This summer, Plymouth Arts Centre has launched a new film rating. Introduced to the UK by the Bath Film Festival in 2014, the ‘F’ rating is to notify cinema-goers of a film that meets the following criteria:
- Does it have a female director?
- Is it written by a woman?
- Is / are there significant women on screen in their own right?
The ‘F’ in this rating stands for feminist. The F Rating was inspired by the Bechdel Test used by a group of cinemas in Sweden, and developed further to amplify the people telling the stories, not just the characters on screen.
The Bechdel Test was devised by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985. It asks whether a film has at least two female characters and at least one scene in which they talk about something other than a man. The introduction of the ‘F’ rating was to draw attention to just how few films pass the test and to encourage film-makers to produce films with three-dimensional female characters.
This rating is not to be confused with the question of whether a film is sexist, but instead the rating is given to a film that actively promotes gender equality. For example, the Oscar-winning drama ‘Gravity’ (2013) may seem on the surface, a definite contender for the ‘F’ rating. Sandra Bullock’s performance as astronaut Ryan Stone (note the character name) dominates the film, with Bullock taking the lion’s share of screen time.
However, ‘Gravity’ is not the film it was originally intended to be. As a compromise for having no romantic entanglements (a ridiculous notion – space dust would get everywhere), the director Alfonso Cuaron was asked by the studio to incorporate a scene where Sandra Bullock’s character is guided back to Earth by a hallucination in the form of George Clooney. In other words, the guy saves the day. This scene, when you watch the film again, does feel out of place – Cuaron was attempting a different take on the ‘hero’ narrative, by using Sandra Bullock as the central character, and the studio’s decision to override that lessens the film’s impact.
Even with film at the cutting-edge, studios seem reluctant to venture beyond the traditional patriarchal narrative. It’s not hard to understand when you examine the roots of mainstream cinema. By the 1920’s, there were the Big Five, the five studios that built the film industry as we know it today: 20th Century Fox (founders Joseph M Scheneck and Darryl F Zanuck); RKO Pictures (founders David Sarnoff and Joseph P Kennedy); Paramount Pictures (founders W W Hodkinson, Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky); Warner Bros (founders Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack L Warner) and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (founders Marcus Loew and Louis B Mayer). These men were the Founding Fathers of Hollywood, and ‘father’ is a key word here. Their range of influence went beyond the executive – Louis B Mayer had a great track record in personally discovering new talent including Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr and Greer Garson. Mayer nurtured talent, helping to develop a ‘star system’ where the talent stayed in-house, locked into a contract with a specific studio. While a great deal of time and money was invested, turning film stars into legends, the flip side of this was that Mayer (and his contemporaries) held all the cards. We tend to see film stars now as free agents, able to work with whom they choose, once they reach a certain level of celebrity. But as we’ve seen with ‘Gravity’, the studio still holds sway – and the Big Five crafted a power structure that defines what Hollywood says – and how it says it.
But what is really interesting is once the film is released, the audience reaction is hard to control or even predict. The history of film is littered with big-budget flops and small indie films that have taken the industry by storm. ‘Pearl Harbour’ (2001) was a World War II drama on an epic scale. It should have been a huge hit. The cinema-going public decided otherwise. ‘Juno’ (2007), a film about a pregnant teenager, cost an estimated $7.5m to make. By June 2008, it had taken nearly $145m at the box office, and had won its screenwriter Diablo Cody an Oscar. But despite the success of films like ‘Juno’, Hollywood keeps reverting to type – producing films with male-dominated narrative and largely male-star casts.
What is curious about this is that cinema-goers aren’t shy about telling Hollywood (and cinema at large) what they like. Even from the very early days of film, female stars have consistently delivered great box office. From Lillian Gish to Reese Witherspoon, the leading lady’s popularity endures. This trend isn’t just confined to the starlet – Meryl Streep in the past 10 years has become box-office gold, with such hits as ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ (2006), ‘Mamma Mia’ (2008), ‘It’s Complicated’(2009) and most recently, ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ (2016).
