In 1985, comic author and artist Alison Bechdel published "The Rule," a strip from her long-running series Dykes to Watch Out For. It introduced what would become known as the Bechdel test: a character says she'll only see a movie if it has at least two women in it, and they talk to each other about something besides a man. Thirty years later, that rule has grown to a practically ubiquitous measure of whether a film had a meaningful female presence (its reverse highlights the relatively few movies that lack men.) And it's now coming to theaters in Sweden, with praise from the state-funded Swedish Film Institute.
Last month, the Associated Press reports, four cinemas started adding a new rating: if a film has two named female characters who pass the last two points of the test, it gets an "A" mark. Since then, Nordic TV group Viasat Film has said it will start using the rating in film reviews and will spend November 17th showing only films that pass the test (The Hunger Games, Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, and Savages are all cited by the AP.) Ellen Telje, who manages one of the theaters adopting the system, says the rating isn't meant to imply anything about the quality of a film; he mentions several popular and critically acclaimed movies that don't pass the test — including The Social Network, Pulp Fiction, and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.
"The goal is to see more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens."
It also doesn't necessarily mean that female characters won't be stereotyped, or that the movie itself is feminist. The Bechdel test has been described by some as incomplete, whether because it's been stretched beyond its intended boundaries or because it doesn't cover characters who break racial or ethnic stereotypes. Pacific Rim triggered both a debate over the Bechdel Test and the creation of another framework, the Mako Mori test. But it continues to highlight a basic issue: the gender skew in most films. "The goal is to see more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens," he says. In the US, studies by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC have found that only about a third of characters in top-grossing films are female, and San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film also noted that only 11 percent of protagonists in the top 100 films of 2011 were female.
The A rating isn't anything official; generally speaking, Swedish films are given age-based ratings that go up to 15. But it fits with the country's focus on gender equality; among other things, the government encourages parental leave for all genders, and a private advertising industry ombudsman reviews ads for discrimination or unnecessary objectification of men and women. And it's yet another new frontier for a nearly 30-year-old comic that has largely come to define the way we think about women in film.