie I've seen recently that would pass the Bechdel Test is "Blue Is the Warmest Color," which also happens to be a masterpiece. It's a film that was not made in America and couldn't have been, because Hollywood is stuck on the wrong side of the door. Through that door lies a truer, richer cinema.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @MickLaSalle
(c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle
Visit the San Francisco Chronicle at www.sfgate.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.
Most Popular Stories
- Chobani Counters Competition With Expanded Lineup
- What to Expect From an Amazon Smartphone
- Clinton Sought GOP Support for Health Plan
- Auto Parts Plant Opening in Pa., Jobs on Tap
- Earnings Season Starts Rough for Health Insurers
- Saucedo Mercer Running on Empty in Arizona
- Spring Salmon Return to San Joaquin
- Venture Investments in U.S. Highest Since 2001
- IPO Market Shows Signs of Settling Down to Earth
- 'Beige Book' Federal Reserve Survey, April 2014: Full Text