There is clearly an appetite for female-led films. The huge success of ‘Bridesmaids’ (2011) is the definition of a film that would score highly on the Bechdel Test. Not only is it a film largely comprised of female characters, but the focus is not on the impending wedding but rather the exposed fissures of their friendships. But these films are noteworthy because they are such rare occurrences. It can’t be because Hollywood can’t recognise when the public respond to something – box office numbers don’t lie. The wilful neglect in bringing other voices to the screen is not only Hollywood resting on its laurels, the theory of using what worked before, as it’s sure to work again. It cuts far deeper than that. Hollywood has become a victim of its own system. Cinema has become entrenched in its own history and an insular art form by definition is starving itself of oxygen; fresh ideas, new voices.
Rather unexpectedly, it’s the fashion world that offers up an alternative to entrenchment. It too was a ‘closed shop’ before the 2008 recession, but the fashion world, in its struggle to adapt and survive, learnt quickly how inclusion can be mutually beneficial. Fashion shows are streamed live on the internet in real time. Influential fashion bloggers now sit in the front row next to Anna Wintour (whether she likes it or not). The result? Fashion, by reaching out, stays compelling and remains relevant. The exchange of ideas and (crucially) criticism on blogs and social media platforms has ensured fashion’s longevity. You have to ask – why wouldn’t cinema want that for itself?
The film industry has been painfully slow to respond to the sea-change happening in art, theatre, music and fashion. As one of the most easily-accessible art forms, cinema should be at the forefront of the inclusion revolution. Its decision to retain the image of film-making as a closed process, not only goes against the grain of what’s happening in the arts, it’s a choice that ensures that cinema gets left behind. The plethora of remakes and sequels points to an industry that desperately needs new blood. Film is not just a feminist issue – but acknowledging the contribution (creative, financial) that women make to the film industry would be a great start.
Recognising the potential of new voices and narratives would regenerate the industry, making film that not only communicates to an audience, but actively converses. Art-house films are leading the way in this, with cinema that is not only provocative, but representative of communities that get ignored by the mainstream media. Art-house film is focused on creating the game-changer; while mainstream cinema seems desperate to recapture its former glories. But it doesn’t have to be a case of either / or: both mainstream and independent films have the capability of being bold and brilliant.
Films such as ‘Alien’ (1979) and ‘Blade Runner ‘(1982) proved decades ago that big-budget doesn’t have to be brainless. These films are uncompromising in their vision, and that’s why they have become modern classics. There is a lack of ambition at the heart of mainstream cinema today; while mistakes can be costly, great film has never been created by playing it safe. For creativity to move forward it must be daring, audacious – and this means embracing and nurturing talent beyond what is comfortable and familiar.
In an ideal world, there would be no need for an ‘F’ feminist rating. But if you’ve read any of the online chatter regarding the all-female casting for ‘Ghostbusters’ (2016), you’ll know that some attitudes can be difficult to adjust. The feminist rating not only poses a challenge to those attitudes, but seeks to win hearts as well as minds.
Those of us who love cinema, know very well that the magic moments can’t be predicted or formulated. Art needs diversity to thrive, and a homogenised industry cannot hope to produce cinema that inspires new generations of film-makers.
Will a feminist rating address the imbalance in the film industry? On its own, probably not. But it’s an idea that’s gaining traction. Inequality is not just an idea we can intellectualise, but something that virtually every human being has felt at some point in their lives. Inequality is a curiously universal phenomenon.
When cinema began in the 1890’s, the world was a very different place. The freedoms we now take for granted were then unimaginable. Change is possible, even if it does not always happen at the pace we’d like. Film has the capacity to reach people who would never to go an art gallery, or attend the theatre. To then deny the opportunity of creating film to those who don’t fit the mould seems ridiculous.
While there will always be Rocky Balboas and Dominic Torettos, there needs to be room for other stories that are also worth telling. The feminist ‘F’ rating is not about giving preferential treatment to female-led films, but merely highlighting how few of them make it to the screen in the first place. It shouldn’t be headline news that a woman has won the Best Director Oscar (Kathryn Bigelow, 2010). While we can’t sit in on pitch meetings (yes to thought-provoking drama; no to Paul Blart: Mall Cop 3), we can make an active choice to endorse the films that do make it by voting with our cash. Numbers matter a great deal to Hollywood, and each time a ‘Juno’ defies the odds, another film like it will be green-lighted. Last year’s new releases included ‘Room’, ‘Carol’, ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘Suffragette’ – all films that would comfortably pass the Bechdel Test. Cinema has the potential to move from a closed world to an infinite universe, but ultimately, it’s going to be up to us to make it happen.