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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Where Are the Women? suggested scoring criteria [updated]

Mon Nov 17 2014: This is the form I propose to use to rank and rate films on their representation of women. See completed samples for Interstellar, Nightcrawler, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, and The Maze Runner. (These pages are not behind the paywall and won’t count against your weekly pageview limits.)

Please donate to my Kickstarter to support this as a regular feature for part or all of 2015.

Positive scores will be shown in green, negative scores in red. Questions that don’t apply to a particular film will be grayed out, and a score of zero shown. (The sole exception is the final question about all-male environments; the standard score of zero is meant to show a neutrality toward such stories. I don’t intend to unfairly punish films that could legitimately be told only in such situations.) Scores shown here are what I propose to apply to each question.

I have tried to find a reasonable balance between acknowledging that there are some stories to be told that do not feature a significant representation of girls and women and stories that unfairly exclude them. Please add any suggestions for changes or additions to this list (criteria as well as scores) in comments.

Mon Dec 08 2014: Some significant additions. Please keep your suggestions coming!



+25
Is there a female protagonist?
+5
Is she nonwhite?

-10
Could the protagonist have been female without significantly impacting the film as a whole? (for a film with a male protagonist)

+10
Is there a female character with significant screen time who grows, changes, and/or learns something over the course of the story? (for an ensemble cast, or a film with a male protagonist)
+2
Is she nonwhite?
-5
Is she the only woman in an otherwise all-male ensemble?

+5
Is there a female character with significant screen time in a position of authority?
+2
Is she nonwhite?
+5
More than one (of any race)?

-5
Is there a female character with significant screen time who dresses less appropriately for the environment than her male counterparts do?
-5
More than one?

-5
Is there a female character with significant screen time who bares her breasts?
-5
More than one?

-10
Is there a female character with significant screen time who appears fully nude?
-10
More than one?
+8
Does a man appear fully nude?
+8
More than one?

+1
Is there a female character with insignificant screen time in a position of authority?
+1
More than one?

-1
Is there a female character with insignificant screen time who dresses less appropriately for the environment than her male counterparts do?
-1
More than one?

-1
Is there a female character with insignificant screen time who bares her breasts?
-1
More than one?

-10
Is there a female character with insignificant screen time who appears fully nude?
-10
More than one?

-10
Are women consistently more nude or otherwise more exposed than the male characters?

-10
Is there a scene set in a strip club for no good reason?

-5
Is femininity used as a joke (ie, a man crossdressing for humorous intent) in passing?
-20
In a way essential to the movie?

-5
Is a woman introduced ass-first?

-5
Is a woman or women (who aren’t even insignificant characters) used as decorative objects/set dressing?
-5
Does this include breasts bouncing in slo-mo?
-5
Are the breasts bare?
+10
Is there a female villain or antagonist?
-20
Is her villainy/badness defined primarily by her gender (ie, is it related to motherhood, or is it of a sexual nature)?

+2
Is there a woman whose role could easily have been played by a man?
+2
More than one?

-5
Is there a female character whose primary goal is romantic (to get married, enter into a longterm relationship with a man, etc)?
+6
Is the object or potential object of her affection and attraction a woman or women?

-5
Is there a female character whose primary goal is to become a mother?

-5
Is there a female character who is primarily defined by her emotional and/or sexual relationship with a man or men?

-10
Does a man police or attempt to police a woman’s sexual agency?

-10
Is there a female character who is sexually manipulated or abused by a male protagonist as a way to advance his story?

-5
Is there a female character who is primarily defined by her emotional or biological relationship with a child or children?

-5
Is there a woman who is kidnapped (either onscreen or off) whose kidnap motivates a male protagonist?
-5
Is there a woman who dies (either onscreen or off) whose death motivates a male protagonist?
-5
Is there a woman who is raped (either onscreen or off) whose rape motivates a male protagonist?
-10
Is there a woman who is (two out of three) kidnapped and/or raped and/or murdered (either onscreen or off) whose fate motivates a male protagonist?
-15
Is there a woman who is kidnapped, raped, and murdered (either onscreen or off) whose death motivates a male protagonist?

