Gender bias in film: The blockbuster idea that deserves its own Oscar

Mainstream cinema can change the world, but it’s time for more leading ladies

Film is a powerful medium. You only have to look at the millions of tweets, Facebook posts and news coverage of last night's 86th Academy Awards to see its global influence.
 
From Philadelphia and Blood Diamond to Supersize Me and Norma Rae, cinema has shown it can shift the world's perception of big social issues such as Aids, international trade, obesity and workers' rights.
 
But what about gender - how good is Hollywood at shaping society's view of girls and women?

Gender bias in film

In November last year, the film industry in Sweden responded to concerns about gender bias in mainstream movies by announcing that films can only get A ratings if they pass a content analysis called the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test was created by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985. To pass the test a movie must:
 
1.     Have at least two named females characters.
2.     Those characters must talk to each other.
3.     Their conversation must be about something other than men.
 
The roll call of films that fail the test is an illustrious one, including every episode of Star Wars, all three Lord of the Rings movies and all but one of the eight Harry Potter films.

Oscars 2014

Of course, there are plenty of films that pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours. There's Angelina Jolie's forthcoming film about child marriage in Ethiopia; Lisa Russell's !PODER! about two Guatemalan girls who advocate for health and education improvements in their community; Smile Pinki, which tells the tale of an Indian girl who grows food to feed her family; and Carbon For Water, which highlights the difficulties of growing up without clean sanitation.
 
But few of these pictures are likely to gain the mass audience required to drive big social change. So how do the 2014 Oscar nominees fare in the Bechdel Test?
 
Of the 19 films nominated for more than one award this year, only eight pass the test, including just three of the nine best picture nominees: American Hustle, Philomena and Nebraska.

The report card says: could do better. And when the winners were announced this message only became starker.

And the winner is

The big Bechdel win was Cate Blanchett picking up best actress for Blue Jasmine. Other notable winners included The Great Gatsby (best costume design) and Frozen (best animated feature). 

But all three of the Bechdel-approved best picture nominees walked away with no awards at all. 

The big awards of the night both went to films that fail the Bechdel Test: 12 Years A Slave (best picture) and Gravity (best director), although both movies should be commended for strong female performances from Lupita Nyong'o, who won best supporting actress, and Sandra Bullock, who was on screen for an incredible 87 per cent of Gravity's running time.

The economics of Bechdel

It's not Hollywood's fault that girls and women face discrimination, persecution and isolation around the world, but if more films with the reach and influence of the Oscar nominees and winners passed the Bechdel Test, it could play a leading role in finding a solution.
 
So how do we encourage film-makers to pass the test?
 
Firstly, through simple economics. A recent analysis of US box office revenues found that films passing the Bechdel Test made more money than those that didn't. 
 
And for those directors more concerned with the art form than their bank balance, what better way to encourage them to Bechdel-proof their films than by incorporating it into how the Oscars are decided?
 
And the award for the best Bechdel Test picture is…
 
What do you think? Should the Academy incorporate the Bechdel Test into the decision-making process for the Oscars? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter