It’s awards season, and this year The Favourite is proving to be everyone’s favourite: topping the box office, attracting rave reviews, and winning Olivia Coleman a Golden Globe. What’s more it easily passes the Bechdel Test. This measure, which first appeared in 1985 is still only met by about half of all films. It aims to call attention to gender inequality in all forms of fiction and is used as an indicator of the active presence of female characters. It requires that a film must feature at least two women – preferably named characters who remain alive at the end of the story – and they talk to each other for at least a minute about a subject other than a man.
This year could be the one that smashes that stubborn 50% barrier. Movies due out in the next few months include Mary Queen of Scots, Colette, yet more sapphic action in Vita and Virginia, Rosamund Pike playing war correspondent Marie Colvin in A Private War, and Nicole Kidman taking the lead role in the cop movie Destroyer. All look likely to pass the test, with the female leads carrying the film. Not so long ago a big name male actor would be seen as a pre-requisite to attracting proper Hollywood money.
It has been suggested that an additional question for the test should be whether there is a female character whose narrative arc is not solely about supporting the man’s storyline. I’d also like to add that heterosexual male and female love interests should be of realistic relative ages: we’ve all heard of ‘May to September’ romances, but with some male leads playing opposite actresses up to thirty years their junior, this seems to have mutated into ‘May ‘til sometime next year’.
It is tempting to wonder why this is at all important, after all these are fictions, just made up stories. But as Oscar Wilde said more than 100 years ago: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” If women – and other marginalised groups – are represented in films in more complex and diverse ways, perhaps the way they are viewed in real life will also become less prescriptive.