-5
Is a woman paired romantically with a man old enough to be her father?
-10
Or even her grandfather?

-10
Is there a woman who is mostly pretty awesome and perfect who is present to support a man improving himself?

-10
Is there a manic pixie dream girl?

-10
Is there a hooker with a heart of gold?

-3
Is a dead mother mentioned?
+3
Is a dead father also mentioned?

0
Does the film take place in a primarily all-male environment (ie, prison, historical military)?
-10
Did it need to? (points deducted if not)

WILDCARD: Is there anything either positive or negative in the film’s representation of women not already accounted for here? (points will vary)


SCORE: 0

BOTTOM LINE: [some brief comments here]

Read my review: [link]


posted in:
where are the women
  • RogerBW

    There’s obviously a lot of subjectivity (“for no good reason”), but I think that’s inevitable.

    I’m not convinced by the lesbian romcom exemption; I think romcoms demean women even if they’re about catching a woman rather than catching a man. But I’m interested to see how it works out.

  • I think we know why the vast majority of scenes set in strip clubs are set in strip clubs: to get some naked breasts onscreen.

    Any depiction of a lesbian in a major film is going to be a big step in the right direction. A mainstream lesbian rom-com would be an even bigger step.

  • RogerBW

    Indeed. (Or because the director is Jesus Franco, but that’s probably a special case of the same thing.)
    (Supported Kickstarter. Hope this works.)

  • Right. So, *Horrible Bosses 2* tonight made me realize that something needs to be added to the scoring:

    Is a woman or women (who aren’t even insignificant characters) used as decorative objects/set dressing? (-5)
    Does this include breasts bouncing in slo-mo? (-5)
    Are the breasts bare? (-5)

  • More additions/changes:

    Changing the rape/murder section to include kidnappping! Always a fun and exciting way to get a man to spring into action:

    Is there a woman who is kidnapped (either onscreen or off) whose kidnap motivates a male protagonist? (-5)
    (which changes the next question to this)
    Is there a woman who is (two out of three) kidnapped and/or raped and/or murdered (either onscreen or off) whose fate motivates a male protagonist? (-10)
    (which necessitates a new final question)
    Is there a woman who is kidnapped, raped, *and* murdered (either onscreen or off) whose death motivates a male protagonist? (-15)

    Is a woman introduced ass-first? (-5)

    Does a man police or attempt to police a woman’s sexual agency? (-10)

    Is a woman paired romantically with a man old enough to be her father? (-5)
    Or even her grandfather? (-10)

    Wildcard: Is there anything either positive or negative in the film’s representation of women not already accounted for here? (points will vary)

    And I lightened the color of the grayed-out questions to make the ones that do apply pop more.

  • Added to the criteria:

    Is femininity used as a joke (ie, a man crossdressing for humorous intent) in passing? (-5)
    In a way essential to the movie? (-20)

  • LaSargenta

    I think for the “in a way essential to the movie” it should be made explicit that it is “Is femininity used as a joke (ie, a man crossdressing for humorous intent) in a way essential to the movie”. Otherwise, Priscilla Queen of the Desert might (in someone’s eyes, not yours) seem like a candidate for -20.

  • You really find that confusing? Anyone else?

  • RogerBW

    I think that people who want to find things to nitpick will do so; there’s no point trying to make the system proof against barrack-room lawyers as long as someone of good intent can readily work out what’s meant.

  • Danielm80

    I agree. If you look hard enough, you can find exceptions to a number of the rules on the list. A filmmaker who’s talented enough can make use of old tropes without relying on sexist stereotypes.

    Tootsie is a pretty decent cross-dressing comedy.

    Kathy Bates has a very funny topless scene in About Schmidt.

    I haven’t seen Mama, but MaryAnn’s review suggests that it deals with motherhood without turning the characters into clichés.

    Some of the movies may be flawed or sexist in other ways, of course.

    I think most of the regular commenters here take for granted that MaryAnn will use her judgment and add or subtract points when necessary. It is her scoring system, after all. A disclaimer of some sort might be useful, because there are people on Kickstarter who’ve never visited this site, but I think her scoring method will become obvious the first time there’s an exception to the rule.

