Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Detecting Discrimination

This is the third in a series of blogs from our new Employment Consultant, Ayesha Casely-Hayford.

In the corporate workplace, discrimination is not often dramatic but rather, it is subtle and hidden. It can be the complete opposite in the performing arts world. Tonic, a gender equality theatre company carried out research in 2014, which found that only 37% of roles on stage are for women.

A legally valid exception available in justification of what would otherwise be termed discrimination is the “occupational requirement”. It could be argued there is a need for the person employed to be a certain gender, race, able-bodied person, etc. A black-skinned African man to play Othello to give the work authenticity and communicate the dramatic intention of the play, for example. But questioning and probing, pushing for that justification is very important. Diverse presence on stage is needed if we want our cultural works to reflect the society we live in. In the same way, diverse presence is needed in the workplace if we want to have a society that is inclusive, fair and not isolating.  To address discrimination we need to be able to detect it. This is where the grey area lies and the fight for equality lives. Therefore, to detect discrimination we must begin by asking questions. A safe conclusion to always reach, particularly when dealing with issues of discrimination, is that nothing is what it seems.

Where better to begin with such a mysterious topic, than the world of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring, and Peter Jackson’s major block-buster trilogy film adaptation. Loved by many, including myself, it was upsetting when it began to receive criticism and was branded sexist!

The Bechdel Test arrived in our dialogues on fiction film analysis and many loved works of fiction were found wanting. Lord of The Rings in particular was concluded to feature strong powerful female characters whose actions affect the plot, but who don’t interact with each other. Under the Bechdel Test, this is a fail. However, is and can the Bechdel Test get to the root analysis of the substance of a story, enough for us to make bold value judgements in respect of the role of a woman in a film? Have we missed the point and is a deeper questioning of character roles needed if we want to take steps to detect and therefore address issues of discrimination?

Named after an American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the Bechdel Test made us look at fiction differently. It asks three simple questions in relation to fictional films:

(1)           does the movie have at least two women in it
(2)           who talk to each other
(3)           about something besides a man

The reality is that many films fail the Bechdel Test, including major popular works such as Lord of The Rings.

Fellow Lord of The Rings fans will know its stories contain incredible female characters. There is Arwen, married to Aragorn, but who in her own right is ruler of the Elves in Middle-earth in the Fourth Age. She is also the one who rescued Frodo. There is also Galadriel who bears one of the Elven rings of power. Galadriel is so awesome that although tempted by the Ring to succumb to her dreams in which she would be on a level with if not worse than Sauron, she decides to return to the Gray Havens and helps arm and supply the Fellowship. Although not featured in the films, we must not forget Eowyn who kills a Ringwraith and takes all of Rohan to Helm’s Deep.  This perhaps mean nothing to some...! But the point is, the substance of these women belies the sexist label affixed to Lord of the Rings as a work of fiction failing the Bechdel Test.

In the arts world, 2016 brings progress in the area of equality and combating discrimination. Inspired by the concept of the Bechdel Test, an adapted version of the test has been developed by theatre company Sphinx.  The aim of the new test is to encourage theatremakers “to think about how to write more and better roles for women.”[1]

The questions Sphinx Theatre company are asking writers to consider, go like this:

(1) The protagonist - is there a woman centre stage? Does she interact with other women?

(2) The driver - is there a woman driving the action? Is she active rather than reactive?

(3) The star - does the character avoid stereotype? Is the character compelling and complex?

(4) The power - is the story essential? Does the story have an impact on a wide audience

A creative response by which Lord of The Rings would, by the spirit of Tolkien, pass.

This new test tells us it is important to not accept the status quo. To my mind it is more probing and gets to the substance of a work of fiction allowing us to better form a value judgement in respect of discrimination. Steps being taken by theatre companies and arts practitioners such as Sphinx are examples of inspired leadership, asking questions and raising awareness. Their efforts are to be applauded. Positive progress, which we hope will affect change. In the words of Galadriel “even the smallest person can change the course of the future”. To address discrimination we need to detect it, to detect it we need to boldly and cleverly question!

[1] Georgie Snow “Theatre Gets its Own Bechdel Test” The Stage, 3rd December 2015


At 28 February 2016 at 01:14 , Blogger Unknown said...

Wainwright and Cummins is a thriving law firm, providing legal services to its community for over 30 years. With an established practice in Criminal, Prison, Family, Wills & Probate, Housing, Property and Immigration law, I am delighted to be joining them as an employment law consultant offering a new employment law service to our clients, new and old.


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