Yesterday was International Women’s Day. I know some women – I’m even friends with a few – and I wanted to join in the celebration. Sadly, I was left at a loss of what to contribute. What could a white middle-class male between the ages of 25 and 40 add to a discussion about women’s role in the world?
Well, given that I spend my working time as a business analyst, and my spare time ranting about movies, I decided to combine those two dominant facets of my personality into a numerical analysis of women in film. It’s neither exhaustive, nor is it particularly robust, but hopefully it will offer some insight. Or not. I don’t care. You don’t like it, do your own fucking spreadsheet.
ANYWAY, I carefully and deliberately constructed a very rudimentary spreadsheet covering a few key variables of women’s roles and actions in films, and populated it with the films with which I, personally, was most familiar. I have filled in scores for these films based on my own memory – this means some of the numbers in there *may* be out by a small amount, where I have missed something small or where my memory has failed me, but I’m about 95% sure on most of them. If I had the time, I’d re-watch these films again, but I don’t. Blow me.
The sample size is relatively small, hence I’ve chosen not to go into too much analytical detail for this one at present. Instead, I will present a link to the file download below, followed by some exploration of the variables themselves. The file itself was created in Microsoft Excel, and that is probably the best tool for viewing and adjusting it.
Here we have it:
That’s right, it’s called “The Femindex”, get over it.
I attempted to keep it as objective as possible – things that either are, or are not. For instance, “Female characters who have strong character development” is a tough one to quantify, as opinions are so varying on what constitutes strong character development. But “Female with flaws unrelated to sex and reproduction” is much easier to measure.
What I’d really like to see with this is other people adding their own favourite (and least favourite) films to this document, and seeing how much we can grow it by. Then we can really do some in-depth analysis. However, for now, hopefully it will prove to be at least a little interesting, and offer some food for thought in the wake of International Women’s Day.
1 – The Femindex Score
Each film gets a score, based on the criteria it meets and how frequently it meets them – more or less. However, a low score does not represent a particularly misogynistic point of view, and neither does a high score represent a great feminist achievement. ‘The Hunt For Red October’, for instance, scores just as well as ‘Immortals’, largely because there are only two female speaking roles in the Cold War naval thriller – just as you might expect of a film set almost exclusively in military environments during the 1980’s. ‘Red October’ isn’t particularly hateful of women – they just don’t feature because of the authentic setting.
In general, though, those films which do score highly do so for good reasons – they generally feature a number of female speaking roles, and those roles manage to interact with one another and meaningfully affect the plot in a number of ways. Those films with low scores are generally male-focused and don’t have much to offer in the way of inspiration for modern-day women.
To account for varying tastes in what’s good and what’s bad, I’ve added a weighting system. Very simply, along the top of the sheet is a multiplier for each criterion which changes its significance. If you’re so inclined, I absolutely encourage you to mess around with this, see how it affects certain films. If nudity doesn’t bother you, set it to “0”. If you think female authority figures need more credit, you can double or even triple their significance.
2 – Inclusion
The most obvious metrics are the easiest to determine. Namely:
- How many women are in the top two names of the cast list?
- How many female antagonists are there?
- How many women speak more than a single line?
These are the very basics of inclusion – if you want to see women doing interesting things in a film, there have to actually be some first. The stipulation that they must utter more than a single line is an attempt to avoid extras, women who are there merely to scream, be in peril, and so on.
In terms of top billings, I have based this on either the end credits, the film’s poster, or worst case, IMDB’s order of cast listing. Hence, ‘The 13th Warrior’ gets a point, because Diane Venora was apparently the second-billed cast member. I can’t argue with the facts.
Note, I have given ‘Jurassic Park’ a point for female antagonists because the dinosaurs are all girls.
3 – Interaction
The Bechdel Test is already a popular measure of female inclusion in movies – and is famously a very, very low bar by which to set the standard for “inclusion”. The Bechdel Test has three very simple criteria, criteria which I have adjusted to suit my own interpretation. The three criteria in my own analysis are:
- At least two speaking female characters interact in a conversation that does not include men.
- The conversation does not discuss a male character in a romantic or sexual way.
- The conversation does not discuss any male character from this film / universe.
