The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies

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The Bechdel Test is a simple way to gauge the active presence of female characters in Hollywood films and just how well rounded and complete those roles are. It was created by Allison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985. It is astonishing the number of popular movies that can't pass this simple test. It demonstrates how little women's complex and interesting lives are underrepresented or non existent in the film industry. We have jobs, creative projects, friendships and struggles among many other things that are actually interesting in our lives... so Hollywood, start writing about it!

Here's a videoblog (vlog), Feminist Frequency, where you can learn more about movies and how they rate from a feminist's viewpoint.

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my simple solution is not to watch hollywood movies. There are alternatives (my favourites tend to come from Spain, France, Latin America), and if we financially support rubbish we mustn't be surprised to get delivered even more rubbish.

A related observation: on the cover of UK movie magazine Empire, you'll find a bloke 11 times out of 12, and the 12th issue of the year will have a woman serving as decoration for yet another bloke.

... The point is spoiled by including Wall.E in that list of movies. Seriously, it's a film about robots, the humans are incidental bit part characters. Sure it's a useful test, but apply some common f*****g sense to which movies it is tested on.

By Edd Miles (not verified) on 24 May 2010 #permalink

Edd: I love Wall-E, but let's face it, virtually all the robots are gendered, and the two females with any significant screen time, (EVE and Mary) have falling in love with a guy as their major arc. If Wall-E was an exception in Pixar's library of films I doubt anyone would make much hay over it, but few of Pixar's films pass the test.

Toy Story: No
A Bug's Life: Yes. (Queen and Atta talking about the transfer of royal responsibilities)
Monsters Inc.: No.
Toy Story 2: No, even with more female toys in the cast, they never talk to each other.
Finding Nemo: No*
The Incredibles: Yes (Helen and Violet about superpowers. Helen and Edna about superhero costumes probably dosen't count, since Helen is only there to find out about her husband, and Edna is voiced by Brad Bird)
Ratatouille: No.
Wall-E: No
Up!: No

Haven't seen Cars, so I won't comment on that. Finding Nemo gets an asterisk since while you get Pearl and Flo in the same tank in group discussions about escape, they never really talk to each other. If that seems like stretching the test to be extra picky, consider how many conversations there are between guys in the film: Marlin and Nemo, Marlin and the other Dads, Nemo and Gil, Marlin and the Sharks, Marlin and the School of Ratzenbergs, Marlin and Crush, Nigel and Nemo.

I personally found the test incredibly eye-opening. That something so trivial and common as two people talking about something other than romance, is so rare when it comes to women in film.

By Left_Wing_Fox (not verified) on 24 May 2010 #permalink

Edd, why would a movie about robots (a single movie out of ...what, probably 50 that they flashed up, to boot) spoil the point?

It was written by human beings, with gendered characters voiced by humans. For humans to identify with. And it, like every other movie they showed, assumed that humans identify males with agency and women with chatting about men.

I found it vert interesting, although I think it's more useful to look the whole of 'Hollywood' rather than individual films. There's some films that are mainly about male characters (Fight Club, for example) and that's *okay*.

The problem comes when the majoirty of films being made are like that. It's not "Fight Club (for example) is bad because there's only one woman in it" it's "Hollywood is bad because it's only making films like (for example) Fight Club"

Saying that, though, there are some films mainly with women in. Unfortunately the only examples I can think of are awful.

Speaking of silly cartoons, the stupidest was that Bee Movie, which totally ignored the fact that all active, working bees are females, turned nearly all of them into males, and kept the few female bees it did leave in firmly in the kitchen.

I think Amy (No. 5) is right on the money. I would add that the relentless male-ness of Hollywood undercuts even the artistic force of movies that are deliberately woman-less, because what should be strange (the testosterone world of fight club, the lonely widdower's life of Up) instead feels routine and normal. It's fine to write a story without men or women, but it should be an artistic choice, not something you slouch into.

By Snarkyxanf (not verified) on 24 May 2010 #permalink

Hmm. That was an eye-opener.

Another wrinkle to consider; most of the time when there is a strong female lead, she is often a woman cast into what "normally" would have been a mail role. This especially apparent in action genres. Probably the best example of that would be Alien and Aliens. Though Ripply was a female, she basically acted male - at least until the last act of Aliens where she became the hero - good mother against the bad mother protecting a child.

It would be interesting to get some actual data on this to see what percentage of "Hollywood" fair released in the last ten, twenty, thirty years fits this profile.

I know there are few great films with strong female leads out there. Thelma and Louis, Erin Brockovich, The Blind Side and, A League of their Own are four that immediately come to mind. Whether all of these for pass the test, I honestly don't know, I'd have to see them again.

The koran? Just one woman with a name.
The bible? I guess they only talk about man: "Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child (Moses) for thee?" ...
"And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist" ...
"Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre (of Jesus)?"

The Bible may or may not barely pass the Bechdel test, depending on how strict you want to be: Ruth 1 includes conversations with Naomi and her daughters-in-law about whether they should stay with her or not (granted that the reason Naomi gives for why they should leave is so they can find husbands, but they're hypothetical husbands, and Ruth's reply to Naomi is about their relationship, not about any men, living or dead).

Mary's conversation with Elizabeth about her (Mary's) pregnancy in Luke 1 might qualify too. Though most of that is about God and how great he is, the beginning sounds more or less like two women talking about their pregnancies. Of course, they were both pregnant with boys, so. . . .

Tell you what. You know all the millions of jobs, promotions and school admissions in the last 30 years that women have screwed men out of by substituting the political force of affirmative action quotas for the former meritocracy? Let's trade those perks for a quota of superfluous gay female characters in every non chick flick movie who talk about something besides men.