The representation of strong, diverse and central female characters in Western cinema often remains an exception to the rule. Yet several films are moving beyond one-dimensional, stereotypical, and minimal portrayals of women.
The ‘classic’ measure of gender inclusivity in film is the Bechdel Test, invented by American graphic novelist Alison Bechdel in 1985. To pass this equality test, a film must possess three criteria: include two named female characters, who speak to each other in a scene about a subject other than a man.
Sounds quite simple right? But, a surprisingly large amount of contemporary cinema does not pass this humble test. Only three of the eight nominees at the 2014 Academy Awards (Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Boyhood) managed to include scenes of two female characters discussing something other than a man.
But the Bechdel Test is not without its faults. By focusing on content rather than the construction of female characters, “The Test” highlights the inclusion of women instead of the formation of their characters.
Ironically, films with strong, complex, multi-dimensional but sole female protagonists such as the 90s German classic Run Lola Run or 2013’s Gravity fail to pass the Bechdel. Whilst, clearly more stereotypical portrayals of women, like American Pie 2 or Weird Science (where two teenage boys ‘create’ the perfect woman) pass because female characters discuss non ‘male-centred’ topics such as clothes or other women.
To move beyond the Bechdel, testing gender inclusivity in cinema should highlight agency, centrality and multi-dimensionality. Arguably, several 2015 portrayals met the challenge.
You would expect a historical-drama about the early feminist movement to challenge cinematic portrayal of women, and Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette delivered. Encapsulating the British suffragettes’ utilisation of civil disobedience to demand political voice, the film highlights just how brutal this fight was. These first wave feminists are conceptualised as soldiers, burning and breaking buildings and communication lines, demanding suffrage through destruction because “war’s the only thing men listen to.”
The ever-brilliant Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of East End working-class launderer and suffragette Maud Watts is compelling, engaging and foremost strong. Maud’s struggle against sexual abuse, dire working conditions, and having no rights over her child encapsulates how important obtaining political voice was. To be a suffragette was not merely about demanding the vote, but the opportunity for a “better life.”
David O’Russell’s Joy skilfully reflected one woman’s determination for betterment. Partially based on real-life entrepreneur Joy Mangano, the film follows her transformation from unemployed housewife to matriarch of a highly successful business as inventor of the Miracle Mop.
Joy’s diverse characterisation is embodied wonderfully by Jennifer Lawrence who encapsulates the extraordinariness of ordinary life. Joy is simultaneously an inventor, caring mother, concerned daughter, and businesswoman. She is empathetic, engaging, selfless, ruthless, tough, and determined.
Most pivotally, Joy is multi-faceted as more female representations ought to be.
Complexity is similarly at the heart of Cate Blanchett and Rory Mara’s portrayal of the melancholia of falling in love in Carol. Set in 1950s’ America, the minor characters’ fade to the background, as Blanchett’s construction of socialite Carol Aird and Mara’s of shopgirl Therese Belivet’s love affair consumes the screen.
Mara is mesmerising as Therese, simultaneously exuding innocence and wisdom, and a restrained yet valiant pursuance of Carol. Blanchett’s portrayal of Carol is magnetic, revealing the depth of a character of someone tangled in love, under the façade of a polished socialite maintaining “happy families” for her children.
Ultimately the importance of Carol for queer cinema, and the representation of women overall, is the diversity of character encompassed in the universality of a love story.
And even more of a ‘conventional’ 1950s’ love story following Irish immigrant Ellis Lacey as she moves to New York and falls for Italian-American Tony Fiorello, Brooklyn exudes complexity. Saoirse Ronan is captivating as Ellis, whose struggle with love is not defined by one-man but rather a battle between her traditional home and a foreign land, her family and New York, her ambition and the circumstance of life.
Despite the nostalgia inducing cinematography and costuming, Ronan’s portrayal in Brooklyn defies the gendered stereotypes of the time. Ellis Lacey is a deeply formed character, brave, innocent, vivacious and noble. Impeccably harnessing the coming-of-age genre, Ronan consumes a young women faced with difficult decisions and experiences, whose agency is her own.
Multidimensional, diverse and central. These terms should be harnessed when assessing the cinematic representation of women.
Gender inclusivity in film has a long way to go, and many minority voices still remain silenced. But several portrayals in 2015 marked a shift away from the Bechdel and a move towards critical construction, not mere inclusion of women in film – and they are truly fantastic.