Should Movie Ratings Reflect Representation of Women and Minorities?

By  · Published on November 11th, 2014

Paramount Pictures

One of the many criticisms I’ve seen of Interstellar, mostly on social media, is that its depiction of the future is too white, racially. Never mind the Africa-American school principal or the African-American scientist among the four-person mission through space, I guess. What would be the right number of non-white characters for a movie like this? I will admit that it’s strange how absent David Gyasi is from the trailers, but we don’t really see much of fellow crew member Wes Bentley either. There will always be someone to complain about something, of course, and while representation of minorities continues to be an issue in Hollywood, it’s difficult to imagine a solution that will please everyone all time time.

Take, for instance, the Bechdel Test, which has become a pretty big deal for an idea originating in an indie LGBT comic strip almost 30 years ago. Debates are frequent about whether or not the test is a proper measure of a movie’s representation of women. We took the test to task a while back with our list of 10 Famous Films That Surprisingly Failed the Bechdel Test, the top title being the female-character-driven Run Lola Run. And besides the argument that there are empowering movies for women that fail the test, further discussion in response to the test showed in our comments section. What about Asian-American representation? Or Latinos?

Regarding the women-specific debate, though, another response to its limitations has just come up in the form of a new rating at a British film festival, where an “F” is stamped on any program titles featuring a strong female protagonist (such as the upcoming Oscar-buzz drama Wild) or a high-ranking woman among the film crew, namely director or screenwriter (I guess that makes Guardians of the Galaxy count), or a focus on women’s issues (that seems to mainly be docs these days). Bath Film Festival producer Holly Tarquini acknowledges that the rating is a reaction to the Swedish rating inaugurated a year ago stamping an approving “A” to movies that pass the Bechdel Test. To The Guardian, she also specifically cites Gravity as a movie that doesn’t pass but has a great main characters who is a woman.

Apparently Interstellar just barely does pass (some people are claiming it doesn’t), and yet it features a balanced ratio of strong women scientist roles, as Neil deGrasse Tyson has celebrated. What it doesn’t pass, according to one feminist blogger, are two additional tests that aren’t as often brought up. One is the Vito Russo Test, which is recognized by GLAAD and is inspired by the Bechdel ruling, only it’s focused on the representation of LGBT characters. The second is, you could probably guess, the People of Color Test, which is just the Bechdel test for ethnic minorities – though there have been variations there to approve only characters who are positively represented, as many racially insensitive movies could still pass.

That brings up another point. In addition to the fact that movies can pass the Bechdel, Vito Russo and POC tests and not necessarily be acceptably politically correct (the Vito Russo test does at least try to avoid possibility of stereotypes and other negative possibilities), there’s also the fact that it doesn’t necessarily mean these movies are good. Bath Film Festival is obviously going to stand by the quality of its program and its 17 of 42 titles rated “F” (that’s 40%), but if the idea was to expand, and the Swedish cinemas are included in this consideration, wouldn’t moviegoers rather know specifically that it’s also a good movie that passes the new qualification, not just that it does?

Well, quality is much more subjective, and anyway if we’re to see this as equivalent to something like the MPAA ratings then whether the movie is good or not isn’t important. Just because a movie is lacking in violence and sex and language doesn’t mean it’s the best material for our children. There are a lot of badly made G-rated movies that might just stunt the development of kids with their terrible animation and stupid plots (should we rate movies based on how intellectually stimulating they are, too?). There are plenty of people who don’t think Gravity, Frozen and The Hunger Games are good movies, and there are plenty who think Sex and the City 2 is.

If the MPAA were to evaluate representation of women and minorities in movies and rate them accordingly, there could be a backlash from people who aren’t fond of political correctness and affirmative-action, but nothing about doing something like that would make Hollywood improve representations in either quality or quantity. They just might be rated more harshly. It’s equivalent, on a basic level, to the way smoking in movies has become a target for the MPAA. It would make more sense to do this for negative portrayals in general, as in violence or humor directed at women, minorities or LGBT characters in a clearly mean-spirited manner. Then again, movies like The Hangover trilogy are already rated R.

And anyway the ratings barely matter outside of some protective parents and the poor theater ushers who have to keep busting teens trying to get into horror movies. So, what about a less official manner of informing the public as they consider their moviegoing options? Should that be the responsibility of theater owners, or would it benefit them? Or is it enough to depend on bloggers who pay attention to that stuff and let the people judge for themselves what to see?

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.