The ISWYS Test: A further refined way of measuring the portrayal of women in cinema

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A few days ago I wrote a post on The ‘If She Was Your Daughter’ (ISWYD) Test, designed to measure positive portrayals of women in cinema. I’m guessing if you’re reading this then you read that but the original post is still there if you want to have a gander. Well, since it has been out there, there has been a small amount of discussion about it and I can now see that it needs some revision.

To recap very quickly, the original questions centred around how you would feel about a female film character if she were your own daughter. They ran as follows:

1. Is there a female lead?

2. If that character was your daughter would you be proud of her?

3. If your daughter did those things would you tell all your friends about it?

I think the test worked well for assessing films like Gravity which were terribly under served by the Bechdel Test but it depended too heavily on the moral position of the person applying it. This flaw was exacerbated by the particular nature of the parent and child relationship. There are certain things a person could do that you wouldn’t normally judge too harshly but if it is your little girl involved then your perspective invariably shifts. Look at An Education for example. Cary Mulligan’s central character is a fantastic example of a strong, independently minded yet realistically flawed female character and should be celebrated but if I were to apply my test, I might not be too thrilled with the whole ‘running off to Paris, having sex with an older man and mixing with petty criminals’ thing. Then there is Tilda Swinton in We Need To Talk About Kevin, perhaps not a role model but a great female character and the last person she needs passing judgement on her poor parenting skills is someone sitting in loco parentis.

So in an attempt to find a similar relationship but one that isn’t defined by an inherent desire to be hierarchically and hypocritically protective, I have changed it to the ‘If She Was Your Sister’ Test. I think something like Black Swan certainly fares better now and it might help me out in applying the test to The Wolf of Wall Street, which is something I’m struggling with at the moment.

Other problems with the test that have been pointed out are its inability to recognise the value of villainous characters and, related to this, the fact that it is too reductive. With this in mind I have changed the second question to:

If she was your sister would you respect her?

Respect is something you can give someone without being proud of them. I may think that Maleficent’s obsessive pursuit and eventual attempted murder of Sleeping Beauty is psychotic, and it certainly wouldn’t make me a proud sibling, but I think she deserves some respect. I would only lose respect for some one who is pathetic and damaged as they are, Maleficent, Annie Wilkes, Bellatrix LeStrange, Xenia Onatopp and Catwoman could never be described at pathetic. By the same rationale I would struggle to respect either Jennifer Lawrence or Amy Adams characters in American Hustle. The test in its new form can properly appreciate the femme fatale which, being a big fan of Ruth Wilson’s work in TV’s Luther, I am happier with.

The last question I think I will leave the same. This way a score of two may indicate a strong female character but full marks are reserved for truly inspirational women. The changes are subtle and it still depends too much on an individual’s point of view but that only serves to generate more discussion and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The three measures in the ISWYS Test Rating are then:

1. Is there a female lead?

2. If that character was your sister would you respect her?

3. If your sister did those things would you proudly tell all your friends about it?

It is clearly remains a far from perfect test and it will probably evolve further over time but I’m going to run with it for now.

Thank you to all those people who commented, I have enjoyed the debate.


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