At the 2014 Oscars Cate Blanchett memorably dedicated part of her Best Actress acceptance speech to women in film. Specifically, she made the claim that films about women make good economic sense.
She thanked Sony Classics:
“For so bravely and intelligently distributing the film and to the audiences who went to see it and perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.”
Films with women at their center make money, huh? Until now, the only support for this claim was the raging intuitions of every representationally-starved film-going woman the world over. This has all changed now that the team over at Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight have released some rigorous research to back it up.
Here is what we learned:
1.) Passing the Bechdel test is a must if you care about $$ (and misogyny)
The Bechdel Test demands that there must be two or more women in a film who talk to each other about something other than a man. FiveThityEight found that films that ‘feature meaningful interactions between women’ don’t just do well at the box-office, they might in fact do better than those which don’t. Passing the Bechdel Test made $2.68 for every dollar that was spent on them, while movies that failed it made only $2.45.
2.) The reticent executive’s favourite is complete and utter bullshit
As has been pointed out already, executives love to claim that films featuring women do badly internationally. Well this report is the equivalent of P. L. Travers calling “Poppycock” on Disney’s bullyboy tactics. It turns out that movies which pass the Bechdel test made $1.17 overseas per every dollar spent. Movies where women only talk about men – thus failing the test – did worse overseas, making only $1.06. Amusingly (depressingly?), the report also shows that it’s better to have women not talk to each other at all than it is to have women only talk about men. (Instead their eyes just discourse across the room in hot Shakespearean fashion.)
3.) Mo’ money, mo’ problems
Well, only if your film fails to have rich female characters engaging meaningfully with one another. Low budget films which pass the Bechdel test do better than films that don’t pass, even if those non-passing films have 35% more budget. So it is literally the case that some people spend more money making films that occlude, erase or simplify women’s lives and they don’t even see any financial return for doing so. What. Is. The. Point? The only possible response is that there is some *other* kind of value in making films which reify women. I’d love to hear the case for that one…
4.) Nate Silver <3 <3 <3
Yes, this is also what we learned. Why? Because one of the most frustrating things in writing about women in film is learning about who cares and who really bloody doesn’t. There are many out there who work tirelessly to promote the cause of women in film – from the sublime duo of Melissa Silverstein and Inkoo Kang on this network to the campaigning of the similarly named but actually different “Bitch Pack” and “Bitch Flicks“, to the New Zealand based Marian Evans who was featured on Indiewire last month . But part of the problem is preaching beyond the choir. The FiveThirtyEight team could have chosen to tackle any number of statistical puzzles. I’m delighted they turned their attention to this one, and provided us with yet another argument for making great films about interesting women.
5.) This is a useful springboard, but it is not the entire argument
These are my notes of caution. The research findings are wonderful, but they are not exhaustive. Why?
First off, no one dedicated to indie film wants to suggest that the only mark of a good film is how much money it takes at the box-office. Economics isn’t everything, and we should be cautious of suggesting that films about women should only be judged according to such a mercenary yardstick. I don’t need to lecture an Indiewire audience about this, so I shan’t.
Secondly, the Bechdel test – the gauge for this study – has its own limitations. By focussing simply on women in film, it does not leave any room for asking what kind of women and what kind of stories. We need to be demanding interesting films representing women from all walks of life, and in particular, we really need more films which are written by, directed by and starring women of color. Passing Bechdel doesn’t guarantee this; it might be necessary but it is not sufficient. The “Lauzen-Silverstein Test” (as it is now being dubbed) might be a better measure, but still, we need arguments for diversity, not simply female leads with agency. There is, then, a long way to go, but hopefully this research can help us take steps in the right direction.