Girls on film


How many films nowadays have a realistic representation of women? Ruth Murphy looks at the why a number of films don’t feature female characters

Every week new blockbusters are rolled out. Men and women file into cinemas across the world to be taken in by powerful acting, unexpected plot twists, sentimental stories and excellent special effects among other things. Often, however, we only take in certain aspects of the film subconsciously or not at all.

Was there a good soundtrack? Was the cinematography beautiful and did it match the style of the script? Did every actor have an adequate amount of lines relevant to their role and a purpose in the movie? Was there equal attention given to male and female characters?

In 1985, Alison Bechdel, a comic-strip writer, wrote in one of her comics, Dykes to Watch Out For, the idea of a test to focus easily on the representation of women in films.

The Bechdel test consists of three simple questions. Firstly, does the film have at least two named women in it? If so, do they talk to each other at any point in the film? Finally, do they ever talk to each other about something other than a man? For a film to pass the test it must answer yes to all the three questions.

This seems extremely simple, but most films churned out of Hollywood each year fail the test. Some of the surprising examples of films that failed the test are quite modern films. The Social Network is a prime example in which there are named female characters, but none of them ever talk to each other.

The scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin even admitted that the women in the film simply act as “prizes” for the male characters. A similar case exists in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. In each film, there are female characters, but none of them ever speak to each other.

Jennifer Kesler, the founder of The Hathor Legacy, a blog that focuses on highlighting the inequality of gender roles in entertainment, writes about her experience in film school at UCLA and how she was told that “the audience only [wants] white, straight male leads.”

Even when female characters are slipped into the background, their scenes are often cut out of the final film, as is the case with the female fighter pilots who were cut out of the Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. It seems that not only is it tough to produce a film with a female lead, but even female background characters are deemed to be unnecessary.

Maybe the producers of Star Wars were given the same advice that Kesler received, that “the audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.” It is possible that this view is affected by the lack of women in screenwriting, but even so it is shocking that anyone would think of women as a people as one-dimensional with little to talk about.

Other films opt to portray the women in the background of their films simply as naïve, young girls who need to be saved by a brave, strong man. You may see this stereotype in most horror and science fiction films, with the few exceptions of the Scream and Alien franchises, in which women must truly fight for their cause.

This stereotype is unnecessary and adds in no way to the storyline of a film, except maybe to help a male character feel better about themselves and in turn make us feel good too. Could a male character end up with the strong, confident, woman and still be happy?

It is unfortunate that this error in film often goes unnoticed, not just by men, but also women. Many women love the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off , which failed the Bechdel test despite having two strong, named female characters and slagging other American films which misrepresent women with the line, “Ferris Bueller, you’re my hero” being said by Bueller’s male best friend, Cameron Frye.

Never do the two female characters in this film talk to each other and one of them reaches their happiest point with the line “he’s going to marry me” and the other girl, the uptight sister only calms down when she kisses the young Charlie Sheen.

It is often all too easy to ignore the errors with films like this one. We are too immersed in the plot to notice the lack of female characters. It seems we almost have to train ourselves to notice what’s missing from a film. Although the film is an iconic staple of the 1980s and is a cult classic, this doesn’t excuse its disregard for gender roles.

Maybe when writing new films, writers should give a little more depth to the female characters rather than making them simply the main character’s girlfriend or the main character’s sister.

We would think that in 2013 many of the problems of sexism in film would be fading away. It’s surprising then to see that many of the films that have passed the Bechdel test are actually not from the last 5 years. This could be because in the last 5 years more sequels have been produced than ever before, or it could be because nothing is changing in the world of Hollywood film.

Popular films such as Psycho, Juno, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Kill Bill Vol.1 and Little Miss Sunshine all pass the Bechdel test. This may be due to their niche style. Very few of these films would have been aiming to become a mainstream blockbuster and so they didn’t bother letting the words of film teachers hold them back.

Another interesting thing to note is that these films are not known as feminist statements, nor were they written purely for the female audience. They are successful films that box office success, despite their array of female characters.

This test will not tell us what films represent women and what will not. A film may pass the test and still give a one-dimensional sexist view of women. However, this test draws our attention to the failures of Hollywood scriptwriters.

Next time you see a film, you can question the representation of female characters in the film, and be shocked when your favourite, modern, non-sexist films fail this simple test. Equality is out there, but not in Hollywood films.