  • LaSargenta

    I don’t personally. I just spend much of my workday writing drawing notes and specifications that are meant to be utterly impossible to interpret in any way except the one I (and my firm) actually want on behalf of our clients. Roger and Daniel both address the reality of the readership here and on kickstarter.

    Yours, a pre-emptive anti-nitpicker.

  • Tootsie is a pretty decent cross-dressing comedy.

    But this ranking system isn’t meant to determine if a film is good or bad, merely how it represents girls and women. *Tootsie* might be a great film, but it’s still about a man.

  • I appreciate your nitpicking. :-)

  • Danielm80

    I was responding to your comment here

    http://www.flickfilosopher.com/2008/05/daily-list-7-good-things-sydney-pollack-did-at-the-movies.html

    in which you referred to the “men-who-get-women thing” in your description of the movie. Sorry if I misread the comment.

  • And that’s a good thing about the movie. And it might even make the film feminist. But it’s another example of “People listen when men say something that women have been saying all along.”

    Idea for the future: I apply these ratings to older films. Let’s see how this Kickstarter goes.

  • Jurgan

    Sounds like Taken just lost some points.

  • Oh, *Taken* was in the front of my mind when developing some of these criteria…

  • LaSargenta

    I’ve been trying to figure out how Sucker Punch could be scored here. Problem is, tho’, that I’ve not seen it all the way through. Wondering, too, if I’d add or subtract points for every occurrence of an item, or just every occurrence of a character…

  • I’d have to watch the film again, and I’m not sure I want to do that. But if there’s enough support for this project, maybe I will.

  • RogerBW

    It does occur to me that there’s probably mainstream porn which is less degrading to women on this scale (through not having a plot in the first place) than some of the films here.

  • Jurgan

    Keep in mind that a test like this is neither necessary nor sufficient for a film to be feminist in and of itself. Like the Bechdel Test, it will be most valuable when viewing an aggregate of movies.

  • Jurgan

    Regarding the question of female protagonists: How would you score a movie with an ensemble cast that’s evenly divided between men and women?

  • RogerBW

    I certainly agree.

    I just think that it says some pretty unimpressive things about some of the films that are arriving in the theatres these days.

  • GeeksAreMyPeeps

    One could support the Kickstarter at the $100 level and have an official score calculated

  • LaSargenta

    I already did and I’ve got my request planned. I’m taking “classic” at face value and am thinking of Dancing Lady or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Actually, if I had the money, I’d be sending in a band and a list to go with it.

  • Bingo.

  • That’s accounted for near the top with this:

    +10
    Is there a female character with significant screen time who grows, changes, and/or learns something over the course of the story? (for an ensemble cast, or a film with a male protagonist)

    -5
    Is she the only woman in an otherwise all-male ensemble?

    In ensembles, there are still typically only one or two characters that change or grow over the course of a film. If one of them is a women, points!

  • AndyP

    I feel like the penalty for multiple partial/full nude women should be a bit more severe for repeated instances- particularly if it is the protagonist or a supporting character. I recognize this might be a bit extreme, but I think there is a difference between catching a character nude for a moment that -might- make sense and creating the environment where female nudity is the norm.

  • I’ll think about this. Thanks.

  • I’ve made some significant additions to the criteria.

    Per AndyP in comments here, I’ve added a test about consistent female nudity when men are not consistently nude.

    I changed a few queries about “supporting female character” to simply “female character,” because those queries could apply to female protagonists, too.

    I’ve added a query about a female villain (which is a good thing) but will take points off if her villainy is primarily defined by her gender. (A “Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction” type villain would lose points, for instance.)

    Per @maxthegirl, I’ve added queries addressing whether a female protagonist and/or major supporting character is nonwhite.

  • LaSargenta

    Glad to read that. Just this weekend, I found myself thinking of Daughters of the Dust and how seeing that movie was another little tremor in my life (that one in ’91). Was wondering what Julie Dash had been up to (I live under a rock, as you know) and THEN thought ‘how’s MAJ accounting for the near total absence of women of color from the mainstream film biz?’

  • As I told Max on Twitter, the lack of women (and men) of color is a whole other huge issue. We could have a similar test for nonwhite people onscreen. But now there are extra points for significant female characters who aren’t white.

