Should Films Be Rated for Sexism?

Movie ratings in the United States today boil down to a few simple elements—sex bombs, f-bombs, and real (fake) bombs. Too much sex or nudity, too much profanity, or too much violence will win your film an R or maybe even an NC-17 rating, which can, depending on the filmmaker’s target audience, spell either doom or big box office. But are these criteria for categorizing films too narrow? Do they give us all we need to know before watching? The movie ratings people in Sweden have added another element—sexism. Not sex, sexism—the use of usually derogatory gender stereotypes. Employing the infamous “Bechdel test,” the Swedish film industry hopes to address what they see as a pervasive problem in movies. But can such a system work for American films and, more importantly, American audiences? Should films be rated for sexism?


Cartoonist Alison Bechdel created her eponymous test in the 1985 comic “The Rule” as part of her Dykes to Watch Out For series. In “The Rule,” one female character tells another that she only sees movies that satisfy one simple, multipart rule: “(1) It has to have women in it who (2) talk to each other about (3) something besides a man.” That same female character jokes that the last movie she could watch was Ridley Scott’s Alien, starring Sigourney Weaver as female action hero Ripley six (6!) years before. Since Bechdel’s pithy test, feminists have used her “better than nothing” standards to examine sexism in films. Many films fail simply for having no female characters, but many others fail for the more troubling fact that the women appear on screen only in relation to the men. Even ostensibly feminist, “chick flick” material such as Sex and the City (both the television series and the films) fails the Bechdel test because they can’t stop talking about the men in their lives.

Sweden’s long made gender equality a priority politically and culturally. Just this past April, Sweden, named by some organizations the most gender-equal country in the world, added the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” to the official National Encyclopedia to provide a gender-neutral alternative to the masculine “han” and the feminine “hon.” If you’re willing to fight gender inequality on the linguistic level of pronouns, then checking gender stereotypes in movies seems the next logical step.

But can Americans and their film industry follow the Swedish example? Are we still too enamored with the “boys with toys” mindset of entertainment? Sex, profanity, and violence comprise the basic formula for the summer blockbuster, with quieter female conversation-based films relegated to the indie film studios and art house cinemas, if you can find them at all. (See the great documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated for an extended look at the ratings system and its consequences.) But would the transition really be all that hard? Even Bechdel admits that the Bechdel test is really a poor predictor of a film’s sexism or lack thereof. The Bechdel Test Movie List website provides a perfect glimpse into the debate over the Bechdel test’s implementation and, perhaps, its future in mainstream film ratings. Blue Is the Warmest Colour unsurprisingly passes the test, while the Sandra Bullock-starring Gravity does not. Trailers can be deceiving, the users rating the films warn. Gender equality is, to paraphrase another movie character, as gender equality does.

The one film that passed that surprised me the most in the Bechdel test ratings was 2013’s The Wolverine, starring Hugh Jackman as the beclawed mutant of furry fury (detail from the movie poster shown above). On the face of it, The Wolverine’s a “guy movie”: comic book origins (with their own troubled gender equity past), former models for female costars, and thrills a minute action. But look at the film a little more closely and you see that, surprisingly, Tao Okamoto as Mariko Yashida and Rila Fukushima as Yukio interact without bringing up the mutant man in their lives. There’s a real friendship and sisterhood explored, albeit briefly, in some scenes. Perhaps even more strikingly for a gender equity test beyond Bechdel’s, the villain of the film is Svetlana Khodchenkova’s Dr. Green (aka, the Viper). In addition to chewing up the scenery with her delicious deviltry, Viper provides a powerful foe both physically and intellectually for Wolverine, all while using and manipulating men but never feeling the need to talk to a girlfriend about boys.

Despite the passing grade, there remains some debate regarding The Wolverine’s Bechdel test bona fides, which I see more as a sign of progress than a problem. At the very least, if we can look at films and question the role that women play in them, then the Bechdel test’s done its job. We’re already sensitive as a culture to racism and religious bigotry in film, so why not extend that same sensitivity to the largest “minority”—women. Perhaps such a system could work only in an already gender enlightened country such as Sweden. But shouldn’t we aspire to the same enlightenment in America for all the young girls and young women who look to the big screen for role models (as well as for all the young boys and young men shaping their ideas of their counterparts)? If we can’t have two women speak about something other than men in a movie, then that’s an issue we as a nation and culture need to talk about.

[Image: Detail from U.S. movie poster for The Wolverine (2013), starring Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, and Svetlana Khodchenkova. Image source.]

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