Female Representation in Film: The Bechdel Test

In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel included in one of her comic strips a set of rules that later became the so-called Bechdel Test. For a film to pass said test, it must meet the following requirements:

  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. The women have to talk to each other
  3. The conversation must be about something other than a man

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The criteria on their own seem achievable even in movies with a predominantly male cast. Easy, even. However, not all movies seem to pass the test. In fact, according to the online database Bechdeltest.com, under 60% of films meet all three qualifications and just over 10% do not meet any requirements at all.

This is evident just by looking at movies released in 2015. Out of the 8 critically acclaimed films that received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture in the last Oscars, only half of them arguably pass the test. These are:

  • Room – The movie includes several key scenes with dialogues between the main character and her mother.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road – This film has several strong female characters who talk to each other.
  • The Martian – The movie has two women on board the spaceship who frequently interact.
  • Brooklyn – The film is centered on the main character and her interactions with other women around her.

Unfortunately, the other half of the Best Picture nominees do not pass the Bechdel Test:

  • The Big Short – The women in this film are criticised for lacking character and fail to talk to each other.
  • Bridge of Spies – Women receive little screen time, and when they do, their dialogue is about a man.
  • The Revenant – The characters in this film are predominantly male, being there only one named female character.
  • Spotlight* – The status of this movie in relation to the Bechdel test is dubious. This is because there are interactions between two women but one of them is referred to as “Nana” in the film and is credited as “Sacha’s grandmother”, implying that she is not named. In another exchange, between named women, it is difficult to decide whether the whole conversation involves a man or only a part of it.

*Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture during the 2016 Oscars.

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The test is said to have several flaws as well. One of these would be that the test does not take in account character complexity. According to the third rule, he women must be talking about something other than a man. Talking about a man does not have to be a simple, flat conversation. Women can have a perfectly intelligent conversation about a man. Secondly, what if the main character does not have a name, but still fulfills the other two points? And then thirdly, in some cases, there aren’t many characters in the film at all, such as Gravity (2013). There is only one woman present in the story, who also happens to be the protagonist. There is not a lot of dialogue in the film, simply because there are no other characters throughout most of the film. This would mean that despite this being a film that empowers women in the sense that the character is an astronaut, and there is a female protagonist, the film does not pass the test on any front. Finally the test also does not take into account the context of the film. Sometimes, women must be underrepresented for historical accuracy. There are too many things that are not considered; a film can easily empower women without having to pass the test. Sure, the test could be used as a guideline, but not as a strict rule when evaluating the representation of women in films.

At the same time, one can also argue that this test aims to ask whether women in a movie are portrayed in an equal proportion than men. Although some films have strong and powerful female characters, they are sometimes unnecessarily outnumbered by men. This is known as the Smurfette principle, a term first used by Katha Pollitt, that denotes the presence of a single (named) female in an all-male ensemble. This scenario happens in several well-known movies including the Star Wars series, The Imitation Game (2014), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and The Avengers (2012). In movies where women are so overwhelmingly outnumbered, it is often the case that certain male characters could have easily been played by women without altering the story in any way. One example is The Lion King (1994), a movie that only barely and dubiously passes the Bechdel test and has a predominantly male ensemble. For the Broadway adaptation of this Disney classic, it was decided to cast a woman as Rafiki, the mandrill. This decision did not change the storyline or the relationships between the characters in any way and simultaneously represented women much more fairly than before.

A better way of approaching the test, perhaps, would be to judge whether the representation of women is fair in relation to that of men by comparing the results of the Bechdel test to those of the “inverse” Bechdel test (two named men have to talk to each other about something other than a woman). If both tests pass, one could argue that the representation is fair. If neither of them pass, then it is arguably fair as well. However, if only one of them passes, it would allegedly mean that one gender is not equally representative as the other.

Whether or not you consider the Bechdel test to be an accurate way of measuring female representation, one thing is clear: there is still much work to be done in this area. It is understandable that the nature of some movies, such as those that focus on a certain social group or historic event, makes it harder for them to meet all the criteria. However, filmmakers should consider changing the gender of certain characters in movies where women are greatly outnumbered. Finally, it is important to point out that the trend for the Bechdel test seems to be improving, according to this graph based on online databases:

 

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–Catalina & Femke

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