  • RogerBW

    I suspect that one project at a time makes sense. On the other hand, considering the racial component in portrayals of women certainly seems worthwhile; I certainly look at early Schwarzenegger films differently now that I’ve noticed how often there’s a non-white woman as the heroine/prize for him.

  • LaSargenta

    Any chance of updating the samples with all these edits? (I ask this with trepidation…I know how much time all this takes.)

  • David

    I hope you’re not including Commando because the movie makes no indication of any romantic attraction on the part of Rae Dawn Chong. Also, that movie was awesome!

  • RogerBW

    I think it’s a great film too, but do you really think those closing shots are meant to signify anything other than “family unit being created”?

  • David

    Well, where else were they going to put her character? She was the one who flew the plane.

  • David

    “Is there a female character with significant screen time who dresses
    less appropriately for the environment than her male counterparts do?”

    It absolutely drives me nuts when I see women in the jungle wearing tank tops. She’d get eaten alive by mosquitoes!

  • LaSargenta

    Unless she had thick mud slathered over the bare bits. Then there’s scrapes from vegetation and snake bites…

  • Off the top of my head, I don’t think it changes any of them. (There’s a nonwhite woman in *Mockingjay,* but she’s not a significant character.)

  • I don’t know what this means.

  • Awesome movies can fail to represent women well. Shitty movies can do a great job of representing movie. This isn’t about quality. But things are so bad right now that it would be a step forward for us to get a slew of shitty movies about women ever year, the same way we get a slew of shitty movies about men.

  • Bluejay

    There’s a nonwhite woman in *Mockingjay,* but she’s not a significant character.

    True. That actor is Patina Miller, who won a Tony for her electrifying leading role in Pippin. As a fan, it’s frustrating to see amazing performers like her play minor roles onscreen that barely scratch the surface of their talent.

  • LaSargenta

    How about a point deduction for the absence of women of color when there doesn’t have to be? (ie: a movie all about the court at Versailles maybe would only have white characters, for example…but, still, even there, I’ll bet there were women of color.)

    Yeah, I know, this is getting bigger all the time.

  • I wouldn’t be qualified to make such a distinction in historical situations… and, basically, there’s barely a single movie where that wouldn’t be true.

  • Chris Warner

    Would inversion of any of the kidnapped/murdered/raped plot-line items be worth positive points? I watched Eden Lake the other day, and in it the male member of the protagonist couple is captured first, and motivates the female character to escape, fight back, be clever, etc.

    Of course, it’s a horror film, so things don’t go good for anyone, but it’s on my mind.

    Edit: also conspicuous absence of a rape plot in a move that could have *easily* made use of it.

  • Depending on the film, that could be dealt with as a wildcard. There certainly aren’t enough films that invert this to make it worth its own listing in the criteria.

  • LaSargenta

    Nope, there aren’t. I recently watched In The Blood which does reverse that trope, but the movie was so, so bad on so many other counts …

  • MinstrelOfC

    I do quite like this plan, and I hope the Kickstarter succeeds!

    One thing I’ve been mulling over with the presentation of criteria is that it can be a bit hard to navigate; on my screen, at least, there’s a fair bit of scrolling up and down to see what the relevant scores are, making it difficult to get a quick overall impression (except the score at the end, of course)

    With that in mind I threw up a quick, very very dirty jsfiddle as an idea of how to summarize a film, but still make the details “discoverable”.

    Bars – green for good, red for bad, the wider and brighter the bar, the more it’s affecting the score. (scores that don’t apply are shown small, in black)

    Mouseover the bar (and wait for a second or two), and the reason for that bar is given.

    It should be somewhat self-explanatory, “All Categories” at the top (which looks like a mess, but no movie would have everything be relevant, we hope), and I converted the 4 sample reviews:

    http://jsfiddle.net/yduhpwvn/1/

    (again, don’t use this on a ‘real’ site, the css at least will break everything)

  • I’m sorry, but I don’t see how that’s more enlightening.

    Can you post a screengrab of what my listing looks like on your screen?

