We love films. Before we had kids we used have a weekly cinema club a bit like a book club. We’d go with the same group of friends every Monday night and then discuss the film afterwards over a cheap dinner. Back then though, I don’t think we were aware of the Bechdel test. If you’ve been living under a rock you won’t know that it’s a depressingly spare way of fathoming whether a film has a female presence in it with these 3 checks:
1. It includes at least two women,
2. who have at least one conversation,
3. about something other than a man or men
Alison Bechdel brought the idea to the world with this awesome comic strip explanation of how it works. I’m pretty certain that our weekly club would have been monthly at best if the films always had to pass Bechdel.
Those who haven’t heard of the Bechdel test may well want to plead that it’s ridiculous and that most films have women in them. We’re so used to the reality of the media that we’ve been brought up with that sometimes it’s hard to see what’s going on in front of our noses. There’s a website that lists films by whether they pass the test. Here’s the bad news. You think of most major children’s films in recent years and they’ll usually struggle to past the test – Shrek, Toy Story and Ice Age and all their sequels, for example, don’t pass. Seriously, this is not on.
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media (yes that Geena Davis), who are conducting research and consciousness raising on the issue, will tell you this:
– Males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films. In contrast, females comprise just over 50% of the population in the United States. Even more staggering is the fact that this ratio, as seen in family films, is the same as it was in 1946.
– Females are almost four times as likely as males to be shown in sexy attire. Further, females are nearly twice as likely as males to be shown with a diminutive waistline. Generally unrealistic figures are more likely to be seen on females than males.
– Females are also underrepresented behind the camera. Across 1,565 content creators, only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers are female. This translates to 4.8 males working behind-the-scenes to every one female.
– From 2006 to 2009, not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or politics. In these films, 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female, which is a contrast to real world statistics, where women comprise 50% of the workforce.
We’re in the UK, and obviously these stats are for the USA, but realistically the majority of big screen films our kids see at the cinema come from the States. Unlike our previous blog about books and the conservative nature of the publishing industry, the stakes are so much higher in film because of the cost of production. Not that that’s any excuse!
So here we go, that was the moaning section, now here’s some alternatives to the non-representative dross. Here’s some great kids films that have females in abundance and also pass Bechdel.
My Neighbour Totoro (1988). Where would 21st century children be without studio Ghibli? When two sisters move to the country to be near their ailing mother, they have adventures with the wonderous forest spirits who live nearby. Ghibli has managed to produce films that have complex and interesting characters of both genders for years now. Look over there Hollywood, it ain’t that hard!
Labyrinth (1986) was an important film for many of us growing up. It’s only now looking back that you might realise the feminist message. Remember that important line that releases Sarah from the grip of Jareth, “You have no power over me.” That’s an important message for a teenage girl. Still relevant.
Spirited Away (2001) is an Alice in wonderland-style tale which sees Chihiro and her family wander into a world ruled by gods, witches, and monsters. Complex, layered and imaginative – not things often said about kids’ films.
Whale Rider (2002) deals with the pain and rejection that a traditional patriarchal culture can bring. A young Maori girl fights to fulfill a destiny her grandfather refuses to recognize. Powerful and beautiful.
Finally, want to reinforce a bit of that Olympics feel good factor that has hopefully inspired girls to to get out there and try sports? Well Fast Girls (2012) focuses on training hard to achieve a goal, while also being touching and funny. The actresses trained alongside Team GB athletes to prepare for the roles, which makes it even more ace.
So we never put Bechdel into practice in our cinema-going days, but frankly it’s not exactly possible to do the test before you’ve seen the film. We’ve actually invented our own kids’ version of Bechdel. It’s also incredibly simple: Every other film we go to see has to have a female lead. (There’s a big prize for someone who comes up with a catchy name for our test, I can’t think of one). No doubt you can guess that this is also going to keep you out of the cinema. It’s do-able with young kids like ours but is unlikely to be possible when they’re older. But so far we’ve only broken our rule once, and that was because of the relentless rain over the winter (Happy Feet 3 was very much not worth breaking it for though, let me tell you).
The principle of staying away from the cinema means you’re voting with your feet and your wallet. If people go in droves to see new assertive, female-led films like Brave, then hopefully we’ll send the industry a message.
So there are some thoughts and a few gems of films, but there a many more on our longer film list. I’m sure you can think of some more, so tweet us. Sadly, unlike our book list, finding films that show an alternative to the male stereotype have not sprung to mind. Please let us know if you think of any, we’d like to add them to the list.
Next month, sport.