I have chosen these criteria for a number of reasons. Firstly, by having three different scoring criteria, a Bechdel-friendly conversation scores very highly. Secondly, I am comfortable giving a point away even if a male character is discussed, because I want to see more scenes where women discuss how to defeat the villain or save their friend – and in this regard, I don’t care what the gender of the villain or the friend is.
The third criteria is a modification of the standard Bechdel rule of discussing “something besides a man,” mostly to give a bit of credit to ‘Iron Man 3’. In the film, Rebecca Hall talks to Gwyneth Paltrow, comparing her own situation to that of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The fact is, it would be very difficult for women to discuss history and science and exploration without referring to men at all as, sadly, most of our our history revolves around the actions of men. Since I think more women in movies should be having conversations just like this one, I personally find it acceptable for a deep discussion between women to feature the actions and words of historical figures who happen to be men.
4 – Influence
‘Gravity’ is an unusual film, in which a female protagonist actually makes very little impact on her surroundings. In her role as a victim, we are essentially watching things happen to her, as opposed to her deciding to do much herself.
As such, my measure of “Change in Plot due to Female Action” is a score out of 5, and is arguably the most subjective of the metrics in this little exercise. I have tried to stick to a basic rule: the score is equal to the number of decisions that a female character makes, that subsequently change the direction of the story – and that number is then divided by two.
In a film like ‘Alien’ or ‘Into the Woods’, where almost the entire plot is pushed forwards by women at one point or another, I have assigned a flat ‘5’ as the score – since actually measuring this would be an exercise in tedium.
It should be noted that actions taken by women under duress – i.e., where they had no say in the matter, or actions taken because of women, don’t count. Just because the plot of ‘Star Wars’ revolves around rescuing Princess Leia, doesn’t mean she gets any credit for getting herself captured. She does get credit, however, for hiding the plans in R2-D2, for lying about the location of the Rebel Base, and for blowing a hole in a garbage chute and facilitating an escape from an unwinnable situation.
Similarly, the plot-relevant actions actually have to have an impact. ‘Uhura’ speaks Klingon in ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ so she could avoid the away team’s slaughter by the Klingons – but all she manages to do is get herself choked, and the entire scene has literally zero impact on the film’s story. The same goes for Carol Marcus – if you were to remove her from the film entirely, nothing would have changed in terms of the narrative, so ‘Into Darkness’ gets nada.
5 – Significance
Women might feature in a film, but that doesn’t mean they’re well-represented. As such, I have awarded points for women carrying out any of the following:
- Combatant – namely, participating in a fight in which their own efforts are meaningful and threatening to their enemies, and they themselves are threatened by their enemies. Lamping an unsuspecting thug round the head with a bust of Adolf Hitler doesn’t count, but getting stuck into the fight “along with the men” does. 1 point for each woman who takes part in at least one fight in this manner. Note that this is NOT just a record of violence against women – they may get hurt or killed, but they need to be part of the fight, not victims of it.
- Authority Figure – specifically, a point for each woman who gives instructions, and those instructions are heeded – not necessarily followed – by those around her. Can include women who act as mentors or sources of advice and guidance, but is focused on leadership. ‘Starship Troopers’ nails this one.
- Positive Replacement – Actually inspired by ‘Starship Troopers’, in which crusty old white man Sky Marshall Dienes suffers a humiliating defeat, and is subsequently replaced by the commanding presence of Sky Marshall Tehat Maru. It happens twice more in the movie, in fact. It is essentially the replacement of one character in a significant role – male or female – with a female character – and the replacement is portrayed as mostly positive, or is made based on that woman’s abilities and qualifications rather than the fact there’s nobody else to do it.
- Technical Role – a great suggestion by a very creative friend of mine, James. At its most basic level, a point for each woman with a job or duty that requires expertise in a particular field. ‘The Hangover’ gets a point for having a female police officer, whilst ‘Aliens’ runs rampant, featuring the qualified loader-operator Ripley alongside a female pilot, a female board member, a female medic and a trained female heavy weapons officer. Professors, technicians and doctors all count – secretaries and house wives do not.
- Top Performer – Surprisingly rare given how easy it is to achieve. Points awarded for each woman who is “top of her class”, such as ‘Star Trek IV’s Valeris, or “the best and the brightest”, such as Mako Mori in ‘Pacific Rim’.