  • MinstrelOfC

    Sure thing:
    http://imgur.com/ow2OcwT
    http://imgur.com/V5LwPnp
    http://imgur.com/cwlsfwb

    It looks fine, the only general suggestion is that because in the sample scorings all the criteria are listed, and the ones that don’t apply are grayed out, that means that it covers more than two “screens” of scrolling to read the relevant five to nine sentences.

    Perhaps another way to reduce the scrolling needed would be to either hide the criteria that don’t apply to the movie being scored (something like: http://imgur.com/Cw5gj31 – from the Mockingjay one), or maybe just group them together, and have the rest of them listed below?

    Of course, no one else seems to have mentioned it, so it’s quite possible that everything’s fine as-is, and people like the exploration of seeing everything that doesn’t apply to a film mixed in with the parts that do apply…

  • 2jux

    I’m curious for your opinion, what would you think of a film which had a man who is kidnapped (either onscreen or off) whose kidnap motivates a female protagonist?

    Is that moving in the right direction or is it still bad because it introduces a double standard.

    Love your project, by the way!

  • Danielm80

    I’m curious what sort of score Double Jeopardy would get. Would it earn only half the number of points because the husband is just pretending to be dead? It would definitely lose points for the opening scenes, in which Ashley Judd is naked for several minutes straight. I think it would get an incomplete score, because no one could make all the way to the end of that dreadful movie.

  • AJ Sikes

    Do you want to include gratuitous “booty shots” similar to the “bouncing breasts” as window dressing?

  • AJ Sikes

    Perhaps nitpicking, but what about “WOC” (women of color) rather than “nonwhite” to designate these characters? The latter normalizes “whiteness” from a linguistic standpoint.

  • AJ Sikes

    I think you may have another stretch goal here :)

    Rate and review films for their portrayal of POC, both male and female.

    Seriously, the cast list for Exodus is just offensive. White actors play power characters. Actors of color play slaves and villains.

    In dynastic Egypt.

  • Hiding the criteria that don’t apply is a good suggestion. I’ll see if I can make that work. Thanks.

  • What double standard would such a film introduce?

  • I’ll think about it. Thanks.

  • Does it? Or does it simply reflect the fact that for Hollywood, white has been the default?

  • That’s not a stretch goal. That’s a whole other project. As a white person, I’m not sure I’m the one who should be doing that. It would be missing a perspective that I could not bring.

  • Evan

    For nudity, why is women -10 and men +8. I get that you’re after some balance, but it doesn’t seem balanced if it’s still -2 for both men and women being nude. Is there a reason for this imbalance? Given how rarely men are presented fully nude, it feels unfair for the ratings to automatically be biased, even if the nudity is balanced.

    It also feels odd that the rating system on nudity could lead gang-bangs to be better rated than sapphic erotica. Context feels important to me.

    Interesting project otherwise.

  • Jester

    Commenting late (it’s been several months since I visited the site) but it’s interesting that there are FAR more ways a movie can go wrong on this list than right and that in itself is going to break the ratings for a lot of movies with very strong female characters.

    For example, if I’m following your criteria correctly, I believe “Maleficent” would receive a rating of either +1 or -9. Even “Frozen” only rates about +16 or so (it gains a ton of points for Elsa and then loses the majority of them to Anna).

    That said “Is there a female character who is sexually manipulated or abused by a male protagonist as a way to advance his story?” should have the word “sexually” removed.

  • Jester

    Aheh, and you’re going to have to either define “female protagonist” a lot more broadly or include another category for female characters driving the story. Saying “Interstellar” doesn’t have a female protagonist is ridiculous. By the back half of the movie, Murph is driving both the narrative and the story’s through-line. Cooper becomes almost incidental, just a probe providing data to her.

  • there are FAR more ways a movie can go wrong on this list than right

    And that reflects the state of movies at the moment. My great hope is that ten years from now, these criteria will no longer apply because women will be far better represented in movies.

  • Murph is not the protagonist. It’s very clear that this is Cooper’s story.

  • should have the word “sexually” removed.

    Why? Characters frequently manipulate other characters in fiction. The problem here is when women are defined solely by their gender in ways that men are not.

