Earlier this month the British press picked up on a story about Swedish cinemas publishing a new gender-bias rating for movies:
The Guardian reported that “to get an A rating, a movie must pass the so-called Bechdel test, which means it must have at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.”
The article goes on to take aim at Hollywood: “Of the top 100 US films in 2011, women accounted for 33% of all characters and only 11% of the protagonists”.
It was this statistic that prompted me to think about opera in the same context. Now, there’s no doubting that a decent proportion of operas would comprehensively fail the Bechdel test; although, to be fair, if there was an equivalent test for male characters, most of them would fail that too – I’ve just taken Figaro as an example at random and run through it in my head, and I can’t think of a single exchange between two characters, male or female or one of each, that doesn’t revolve around romantic matters involving a third, male or female, character. That’s just how a rom-com works I guess, and since the most fertile subject matter of opera is the emotional states caused by affairs of the heart, I’m not sure there’s any getting away from that.
However, purely on the proportion of female characters, opera seems to come off rather well, even if we take 18th- or 19th-century opera compared to present-day Hollywood. The fact that opera’s treatment of its female heroines is often pretty brutal is well-documented and much-discussed (although I do suspect that some of that perception is in the eye of the beholders – I’ll come back to that another time). But judged purely on the factual basis of the number of female characters and protagonists, the amount of stage time they’re given, and the amount of work they provide for the real-life women who play them, opera comes off remarkably well. Operas even go so far as to have female performers portraying male characters (redressing the balance of Elizabethan theatre, Gwyneth Paltrow notwithstanding). And opera often pursues its female characters’ stories and viewpoints more than other art forms – take for example Eugene Onegin, where Tchaikovsky gives Tatyana a proportionately much more prominent role than in Pushkin’s original (to the extent that the opera might at least as accurately be named after her rather than him).
Now, as one of my correspondents on Twitter pointed out, surely this is more a result of composers desiring the sonority of female voices than of any presciently-enlightened attitude towards women’s role in society. That’s as may be, but on the other hand I’m reasonably certain that Hollywood’s 89% male protagonist bias is essentially to do with marketing rather than any grander scheme to put women in their place. If Harry Potter had been Harriet, how many boys would have read the books and watched the movies? Or perhaps more to the point, isn’t it extremely likely that the books and the movies (assuming they’d have been made) would have been exclusively marketed at girls?
I’m not claiming any moral high ground for the creators of those strong and numerous female operatic characters – and to be honest I’m not sure I’d want to sit through a performance of anything that was conceived primarily as a sermon on the gender of its characters. The first test of any work of performance art is that it has to be entertaining – any other message it carries will be lost if it fails to clear this initial hurdle. And I’m pretty sure that if the path to gender equality lies anywhere in dramatic art, it’s not through consciously constructing works to deliver that message, but by providing strong, fully-rounded female characters with enough stage or screen time to traverse their journeys, and to take their audience – male and female – with them. Despite all its other faults, try telling me that opera doesn’t do that.