Elsa from the Disney musical movie Frozen

There is a simple test which determines ? on a very basic level ? whether a film offers a forward-thinking perspective on gender. Named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who pointed out the lack of such perspective in so much of Hollywood’s output, it requires just three simple things of a movie to allow it a pass. The film must contain more than one female character; these female characters must have a conversation with one another; and that conversation must be about something other than a man. Simple, right? One might expect the vast majority of films made after 1970 to pass with flying colours. Yet such an expectation would lead to disappointment.

Star Wars fails it. The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy does likewise. The Shawshank Redemption, which often appears at the top of ‘favourite film’ lists, also fails, as does Gladiator. And if you’re thinking that the last ten years have seen a wave of feminist enlightenment, here’s some sobering news: the Bechdel test proves too much for some of the biggest and most acclaimed films of 2013, including the Tom Hanks masterpiece Captain Phillips, blockbuster sequel Star Trek: Into Darkness and the Sandra Bullock-led Gravity. Granted, most of these fit into the action or fantasy genres, which traditionally attract a more male-dominated audience, but the test still raises a hugely uncomfortable question. What is our culture really saying about women, when its biggest stories of all ? those projected on to cinema screens ? still don’t recognise them as three-dimensional human beings?

Princess Merida

It gets ? from my perspective as a father at least ? even worse than that. When we look at children’s films, which help to shape the ideas, ideologies and value systems of literally billions of young minds, we find utter Bechdel carnage. From The Jungle Book to Toy Story, the movies that generations of children have grown up watching have presented male heroes who adventure proactively, and female characters who assist, attract or even passively attend the males. As a dad, but hopefully also just as a human who believes God made men and women to live as equals, this doesn’t sit at all right with me.

The culture in which our children are growing up still has a long way to go when it comes to the representation, depiction and role-modelling of women. From gender-segregated toy departments to the continued existence of The Sun’s page three, we’re still bringing girls ? and boys ? up in a world that stereotypes and arguably dehumanises them. So what needs to change? And what role does the Church ? God’s great instrument for restoration, justice and re-humanisation ? have to play?

Toy apartheid and objectification

My six-year-old daughter, Naomi, is anything but a stereotypical girl. Refusing to be defined as either ‘pink-and-girly’ or a tomboy, she runs fast, climbs trees and plays football, yet also plays with princess dolls and names Cinderella as her favourite film. My wife and I love and encourage these attitudes, but we also worry about how easy they’ll be to maintain. If the prevailing culture subtly (or otherwise) still pushes children towards predetermined gender interests, colour schemes, roles and aspirations, how easy is it to stand against the tide?

A casual wander into our local toy shop reveals two distinct ranges ? exciting action and construction toys aimed at boys, lurid pink ponies, anatomically impossible dolls and replica catering equipment for girls. Nowhere is this more disappointing than in the Lego section, which offers my sons the fabulous joys of an Intergalactic Star Wars Star Destroyer, and my daughter a ‘Lego Friends Mia’s Bedroom' playset. For boys, the universe; for girls, the home. The toy shop reveals a value system that we’ve told ourselves we’ve progressed beyond.

But of course, deep down we knew we hadn’t moved on. If you turn to page three of The Sun newspaper (don’t!) you’ll see all the evidence you need for that: an all-but naked woman, objectified for the amusement of millions of men. It’s such a part of the established British cultural furniture that it’s still managed to escape truly damning critique, yet that’s what it deserves, and not just from lobbyists. The Sun is helping to define the gender imbalance of our society, and not just through a single daily item; when athlete Oscar Pistorius shot model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp last February, their front page featured a glamour shot of Steenkamp pouting in a bikini. Children and young people see these things; they help to shape their view of the world they’re emerging into.

Objectification isn’t limited to the media, of course. The undisputed biggest chart hit of 2013 was Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, a song loved by many young people across the UK. The controversial lyrics of the song concern, among other subjects, rough sex and misogynistic violence. The male performers involved literally snigger their way through a song ? and video ? which tries to re-establish a prehistoric attitude to sex and relationships. Like the toy shop, like The Sun, it’s yet another contributing ingredient to the cultural cocktail that our younger generations are imbibing. Are we really ok with them drinking that stuff? 

The Swedish example

These objections aren’t new. Campaigners, lobbyists, journalists and bloggers are making a louder and louder noise about gender imbalance, but the majority of those voices come from a feminist perspective, and the difficult truth is that this isn’t a world that feminists can change on their own (not least because it’s mostly still controlled by men). Men and women of all ages and political affiliations need to agree in their heads that change is needed, and then put that into practice through consumer and other decisions. If change is going to happen, it has to be desired on a grand scale.

