Bechdel Test and Symbolic Annihilation

Girls on Film in Partnership with Little White Lies day of panel discussions focusing on the representation of women in film. 

I attended two of the panel discussions of the Under Wire Festival: the Bechdel Test and Act Your Age.

I had heard of the gender bias Bechdel Test, but find it extraordinary that I have not come across the term Symbolic Annihilation in my readings about the representation of older women.

It is during a panel discussion on The Bechdel Test that Hannah Hamed mentioned it.

Bechdel Test To pass the Bechdel test a film has to have two women in it , who talk to each other about something besides a man. *

 Symbolic Annihilation: the Wikipedia definition:   “  the absence of representation in media. This term is usually applied to media criticism in the fields of feminism and Queer Theory to describe the ways in which the media promotes stereotypes and denies specific identities. Gaye Tuchman (1978) divided the concept of Symbolic Annihilation into three aspects: omission, trivialization and condemnation. ‘Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.’ “(Gerbner & Gross, 1976, p.182).

Of course the Bechdel test has its limitations. It is understood that the test does not   indicate the quality of the film but its gender bias. I feel that too many films about older women would fail it. The concept of Symbolic Annihilation with its three aspects, however can be a wonderful tool to assess a film overall.  Omission is easily demonstrated, condemnation and trivialisation may lead to some different views but this approach is far more useful than the ‘true to life’ or ‘feel good’ general pronouncements. 

In the Act Your Age discussion I was surprised that the films  primarily referred to were What Happened to Baby Jane, and Sunset Boulevard. Bette Davis in all her roles was praised. Kate Hardie condemned The Mother. Calendar Girls was briefly touched upon. From the floor It is Complicated was mentioned and  few women had seen the recent Gloria.  There were many more references to television series that I did not know. More generally ageist attitudes in the media,  and the challenges of ageing for women and specially actors were talked about. There were many diverse issues but there was not enough time in one hour to explore any of them in any depth.

I think I was the only woman over 70  years of age. My attempts at speaking knowledgeably  were as usual too passionate and probably counterproductive. It is a shame because this was the occasion for us older women to  present ourselves – old women in real life and on films – to an audience of young keen women.

*The Rule
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women characters in movies

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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