30 March 2015

On hobbits and the absence of older women on screen.

Dwarves, cast of The Hobbit movie

In 1985 cartoonist Alison Bechdel came up with the idea of a test for gender bias in films, based on the way they portrayed women. The so-called Bechdel test (as proposed by one of Bechdel's comic strip characters) asks three questions:
  1. does the film have a scene with at least two women in it? (Some would add "who have names".)
  2. do they talk to each other? 
  3. do they talk about something besides a man?
Very few films score three out of three on this test. In fact in 2014 only 55.4% of movies scored full marks, down from 67.5% the year before.

I was thinking about this over the weekend as I read "The Hobbit" for the first time. It seems strange that I've never read it before, having read Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy several times. But anyway, I decided it was time to read it. What a disappointment!

I know it's a children's story, written long ago, but I hadn't expected it to be quite so "Boys Own" in style. Not a woman in the whole book (unless you count references to Belladonna Took), stereotypical cockney accents for stupid trolls, and the liberal use of magic to get out of tight corners in the plot.

Perhaps I'm too old to find a quest for a literal treasure hoard exciting. Most of the dwarves seemed to be little more than excess baggage on the excursion, without any active role in the story and little to distinguish them in terms of personality. Only towards the end (spoiler alert), when the good guys started falling out over the treasure hoard, did the story start to have some depth. (Sorry if I'm panning your favourite book.)

I wasn't surprised to read that even with a lot of extra Tolkein material added (including some named women) the Hobbit  movies scored poorly on the Bechdel test. So did the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Despite having some strong female roles, there are no conversations between them.

In fact many movies with active roles for women lose points because the women don't interact with each other except to discuss men. The bar is not very high. A conversation about shopping for shoes would be enough to score a point.

Is it time to update the Bechdel test?

So what? No-one is suggesting that every movie should pass the Bechdel test. It's more useful as a guage of how women are portrayed in movies generally. Except for last year's blip, the proportion of new movies that pass all three of the Bechdel questions has been increasing over time.

In any case, the Bechdel test is fairly crude. It has nothing to say about what type of roles are given to women in film. Two teenage cat-walk models in conversation about the latest fad diet will meet its requirements.

Despite what Russell Crowe had to say earlier this year, older women in particular are not well represented in film, and older women actors in major roles are few and far between. Everyone immediately thinks of Meryl Streep, Helen Mirrin and Judy Dench when talking about older female actors. But they stand out because they're part of a rare cohort. Many female actors find they can't get roles once they turn forty.

A study of the top 100 grossing films of 2014, by Dr Martha M. Lauzen of the San Diego Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, found that:

  • Only 29% of main characters were female, and only 12% of protagonists (ie the person from whose perspective the story was told). Of these, 75% were white.
  • Of those characters who were portrayed in leadership roles, 16% were male compared to 5% who were female.
  • Female characters were generally younger than the male characters, with most in their 20's and 30's. 
  • Only 30% of female characters were over the age of 40, compared to 53% of males.
  • While 18% of male characters were in their 50's, only 9% of female characters were in this age group. 
It's thirty years since Alison Bechdel's comic strip introduced the idea that women needed to be better represented in film. The real world has changed, even if the movie world hasn't. Perhaps it's time to add some new questions.

So I propose we ask:

1. Are there any women over 40?
2. Are those women given any role other than wicked witch, over-protective mother  or demented grandmother?
3. Are they ever asked for their opinion by a man?

What do you think? Can you name examples of films that meet these requirements? Do you have some better questions? 

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