S for Sexism: Why Seeing Powerful Women Onscreen Matters

Admit 1Thanksgiving approaches! And while you may dread the influx of fussy and bickering family members, you can give thanks for one perfectly timed arrival: movies. “The Hunger Games,” “Homefront,” and “Frozen” will do some of the holiday entertaining for you. Many parents — and many relatives — like to look up movie ratings of profanity, nudity, and violence before allowing their kids (or other peoples’ kids) to watch. This Thanksgiving, my family will be on the lookout for another, less-frequently mentioned cinematic no-no: sexism.

The Bechdel test—named for American cartoonist Alison Bechdel—monitors how effectively a  film offers female perspectives. A film receives an ‘A’ rating when it contains at least two female characters, with names, who talk to each other about topics other than men. Easy, right? Wrong! Just try to think of movies that you’ve seen in the last six months that would qualify. “The Great Gatsby,” for example, has three major female characters but they rarely talk to each other and when they do, they talk about … well, Gatsby. An alarming number of other Hollywood favorites fail to pass this low-bar test—including all seven “Star Wars,” all three “The Lord of the Rings,” and seven of the eight “Harry Potter” movies.

The sexism rating became a hot-button topic earlier this month, when Swedish movie theaters and a Scandinavian cable TV channel committed to using the Bechdel rating. Ellen Tejle, director of one of participating theaters, told the Associated Press: “The goal is to see more female stories on cinema screens. Movie watchers rarely see a female superhero or a female professor or [a woman] who makes it through exciting challenges and masters them”—and that impedes real women in the real world.

What we see in movies tends to influence our expectations in life. This certainly rings true for me; after I saw “The Parent Trap” as a nine year old, I looked all summer for my long-lost identical twin sister at Girl Scout Camp. (No luck). This causes real problems for today’s women and girls because little has changed on screen since the 1950s: the ratio of male to female characters in movies has remained constant for 60 years at two to one. Of the top 100 American films in 2011, women accounted for 33% of all characters on screen, and only 11% of protagonists. Meanwhile, female characters were twice as likely to participate in sexually explicit scenes.

Although few movies pass muster, the Bechdel test has received criticism for setting such a low bar. “There are far too many films that pass the Bechdel test that don’t help at all in making society more equal or better, and lots of films that don’t pass the test that are fantastic at those things,” said Swedish film critic Hynek Pallas. I agree—but we have to start somewhere.

So before you head to the movies this week, ask yourself if what you’re about to see passes the Bechdel test. Better yet, create your own test for cinematic sexism. Stories have power, and women deserve to feel powerful more than eleven times out of 100.

Here are a few of our favorite female-empowered movies. What would you add to the list?

“The Hunger Games” series

“The Iron Lady”

“Norma Rae”

“Erin Brockovich”

“Brave”




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  1. Jane Brown

    Such a low bar, and yet, hard to think of other good movies that meet this challenge. Do audiences really prefer watching guys shoot each other?

  2. Vicki Boyer

    Add to your list the movie Gravity.
    A female professional saves herself from certain death without having to sleep with a man.

    I can say the same about the first Alien movie. First film I ever saw where a woman did not need a man to rescue her, but did it herself.


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