Local filmmaker urges her industry to include more women in their stories.
The next time you shell out 14 bucks to see a movie on the big screen (or spend the night on your couch surfing Netflix, we don’t judge), ask yourself: where are the women? Less than 60 per cent of Hollywood productions currently pass the Bechdel Test, which asks: Does a film have 1) two female characters 2) with names 3) who talk to each other 4) about something other than a man? In 2015, films as varied as Hotel Transylvania 2, Sicario, and Ant-Man all failed this test, but Imogen Grace is working on that. She’s co-founded the Bechdel Bill, an initiative that encourages filmmakers to include dynamic female characters in their work.
An actress, producer, and writer working in the film industry for the last five years, Grace, 27, is a former student of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Her previous work experience includes Killer Films, LIFT Filmmentor, and “thousands of brunches served and coffees poured,” along with roles in web series, commercials, theatre productions, and film. Originally from Stratford, Ontario, Grace now lives in Toronto, where the Bechdel Bill has become a part-time job. “It’s currently a non-profit, and we’re in the process of deciding whether we should continue down that route or make it a business,” she says. “We believe that being sustainable and marketable is very important. We’re playing in a very large industry.” The Bechdel Bill has already been supported by producers on Orphan Black and actresses like Alysia Reiner, who plays former warden Natalie Figueroa on Orange is the New Black.
Our conversation with Grace—about visibility, creativity, and the enduring importance of Harriet the Spy—is below.
Torontoist: Some basics: what is the Bechdel Bill, and how did it get started?
Imogen Grace: The Bechdel Bill is a women-in-film movement. It asks filmmakers to pledge that 80 per cent or more of their films will pass the Bechdel Test. We had a really successful launch during TIFF at the Spoke Club with some pretty fantastic filmmakers present, and we’re super pumped to say that we’re going to be launching in the spring at Tribeca. We also plan to become a network and a resource. So offering workshops, conferences, corporate consultation, maybe even a film festival. We just want our fingers in all the pies!
That 80 per cent benchmark is pretty specific. Why not 75 per cent? Or 100 per cent?
Yeah! This took some serious thought and examination. We chose 80 per cent because that would mean four out of five films would be passing the Bechdel Test. We thought if we were living in a world where four out of five films—most films—had two women talking about something other than a man, we would be in a vastly different place. It would mean it was the norm, the way it’s currently the norm to see two men talking about something other than a woman in the vast majority of films. The 80 per cent number also looks at a collection of films, so if your next film doesn’t make it, and you’ve only made three films, we won’t kick you out. We keep saying it’s something to strive for. We’re not going to send guys with bats after you if you don’t hit 80 per cent. But we thought, what if we’re in an industry where everyone is at least going for it? That would be different than what we’re seeing now. In 2014, 55.4 per cent of top films passed.
We didn’t make it 100 per cent because we get that not every movie fits the test creatively. Because maybe there are only two characters, or one man stranded on an island, or a plague has hit and wiped out all the women. And even then, people: flashbacks!
What’s the response been like? I’d imagine that there might be a gender imbalance among people who support the bill.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The response is really what has Joella [Crichton, the Bechdel Bill’s co-founder] and I continuing to grow and think of next steps. We keep hearing someone wants this, people are asking for this. Can you do a workshop? Can you create a bill for women in post-production? Can you talk about new media like virtual reality? The response keeps giving me confidence to continue.
Yes, we have a gender imbalance in the bill. Our first male supporter just pledged. A fantastic guy named Jason Ward from Candy Factory Films. We met him when we went to NYC. He’s actually a distributor. Imagine! This guy willingly promises that 80 per cent of the films he buys are going to pass the Bechdel Test. I’m just so in awe of that. It’s really exciting. We know more men will step up. It’s just easier for some—note, some—women to pledge, because they’re already thinking about this when they write or select films. For some—note, some—men it can be a bigger jump. They’ve just started to think about it. But the market’s just going that way. With Netflix and Youtube, the whole system is changing, and people want to see real. I saw a male actor I know make a Facebook post calling the newest James Bond “misogyny across the globe.” Ha! But it just points to people being hip to this very old way of telling stories.
Our most common feedback is people being afraid of being creatively censored or limited. I understand that concern. I’m a filmmaker too, and creative freedom is important. Rather than limiting, I think of it as freeing. It releases us from thinking automatically. There’s nothing more exhilarating as a writer or filmmaker than doing something that’s new, something that puts us on edge and out of our comfort zone.
What do we gain by having more emphasis on female characters and women-driven stories in the media? Do we lose anything by shifting focus to those stories?
We gain more than we could ever know. We actually have no idea just how much it will change things. I personally believe that film and TV are the most powerful forms of media that we have, in terms of how many people consume it, how much money it generates, and how easily it is to consume. It really is universal. It becomes part of our lives and part of the way we tell stories, or identify things. For example, I gained all of my secret agent knowledge from Harriet the Spy. Always carry a mirror for checking over your shoulder and a pencil for stopping doors!
That’s just my preamble for how important film is. Filmmakers know how much it affects people—that’s why they decided to pour all of their sweat, blood and tears into getting into the industry. When we see women as characters with agency and as characters in their own right routinely being mysteriously left out, it’s like a bizarro episode of The Leftovers where millions of women have vanished and three-quarters of the population are men. But we know it’s not really like that! Women are humans, and humans make for great characters. Women’s stories deserve to be told, because they make you laugh and cry and cringe and all of that good story stuff. And it’s so strange and antiquated that they get told far less often.
I suppose people think “it’s not marketable”, or “not realistic.” We’re just here to blow that out of the water. People who make films know it’s not true, but when they go to put pen to paper or select their roster of films, all of a sudden women and people of colour are being left out. We’ve seen the same thing repeated so many times that it’s uncomfortable and risky to do something new, but when you do, it’s so wonderfully rewarded. Think Transparent, Orange is the New Black, and Master of None. If you look at what we’re asking for, it’s not a major overhaul. We can continue to tell all kinds of stories.
What’s been your favourite part of working on this project?
The best moments of what I do are when someone, particularly men who aren’t filmmakers, come up to me and say, “Now when I see a movie, I’m thinking are there two women talking to each other?” I really love that. That shows me people really care, and are interested, as long as they get a chance to hear about it.