Fiction, that pleasurably confusing realm of true lies, is a difficult place for the righteous. And cinema — working with real people and spaces, yet close to the experience of dreaming — is the most difficult. The funny thing about visual or literary fictions is that they work best when they provoke as well as elude judgment; or when they ask to suspend one kind of judgment while compelling another. Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, for instance, is a brilliantly unsettling film. “But how would it affect an actually disabled viewer?” a non-disabled viewer might wonder uneasily. Yet, by asking this question, is the non-disabled viewer not making assumptions about the sensitivities of a disabled viewer that might, in turn, end up being unfair to the latter? Why, for that matter, should disabled viewers not be open to being rudely unsettled about their own condition, in the same way as non-disabled viewers might be? Is that not what equality is all about? So, when some cinemas in Sweden start rating the films they show in terms of how the films portray women, it is time to question again the relationship between quality, equality and correctness.
These Swedish cinemas have started giving an ‘A’ rating to films that have at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. This way of rating films comes from a feminist comic strip of the mid-Eighties, in which one of the characters confesses to making her choice of films to watch according to these criteria. The Swedish cinemas do not, of course, censor the films that fail to get an ‘A’. They simply try to make viewers — together with film-makers, actors, producers and distributors — think about what they are watching (or not watching) and why. Disconcertingly, most great, good and commercially successful films, old and new, miss an ‘A’, making the list of A-rated films rather forgettable, bordering on intolerable. (This would possibly be true for writing as well, if writers were put to the same test.) In fact, the Swedes would have to banish all of Bergman from their non-sexist A-list. Even that most famous of conversations between two women in Autumn Sonata is about Chopin, whom mother and daughter fight over as they take turns playing him on the piano.
Most films and books that work for many do badly when it comes to two women talking about things other than men. Unfortunately, this is as true for the classics as for trash (another distinction, like that between ‘U’ and ‘non-U’, which has fallen out of repute today). Think of Shakespeare (what is to be done with The Taming of the Shrew?), Woody Allen and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, all of whom happen to be men. What makes them work in spite of their political incorrectness is — thankfully — a complex, and sometimes inexplicable, thing. The results of meddling too much with it are, at best, dubious, and at worst, dreary.