It’s Pointless to Argue Over Whether a Film — or Any Work of Art — Is Feminist

Depending on your political orientation, it sounds like a news story from either feminist utopia or authoritarian hell (or, if you’re among those of us lucky enough to live with much ambivalence and cognitive dissonance, both): “Swedish cinemas take aim at gender bias with Bechdel test rating.” I was certainly shocked to hear, last week, that Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Home creator Alison Bechdel’s gender-based test for films had not only reached Scandinavia, but was affecting cinema policy over there.

Well, when you read past the headline, it’s not as big a story as it sounds. The ratings system isn’t enforced by the Swedish government or even an MPAA-like entity; it’s only been adopted by four art-house cinemas within the country, and whether or not a film has been granted a Bechdel-passing “A” rating doesn’t affect who gets to see it. So calm down, “It’s censorship!” police. It is not censorship, which means we can move past the screaming protests and have an adult conversation.

Lack of widespread real-world ramifications aside, the story has critics debating whether the Bechdel Test says enough about gender on film to be the sole criterion anyone — private citizen or public theater — uses to judge a movie’s feminist credentials. Sam Adams has a good roundup of the discussion so far at Criticwire; while some writers are naming individual examples that prove the Bechdel Test’s flaws, others are using the controversy to question whether there’s any way to define a “feminist film.” Adams quotes a great piece by Holly L. Derr, writing at The Atlantic,

The truth is that the definition of feminism varies as much between feminists as it does between feminists, non-feminists, and sexists. For those of us in the artistic and theoretical realms, one focus of feminism has long been disrupting false binaries like male/female, masculine/feminine, and gay/straight so that equality is not something that’s measured by whether you treat women the same way you treat men but by whether you regard everyone as a unique yet fully human individual. Feminist criticism needs to work to disrupt a binary, too—the one that defines art as either feminist or sexist. Even the most socially conscious creator can be influenced by the sexism that pervades our culture, whereas a creator interested in telling stories primarily about men can still make a feminist film—or at least a not-sexist one.

This is an eloquent summation of the problem with forcing art to fit into ideological boxes. There is no simple test that will tell you whether you’re watching a Feminist Film; there’s not even a 197-item checklist — and if there were, I can guarantee that none of us would enjoy the movie that satisfied every requirement.

It is stupid to reduce critical conversation about any film to “Is it feminist, Y/N?” for the same reason it’s stupid to argue over whether a given celebrity is a feminist: like people, works of art worth appreciating are multifaceted. They are likely to do some things that reflect feminist values (although, as Derr suggests, what exactly “feminist values” are is constantly up for debate) and some things that don’t. The only way to discover whether a person is a feminist is to ask her; we think of “feminist artists” as artists who self-identify as feminists. But when it comes to the work itself, while its creator’s intentions count for a great deal, they don’t account for the meaning critics and other audience members make out of it. Even movies as widely held to be misogynistic as Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist support radical feminist readings. And what that suggests is that there are much more fascinating and productive discussions to have about films’ gender politics than whether they’re ticking all the boxes we’d like them to.

In the end, I don’t have a strong opinion on those four Swedish theaters’ Bechdel Test ratings. I think the original comic strip is best appreciated not as a litmus test for individual films but as a pithily expressed bit of outrage at how few women’s stories Hollywood tells overall. And, in fact, it’s the visibility Bechdel’s criticism continues to enjoy that continues to impress me the most about this whole brouhaha. Maybe her observation seems so refreshing, all these years later, because we’re not only hearing from too few women filmmakers, but too few women film critics.