If they can see it, they can be it

Geena Davis is fed up with the way women and girls are portrayed in movies. Outraged at the lack of female characters in the kids’ movies she watched with her young daughter – and worried that her daughter would grow to have limited aspirations from a lack of on-screen role models – Davis founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to research gender in film and television.

And what did she find? In family films, there’s only one female character for every three male characters, women make up 17% of people in crowd scenes, and women hold only 20.3% of jobs.

These numbers are problematic: both girls and boys (not to mention women and men) absorb portrayals of women’s limited roles, and this, as Jezebel puts it, “contributes to audiences not being able to visualize women in positions of authority.”

These numbers don’t even touch on the way women are portrayed as relating to each other – an issue that cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel has been critiquing in her comics since the early 1980s. Sometimes called the Bechdel Test (though Bechdel insists that she got the idea from her friend Liz Wallace), Bechdel lays out a set of criteria for determining whether women are portrayed even remotely well in movies: a movie must contain at least two women, who talk to each other, about something other than men.

You’d imagine this would be an easy test for movies to pass – but think about the last movie you saw. I’ll bet that it failed: Most movies do.

While The Metro makes the point that the Bechdel test is no measure of a movie’s quality – that many dreadful movies pass the test with flying colors, while many great movies fail – I say that women should always be portrayed as fully realized characters, no matter how bad a movie may be!

Geena Davis offers similarly simple guidelines for reducing sexism in movies: change the names of existing characters, even minor characters, to women’s names, and ensure that exactly half of the people in crowd scenes are women. Voilà: more, and more varied, female characters.

As Davis says, “What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?” This, she argues, is a way to encourage girls to push boundaries, to learn and do and be things that they might never have dreamed: “If they can see it, they can be it.”

Wouldn’t that be fantastic, if we could expect to see our real achievements, our dream jobs, our friendships, portrayed on screen? It’s absurd that we don’t already.

Cinemas in Sweden, at least, seem to think we should. This past fall, some Swedish cinemas introduced a new rating, based on the Bechdel Test, to indicate gender bias (or, ideally, the lack of gender bias) in movies, in the hopes of encouraging more gender equality.

Let’s hope that with Geena Davis’s help, the United States will soon follow suit.

Sasha Albert holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality from the University of Amsterdam, and participates in reproductive health and justice activism in the Boston area.

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