Women in film: A-Rate at the Underwire Festival 2014

Bechdel approved action in Pixar’s The Incredibles

In a survey of 23 independent film festivals in the USA from 2013-2014, women comprised 23% of directors, 22% of writers and 33% of producers. These are the statistics for new, independent films, not the Hollywood Blockbusters. While these figures have slowly improved over the years, it’s still proof of worryingly low female representation in the film industry.

Male and female filmmakers are slowly beginning to respond to the situation, but we are a long way off seeing these figures balance out.

This weekend I went to an event as part of the Underwire Festival in London. Founded by Gabriella Apicella and Gemma Mitchell in 2010, the festival tries to showcase the talent of women working across a wide range of cinematic crafts. They feel that there is still a need to encourage and offer a bigger platform for women working in the UK film industry.

A more gender balanced industry will benefit everyone by creating a diversity of perspectives, stories and experiences for audiences.

The event I attended was a panel discussion featuring: Rachel Hirons, the screenwriter for Powder Room and BBC’s Vodka Diaries; Ellen Tejle, the Founder of Sweden’s A-Rate; Sara Lyttle, audience development officer at the Rio Cinema, Dalston; and Lucy Smee: Film archivist and South London Bechdel Test Club founder. The focus of the discussion was the (now infamous) Bechdel Test, which is a very simple method of answering whether a piece of fiction features:

  • Two or more named female characters, who…
  • . …talk to each other…
  • . …about something other than men.

Up until a couple of years ago, very few people knew about Bechdel, but it has recently become a buzzword, representing the struggle of women to communicate this accepted gender inequality within the industry.

In Sweden, one of the most forward thinking countries in the world in terms of their gender politics, a rating system has been created to gauge whether or not films pass this test. The ‘A-Rate’ classification is now being used in independent cinemas throughout the country, with the branding added to posters of films passing the test. The Underwire discussion aimed to argue whether or not this system should be brought to the UK.

I am a feminist, and have followed the discussion surrounding Bechdel for a few years, and it has always worried me that it might one day be taken as gospel.

I have watched Bechdel fall in to the hands of the mass-media, as the conversation has slipped from one about how to progressively encourage a more balanced point of view within the film industry, to an argument about whether or not films deserve to pass or fail.

Can an issue this complicated and deep-rooted in society be rationalised by three ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer questions?

As the women on the panel pointed out, many filmmakers now refer to the rating system, making promises to produce work that passes the test. My problem with Bechdel is that as a test, it’s a failure: If a film opened with two named women having a long conversation about physics, followed by an hour and a half of poorly written, misogynistic Hollywood fodder, it would still pass.

Surely as women, we don’t want male directors and writers feeling that by ticking three boxes, their work is instantly deserving of our praise (or money). It should never be seen as a solution, it is a measure. And the number of films “failing” should indicate just how far away we are from a solution, not how close we are getting.

I’ll admit that I was nervous attending an event called “Girls on film: The Bechdel test needs your vote” because of all these concerns beforehand. I shouldn’t have been. The Underwire discussion was open and well rounded, attended by both men and women. The women provided us with points of view from several different areas within the film industry and I was pleasantly surprised, particularly by the arguments put forward by the creator of A-Rating in Sweden.

Ellen is warm and witty with her arguments. She tells stories of individual cases where members of the public, both male and female, have responded to the project. A-Rating was presented as a conversation starter, a fun, first step on the long road to society eventually developing, more considered methods of encouraging and rewarding fair, female representation in film – not a form of doctrine.

The speakers told of how the Bechdel Test had allowed them to engage people in a dialogue about women’s roles and ideas within the film industry because of its simplicity and accessibility. The three yes or no answer questions may not be the key to unlocking the complexities and causes of the problem, but they certainly give people a simple, tangible scale to place it on.

What struck me most was the universal acknowledgement that the Bechdel test is by no means the last word in creating a more equal film industry, it may not even be the first. But it is a platform for getting people thinking about ways in which we can build a more balanced society- and this fills me with great optimism because, agree with it or not, the Bechdel test is encouraging the conversation we should all be having.

What the test does is magnify the problem in order to shock. By applying the smallest number of gender based questions to the output from the film industry, and seeing that the majority fail, you get an idea about the scale of the problem.

In this way it is a very useful marker. But It can only ever be a marker. As we’ve seen, and as the women speaking pointed out, it has absolutely nothing to do with quality of material produced and that is how we judge success whether that’s in film or in writing.

I’ll stick to my original belief that A-Rating is not a solution to the problem of gender inequality in the film industry, and I hope that the conversation moves on to other measures in future; but I stand corrected in many respects relating to the Bechdel test, which is a great marker for how little has changed in the past 100 years. It has not spiralled out of control, as I had previously feared. Men and women all over the world are talking about it and questioning its validity. I can only hope that this test is a trigger for a much more in-depth conversation in future.

The issue of gender inequality is imbedded in to our political, economic and cultural systems, and the only way to really make a measurable difference in the film industry will be to keep the conversation alive, and to open it up to our future filmmakers, writers and producers. They need to feel like they have a role in the dialogue; and if they truly believe in equal representation of men and women, they need to know that they have the support and backing of their chosen industry.

Thanks to communities such as Underwire Festival and the establishments choosing to talk about gender, we will hopefully see many more three-dimensional, central female characters appearing on our screens in future.


Girls on Film: The Bechdel Test needs your vote was hosted by film journalist Corrina Antrobus:

Online and on twitter

As part of the Underwire Festival 2014. Read more:

Full report here from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University :