Although the MPAA added explanatory text to its ratings in 1990, they remain blunt instruments, roundly criticized for stigmatizing sex and normalizing violence, not to mention their puritanical attitude towards profanity, two uses of which apparently earned Alexander Payne’s otherwise SFW Nebraska an R. Manhattan’s IFC Center recently opted to disregard the MPAA’s NC-17 rating for Blue Is the Warmest Color, and now four Swedish movie theaters have launched their own initiative to change to way movies are rated.
In essence, the new rating amounts to a codification of the Bechdel Test, taken from a strip by Dykes to Watch Out For cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Passing the test, which would earn a movie an “A” under the new system, requires that a movie a) have at least two female characters who b) talk to each other about c) something other than a man. Ellen Tjele, the director of Bio Rio, a Stockholm art-house theater using the rating, points out that “the Lord of the Rings trilogy, all Star Wars movies, The Social Network, Pulp Fiction and all but one of the Harry Potter movies fail this test.”
Beliefs about women’s roles in society are influenced by the fact that movie watchers rarely see “a female superhero or a female professor or person who makes it through exciting challenges and masters them,” Tejle said, noting that the rating doesn’t say anything about the quality of the film. “The goal is to see more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens.”
The state-funded Swedish Film Institute supports the initiative, which is starting to catch on. Scandinavian cable TV channel Viasat Film says it will start using the ratings in its film reviews and has scheduled an “A” rated “Super Sunday” on Nov. 17, when it will show only films that pass the test, such as The Hunger Games, The Iron Lady and Savages.
Of course, plenty of critics have pointed out that the Bechdel Test itself is itself a fairly crude metric: Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker fails, while Zero Dark Thirty passes with flying colors. But given the fact that, according to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the percentage of female protagonists in Hollywood movies has barely shifted in the last 60 years, a sledgehammer might be just the tool for the job.