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JWT Coffee & Donuts: Why role-playing women is gender-bias by another name: Shujoy Dutta

09-April-2018
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JWT Coffee & Donuts: Why role-playing women is gender-bias by another name: Shujoy Dutta

In the last decade odd in Hollywood, it’s become important to ask whether Films or TV serials pass the Bechdel test. Not just for campaigners of equal rights but also for seekers of a fair media, to reveal just how biased and stereotyped our gender views are. Also known as the Bechdel–Wallace test, the test is named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, in whose comic strip ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ it first appeared in 1985. Bechdel credited the idea to a friend, Liz Wallace, and to the writings of Virginia Woolf.
The Bechdel test requires a work of fiction to:
1. Feature at least 2 women who are named
2. And talk to each other about something other than a man
It isn’t supposed to be a measure of high-art, a lot of highly rated cinema and literature fail the test. What it does, is encourage us to see Men and Women in equal light, and of course exposes our biases, our shallow stereotypes etc. One would hope that at least in fiction we’d do a better job of representing women. However, only about 50% pass the test. Of those, writer Charles Stross notes that about half of the films that do pass the test, only do so because the women talk about marriage or babies.
This seemed to me an interesting tool to sniff out a bias. So I thought why not create a similar test for advertising. At best it would expose our biases towards how we thought of women and create healthier advertising. At worst, it would help in creating better end of the year stuff for Cannes. 
The Bechdel Advertising Test...
1. Should not show a woman protagonist who is a Mother, Girlfriend or Wife
2. The protagonist above should not be selling Beauty, Fashion or Accessories
3. And should not be a celebrity, who’s adding star Power
(There’s also a good reason, why the rules above makes no mention of models who’re used as drapery or arm-candy. This article is arguing well beyond that kind of objectification.)
On applying this test, nothing popped to mind immediately. Even when I looked at Effie winners, and Abby winners, celebrated advertising, few campaigns passed the test.
Sure, we need to use roles and stereotypes. I understand. How would we know who we were communicating to and create protagonists that appeal across the board, if we couldn’t identify them with some generic qualities, some stereotypical values. But the ease with which I can identify ads where men are just being themselves and not husbands, fathers or boyfriends, and the struggle to find ads that don’t show women only playing roles, perhaps reveals that our stereotypes are a little too stereotypical.
It’s not that women don’t desire cars, or phones, or pizzas, or even Insurance policies. But we’ve made a call on who the primary audience is, and reduced the secondary one to her supporting role. I suppose that couldn’t be helped. But what about categories where the audience is clearly women? I think these categories do a greater disservice. And of these, I think a special place in gender-biased hell is reserved for categories that speak to moms. The pressure advertising puts on moms being super-moms to the exclusion of her romantic life, her own hobbies, her friends is crazy.
It’s not just our ads, even when we paint pictures of the aspirational consumer – a cool mom is not someone who’s learning martial arts three times a week, or whose gang of friends is a riot, but a mom who makes Pasta on weekdays for her hungry kids.
For me, this is a huge indicator of our collective inability to imagine women as anything but beauty evangelists and role-players. And in an age where we find ourselves sharing and commenting on #metoo & #equalpay it’s high time we considered how we portray women as protagonists.
Personally, I’ve been guilty dozens of times for slipping into the easy gender stereotype, and casting every woman in a role, but recently while making an ad, quite by whim, we changed a gang of boys into a gang of girls, and the commercial became much, much cooler. Not just for being less gender biased, but because it was simply a new conversation. It was an eye-opener.
So for expedient reasons, if not more liberated gender-equal reasons, let’s consider the Bechdel test. We do a heck of a lot of Public Service advertising exhorting the world at large on how to treat women, but do little examination on the inside.

- Authored by Shujoy Dutta, VP and Executive Planning Director, JWT
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of exchange4media.com.

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