6 – Characterisation
A tough one, this, especially if you want to stay objective. As such, I broke it down as simply as I could:
Flaws unrelated to sex and fertility – Too many female roles are “rounded” with character flaws and insecurities that are defined by some issue to do with their fertility (looking at you, ‘Prometheus’) or their sexuality (Inara and Kayleigh in ‘Firefly’ and ‘Serenity’). Points are scored for this criterion for each woman who has some kind of personal issue that isn’t vagina-related, and as such I’m also excluding motherhood and romance from this one.
Character “flaws” for men in movies include things like alcoholism, parental abandonment, arrogance, inferiority, a desperate need for validation by their peers. Women need similarly varied problems – hence Ripley scores a point in ‘Alien’ for basically being pretty fucking ruthless when it comes to ship-board security. ‘Prometheus’ also manages to score a point for Vickers, who has some major insecurities from her relationship with her father and is generally a bit of a douchebag – if a very sensible one.
The other criteria for characterisation is for women who initiate or push for sexual or romantic contact. I’ve begrudgingly given ‘Deadpool’ a point, as it seems that it’s Morena Baccarrin’s character who wants to kick things off with Ryan Reynolds. And, because it’s the Prophetess in ‘Immortals’ who seduces Theseus, I am forced to give another begrudging point away.
Sexual confidence and assertiveness is really important – too many girls and young women are taught to wait for the boys to get things started, and having female characters who are capable of being proactive in relationships is definitely a good thing.
7 – Negative Points
I mostly want to celebrate the positives and highlight where films have gotten things right, but I must also point out a few of the worse examples of women in films. The following criteria grant Negative points each time a film meets them:
- Swooning – a woman passing out or collapsing when confronted with something unpleasant or threatening. It’s unrealistic, trite and pointless – and thankfully absent from the films I’ve so far included in the analysis.
- “Mrs Pacman Effect” – This was an excellent suggestion by my friend Emma, and is mostly restricted to cartoons in which female characters are shown to be female by their long eyelashes, lipstick and blusher. I actually docked ‘The Phantom Menace’ for this one, due to Queen Amidala’s absurd get-up. No other Naboo citizen appears like this, and I’m quite confident that “King Aladima” would not have been presented in the same way.
- Sex Work – a point docked for each female Stripper or Prostitute that appears. There may be some contention as to whether or not stripping counts as “sex work”, but I’ve included it. I do not wish to shame or denigrate in any way women who are sex workers, but I do wish to point out how frequently these roles for women appear in movies, compared to the very small percentage of the real-world population that actually do engage in these occupations. In ‘Independence Day’, half of the adult female speaking roles are strippers – and that’s statistically significant, I feel.
- Female-only Nudity – doesn’t matter how artistic it is, or how much it counts as a metaphor, I have docked points for each scene in which a woman appears more naked than any of the men around her – or in which she is naked with nobody else around her. Although I would dearly love to slam both of the Abrams Trek movies for their gratuitous underwear scenes, I am counting nudity as Nipples, Arses and Pubes / Genitalia, because those things are objectively measurable. I am making no distinction between female nipples and male nipples. ‘Starship Troopers’ gets a clean pass, because no women appear naked when not accompanied by similarly naked men – meanwhile ‘Prince of Thieves’ actually scores negatively, because the only nudity we see is Kevin Costner, and there is absolutely no way that could be considered exploitative of anyone except the audience. And the camera operators.
- Sexual Assault – regardless of the gender of the assaulter or the victim. I’m not trying to suggest that sexual assault should never be portrayed in films – indeed, it’s a powerful issue worthy of appropriate discussion and exploration – but too many women already suffer from sexual assault on a daily basis without having to see it in a film, so I have decided to dock two points for every instance of it as a blanket rule. I have also included threats of sexual assault – the fact that the threat of rape might be used to coerce or bully someone is really not much less distasteful to me than the act itself.
So, there you have it – a fairly comprehensive breakdown of the criteria by which I have judged each film.
Later in the week, I will be following this post with an analysis of the stats I’ve collected. But for now, I’d like to simply present the format, and hope that you have some fun messing around with it. Maybe you’ll find a film that scores surprisingly highly? Maybe a film you thought was very representative scores very poorly. Either way – let me know! I’d love to add to this index and get an actual, useful tool out of it.