That’s exactly what has already happened in Sweden, traditionally one of the world’s most progressive nations, and no slouches when it comes to restoring gender balance. It’s the home of Top Toy, a toy shop chain which equates to our Toys R Us stores, and which publishes gender neutral catalogues featuring girls with Nerf guns and little boys feeding baby dolls. ‘With the new way of thinking about gender,’ says Top Toy spokesman Jan Nyberg, ‘a toy is not a boy or girl thing; it’s a toy for children.’ That new way of thinking is government-sanctioned guidance towards national gender neutrality. Another fascinating way in which that’s being interpreted? Four Swedish cinemas are currently using ? you’ve guessed it ? the Bechdel test to classify the films they show.

A Swedish-inspired Church

Sweden is demonstrating that major change in this heavily ingrained area of culture is possible. Yet if we take ourselves seriously as agents of justice and generally putting things back the way God intended, then the Church too needs to be at the forefront of challenging gender bias and segregation.

This offers a major challenge to our practice. If we’re going to seriously lead the way in modelling gender neutrality, then we need to analyse and ask questions of every element of church life. For example:

Children’s ministry. What kinds of groups do we run, and do we allow gender stereotyping to creep in? Are girls only offered more ‘sensitive’, arty activities while the boys are always encouraged to run around and wrestle?

Youth ministry. Are girls and boys treated differently or given unequal opportunities? Do the girls get together to talk about self-esteem issues while the boys discuss leadership? Do we allow careless, gender-loaded language to go unchallenged, or are we intentional about discussing these issues with young people?

Worship. Are we allowing certain musical roles in the church to become gender-specific (eg male leader, female backing singers)? And if so, why has that happened?

Teaching. Regardless of whether your church allows women to preach and teach, does it speak respectfully of them, as full human beings made in the image of God, and with as much of a role to play in his mission as men? Do sexist jokes or stereotypes creep in?

In each of these cases, and more, it may be that your church is doing well in modelling gender neutrality and equality. Indeed, developing an awareness and sensitivity to these issues is half the battle, and once achieved, can set us on the road to leading the way in this area.

If we work towards gender neutrality, we create an environment that gives the power back to children

Girls and boys are different, of course. I’m not suggesting that we should somehow strive to eliminate the concept of gender difference. But who should choose what kind of people those children want to be ? an already biased, sexualised, consumerist and ultimately broken culture, or the children themselves? If we work towards gender neutrality, we create an environment that gives the power back to the latter.

Snow hope

This month I took my daughter to see the new Disney animation Frozen, a film which seems to reveal that for that studio at least, the penny has finally dropped. With two of the lead characters both being female, it not only passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, but like 2012’s brilliant Brave, it also gives girls an on-screen heroine who is taking control of her own destiny.

Princess Elsa

A subversion of the classic fairy tale The Snow Queen, it tells the story of two very different ‘Disney princesses’, Elsa and Anna. The former, cursed with a dubious ability to create ice and snow with her fingertips, runs away after her coronation as queen and accidentally plunges her kingdom into constant winter. The latter sets off on a quest to find her sister, end the winter and restore their relationship. So while the story involves the odd romantic subplot, there’s no doubt that it’s about themes of friendship, family, bravery and redemption.

My daughter was captivated, just as she had been by Brave ? the story of a Scottish princess determined to be more than just a prince’s bride. Here are two big slices of culture telling her that it’s ok to both be feminine and an adventurer; that you can outsmart the boys, and that the greatest calling of your life isn’t to become someone’s trophy wife.

Frozen is a glimmer of hope, then, that we’re moving in the right direction. Yet at the same time, the paradigm of page three and ‘Blurred Lines’ remains. I’m determined that my daughter will grow up in a world that recognises her as a human being who can choose to be whoever she wants to be. Moreover, I’m determined that my sons will grow up to be a proactive part of that world too. To see that happen, all of us ? not just feminist activists or the usual players ? are going to have to play our part. The change in attitude starts in our churches; it starts in us. 

Bechdel blues

The Bechdel test uses a simple rule to determine whether a film is gender-balanced. Here are four influential examples of 2013 films for children and young people which fail it.

Monsters University (U)
Despite operating in a universe of infinite possibilities, the blockbusting Pixar prequel features an entire college full of female characters, none of whom have a conversation with each other about anything other than men.

Planes (U)
Considering they’re not human, it seems baffling that the flying cast of this animation are overwhelmingly male. Worse than that, the script even uses ‘ladies’ as a derogatory term for slow flyers, an idea which belongs in the same dustbin as the phrase, ‘you throw like a girl’

Ender’s Game (12A)
It’s a film set in the future ? but this vision of it doesn’t see gender balance on the horizon. The women in it seldom talk to each other, and on the rare occasions they do, it’s all about the character they hope will save humanity; a boy, naturally.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (12A)
Tolkien’s source book contains no significant female characters, but since one was invented for this film (along with half of the plot), that’s no excuse for not finding another. Or just another minor female character to have a conversation about something other than the men…