'Use film to open discussions on gender equality'

Counteract the sexism rife in the movie industry by using films that tell women's stories to start a discussion with students

Holly Tarquini

Gender equality

It has been 100 years since women won the right to vote, and the issue of gender equality is as relevant as ever. Marking this landmark centenary and bringing the conversation into the classroom are important for two reasons: to remind students of the struggles faced by those who fought for rights we now take for granted, and to encourage them to consider the inequalities that still exist between the sexes and what can be done to redress them.  

Film allows us to do both. A discussion about the gender gap and the “celluloid ceiling” in the film industry, in which some of our students may one day seek employment, will bring home to them the extent to which gender inequality is still rife. While practices like unequal pay and the underrepresentation of women, both on screen and behind the camera, have been lambasted by actresses including Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett and Geena Davis, it’s not until one sees the following statistics that one realises how heavily the balance is weighted against women.

Since the first Academy Awards in 1929, just one woman has won the Oscar for best director. That was Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker. In 2014, just two of the top 100 films that came out of Hollywood were directed by women and just 12 per cent had female protagonists. Women filled less than a third of speaking roles and an analysis of 2,000 scripts showed they are generally given less dialogue. Frozen is a great example: released in 2013, it’s the first Disney film to have been directed by a woman and features two sisters. Yet the male characters still have more talking time than the female characters.

I invented the F-Rating to highlight women’s contribution and enable film fans to choose films that represent some kind of equality. It sits alongside a movie’s usual age classification and is given to films written or directed by a woman, those with a female screenwriter and director that also feature female-centric narratives receive a triple F-rating.

It’s an extension of the Bechdel test. This was devised by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel and asks whether a work of fiction includes at least two women talking about topics other than men. It’s amazing how many films fail this test.  Ensuring that young people are aware of the F-Rating – which is now used by the movie database IMDb, the film education charity Into Film, more than 40 cinemas and film festivals – and the reasons behind it, is a positive step in the fight for gender equality.

Active film-watching, using a film that’s directed by a woman and has three-dimensional female characters as a basis for guided discussion, review writing or other literary work, are also engaging ways of introducing the subject of gender equality. Good choices for primary aged students include Brave, Wadjda (the first film to ever come out of Saudi Arabia), Madeline and Whale Rider. For secondary, try Suffragette, Belle, In a World…, Lady Bird and The Breadwinner

Before showing a film, ask students what they feel would indicate that a film had been directed by a woman. After the screening, you could hold a discussion using the following guided questions:

  1. Whose perspective was the film told from? How might the story be different if told from another character’s point of view?
  2. What did you notice about the way female characters were represented in the film?
  3. How were the problems female characters faced caused by their gender? Were there moments when things would have gone differently if they were male?
  4. To what extent can film help to achieve gender equality? What advantages and limitations does film have in effecting change?

To encourage creativity, ask students to devise a pitch for a film that tells a story from the perspective of a woman who isn’t usually represented on film, making sure they emphasise what is unique about her story and why it is important to tell. Or ask students to research a significant figure or moment in women’s history, then draft the dialogue for a scene from this film, thinking about what historical information they need to include, what they want to show about the characters’ personality and how they can make the scene dramatic.

Film is a medium that all young people can relate to. Learning about female filmmakers and characters on screen who have fought for gender equality could inspire the next generation to take the positive action that is still needed to make that a reality.

Holly Tarquini is the executive director of FilmBath (previously Bath Film Festival) and founder of F-Rating

Free screenings of films featuring stories told about and by women will be on offer in the Year of the Woman strand of the Into Film Festival 2018 – the world’s largest free film festival for young people – running from 7-23 November in venues throughout the UK. For programme details and to book tickets, click here.

For information about Into Film or to set up a free Into Film Club for access to thousands of films and resources, click here.

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Holly Tarquini

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