  • Jester

    You’re confusing the terms “protagonist” and “focal character.” Cooper is indeed the focal character: he’s the one that has our focus and where the story and action beats are coming from. And in the early part of the movie he’s also the protagonist, but a story’s protagonist can and does change over the course of a story. Who is the protagonist of The Lord of the Rings? Who is the protagonist of the Game of Thrones series? Or of the Ken Follett Century series of books? It can and does change.

    The protagonist is the one that gets into conflicts and drives the narrative. And as soon as we meet Jessica Chastain, Murph becomes the story’s protagonist. She’s the one driving the narrative forward from that point on. She’s explaining why what Cooper is doing matters. And throughout the movie, she’s the person the audience is expected to identify with and care about. You might say Cooper is too and I’d mostly agree with you, except that Cooper’s tale never really finds a conclusion and he doesn’t have much of a character arc (which is fair since the story takes place in only a few weeks time from his perspective). But Murphy definitely has both of those things.

    As I said above, by the end of the movie, Murph is firmly driving the story’s through-line. “My family is here to visit me,” she tells Cooper on her death bed, making it clear that — very ironically — that group does not include him. She’s very much in control here and it’s Cooper seeking her approval, not the other way around. Once again, Murphy is controlling and deciding the conflict. She’s your protagonist.

  • Jester

    Well, my point with this one is that even in a movie with a female protagonist doing all the right things, it’s not going to take much to drive the ranking to a negative number.

    If that’s the point you want to make — that nearly ever movie portrays women poorly — then I guess I understand that. But you’re more or less ensuring that outcome even if that’s not your point. There are gonna be a zillion movies with negative numbers for ratings and only a tiny handful with positive numbers.

  • Jester

    Hm. It’s an interesting point and really comes down to how you define “sexually”, then.

    To use “Frozen” as an example, Anna comes off looking very dumb and naive early in the movie because she is easily manipulated by Hans. I think you would agree that this is a bad thing for the portrayal of women in movies. But sex never enters into it. Therefore, does “Frozen” get the -10 for that? I think it should.

  • Bluejay

    Hans’ deception doesn’t depend on Anna being a woman, but on her being young and naive. And really Hans fools everyone — he really does come across as a good guy to the entire kingdom (and to the audience) until he explicitly reveals that he’s not. And he’s not a male protagonist who needs Anna to advance his story; he’s a secondary villain who advances Anna and Elsa’s story. I don’t think Anna is portrayed badly or “reflects poorly” on women at all.

    In general, I think the burden of “representing women” would be lifted if our stories simply had more women in them. That way if a female character is dumb and naive, it’s just because that character is dumb and naive, while other women in the story are all clearly different types of people.

  • You’re confusing the terms “protagonist” and “focal character.”

    I’ve never heard the term “focal character,” but it sounds a lot like “protagonist” to me.

    Here’s how you define “protagonist”: Which character has the biggest arc over the course of the story? Who changes and grows the most? Who learns the most about him/herself along the way? *That* person is your protagonist, and that applies most to Cooper in *Interstellar.*

    Everything Murph does contributes to and supports Cooper’s much bigger arc.

    Protagonists can change across a series of books, as you mention, sure. And maybe across a series of movies (less often). But they hardly ever change across a single movie, which is more akin to a short story or novella than even a single novel, never mind a dozen of them.

  • It doesn’t take much for a film to get into positive numbers. This is very much like the Bechdel Test in the sense that it is very easy to get a positive score, and yet many movies will fail to do so. I am seeking to give a concrete and clear structure to Hollywood’s failures to adequately represent women. There is *no question* that this is the current situation. So yes, there are going to be very few films that get positive numbers, because that is the reality.

  • But Anna *is* very naive! That’s one of the points of the film: that parents are not doing their daughters any favors by sheltering them.

    It’s not a bad thing to represent women as imperfect. No one is looking for women to be depicted as flawless and superhuman. That would be awful, and completely contrary to the improvement of women’s representation onscreen. We need to see women as fully human, as *people,* with all the same flaws and imperfections as men.

  • Sexualized female nudity is so prevalent in mainstream films that even having an equal amount of male nudity in a film can’t quite compensate for that at this moment in time. I hope this will not be the case in the future.

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