Sweden’s plan to bring gender equality to the movies

November 6, 2013

Ellen Tejle, director of the art-house movie theater Bio Rio in Stockholm, holds a Bechdel test approval A certificate. (Ami Bramme/AP)

Four Swedish movie theaters touched off a heated debate across Stockholm last month -- and in the English-language media this morning -- with the announcement that they plan tobegin publicly labeling films that pass the so-called “Bechdel test." The metric gauges whether a film meets a bare minimum standard for developed female characters.

A-stämpel_svart

The initiative is called “A-märkt,” and its promoters are encouraging theaters to stamp its “A” logo on the movie posters and pre-roll screens of any film that (1) has at least two female characters who (2) talk to each other (3) about something other than men. The “A” stands for both “approved” and “Allison,” the name of the American cartoonist who came up with the test. A surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly) high proportion of films fail this test.

A-märkt started off as a small, grassroots effort by four trendy Stockholm theaters. But in the weeks since it was first reported, it has grown into a veritable movement, covered in a dozen newspaper columns and earning the endorsements of Equalisters, Women in Television and Film and a popular cable movie channel and, controversially, the blessing of Anna Serner, who presides over Sweden’s state-funded film institute. Serner reportedly defended the rating to Sweden’s public television network, SVT, and said that she sees the system as an "instrument of film policy."

That comment has apparently ruffled feathers in the Swedish film community, where critics have argued that the Bechdel test is a “blunt instrument” and that the government should avoid any hint of regulating the content of films.

The Swedish government has long pursued policies to reduce gender inequality. That has extended to many areas of Swedish society, one of which has certainly been the arts.

In the past, the Swedish government has directed the Swedish Film Institute to divide funding equally between female and male applicants -- which is significant, given that the institute funds four-fifths of Swedish movies. The institute, which runs an entire program on gender equality in film, also polices its distributions for gender bias and publishes regular reports on the results. In 2012, only 32 percent of state-funded features were produced by women -- a high number by Hollywood standards, but one the institute has still promised to improve. It will get some help from the Ministry of Culture, which earmarked funds for a multi-year initiative on young women in film after a 2010 report found that few of them succeeded.

These are, of course, just a very small sample of the many programs Sweden dedicates to gender equality. The country has 480 days of paid parental leave, strict anti-discrimination legislation and a multimillion-kronor annual budget for programs on female entrepreneurship, women’s health and gender education in primary schools. Sweden even has a Minister for Gender Equality.

There’s lots of evidence to suggest that these policies work, too: According to the World Economic Forum’s 2013 gender gap report, Sweden is the world’s fourth-most gender-equal country, scoring particularly high marks on women’s education and on economic and political representation.

For the record, a number of films, both in Swedish and English, do pass the Bechdel test. The women’s group Equalisters compiled a list of them in October. Organizers also recommend “Monica Z,” “Vi är bäst” and “Hotell,” which are in theaters now.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Max Fisher · November 6, 2013