Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Bechdel Test

A recent post at /Film alerted me to the existence of the Bechdel Test, and I must say it really got me thinking. First described in Alison Bechdel's 1985 Dykes To Watch Out For comic strip (below), the test exposes a disturbing trend in mainstream cinema. The test asks three simple questions of any given movie:

1. Are there at least two female characters in the film?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. Do they talk about something other than men?

If the answer to any of these questions is no then the movie fails the test, and you can check out Bechdel Test.com for a surprising list of films that do and do not pass. It's disheartening to see that such a limited portrayal of women is so prevalent, and that so many good movies perpetuate it. Worse than that it's difficult to admit that the test is still so effective and relevant after 25 years.


  1. It's interesting when you look at the films that pass or come closer to passing. Surprisingly it seems that a lot of the films are chick flicks. And even still a lot of those don't entirely pass because most of the conversations between women in these films are about men and romances. It's also sad how often this test fails with children's movies too or Disney ones. I forget what the website was but I was reading that people at Disney believe that Princess and the Frog didn't make as much money as other Disney movies because the main character was female. In children's movies it's assumed that both girls and boys can identify with male protagonists but only girls can identify with female protagonists. There was a Rapunzel animated movie in the works and they've changed it around to be based primarily on the prince saving the princess.

  2. Interesting but honestly I couldn't care less if a movie passes or not. I'll use Reservoir Dogs as an example. This movie has less than 2 women in it. So is the idea that maybe we just replace two guys with two women? Let's take out Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel. Does the movie somehow benefit from this?

    I wanted to use a QT movie because I believe that Pulp Fiction is one of the best movies ever made, it fails the test. Does this say something about QT? What about Deathproof and Kill Bill?

    For me it's about the plot and what's appropriate and/or believable, not about how many women are in the movie, or if there's a cute puppy, or product placement. I'm sure the tricks of producers subconsciously affect me but I don't often feel manipulated by the "good" movies.

    Hell why leave the bad movies out of the discussion. Michael Bay makes bad movies. Would two women or more women talking about politics, religion, and sports have made that movie any better?

    Movies for 99% of the population are purely for entertainment. I see this test as pointless as judging how many times people in tv shows based on high school are actually of high school age. Or, if a gay/lesbian character is actually played by a gay/lesbian person (omg I left out transgendered).

    Twilight passes the test. Go watch that.

  3. I'm going to have to disagree with Ernie. As a super-fan of the Bechdel test, I think it's inaccurate to try and read it as an assessment of a film's quality. It's not a test of whether or not a movie is good, it's meant as a heuristic for thinking about institutionalized sexism in the film industry.

    The point the Bechdel test is making isn't that movies that don't pass it are bad. It's that there shouldn't be so many movies (good OR bad) that don't pass it. When you note how few movies pass the Bechdel, which is really not a very stringent set of requirements -- is it really that hard to have two women in a single scene talk about, I dunno, a military strike or walking their dogs or something? -- it's an indication that something is up in the movie industry.

    No feminist is demanding that movies like Saving Private Ryan or Reservoir Dogs have an all female cast. But if Inglourious Basterds can pass the test (and it does), than a lot of other films can. Take two of the minor characters and change them to women.

    I think a good way of thinking through this is to think about it in terms of race instead of gender. I don't know how many times, while watching The Wire, I thought "this is the only time I think I've ever seen a room full of black characters who are complex and well-defined". That's what the Bechdel test is about. Because when you actually sit down and try to list the movies that pass the test, the number is really fucking low. It shouldn't be surprising to see two women in a movie talk about something other than a man. But it is. It's so uncommon that we don't even realize it doesn't happen until someone points it out.

    The point is, what movie producers want is something that appeals to 18-35 year old men. And the assumption is that that demographic doesn't want to watch two women talk about whatever it is that women talk about, so why have women talk at all? Except the thing is, in the real world where we all live, women talk about the same stuff as men. All the time. In jobs and stuff. And when we don't represent that in movies that purport to be about the world we live in (or fantasy versions of that world, where ordinary men can be spies or vigilantes or hitmen or space pirates or whatever, but women apparently can only be sexy), we're reinforcing a culture that says that women's conversations don't matter, that women don't exist in public life, that women are invisible.

    Thing is, women aren't invisible. And movies aren't as compelling or believable when they render them so. And most 18-35 year old guys don't give a shit if it's women doing the talking, as long as they're talking about things that are awesome. It's the fault of the film industry for assuming that they care, and for giving us women over and over and over and over again who never talk to each other, and never about anything other than men.

  4. Argument from business perspective:
    The film industry isn`t interested in the best interests of society. The job of Hollywood is not to create a set of morals or norms for society to adopt. They`re selling a product and doing a damn fine job of doing it. Most companies do focus on one demographic and market their product towards them. If a movie targeted towards men between 18 and 35 years old nets more money than a movie targeted towards women of any age then it`s a simple business decision.
    Argument against the "real world":
    Movies do not represent the real world. Fiction is fiction because it isn`t constrained by the real world facts.
    Changing minor characters:
    This compromises the integrity of the art and the artist. Why don`t we put a moustache on the Mona Lisa and breasts on the statue of David? (sorry that is a ridiculous comparison) What I`m concerned with is creating quotas for pieces of art. Even if I remove the term art and go back to saying entertainment media. We`ve already seen the "token black guy" situation and the resulting parodies. I see your 2 minor female characters walking a dog scenario becoming the same thing. It`s no longer about the story but about appeasing the activists. Activists then get to have a full night`s sleep and the rest of us are no better off.
    Argument about quality:
    If a movie can fail the test but be a quality movie and a movie can pass the test and be a terrible movie then I don`t see why I should care about the test. Ideals don`t entertain me and they don`t make money. I`m no less a person for enjoying, or seeing, a movie that fails and no more for seeing a movie that passes.

    I see this as the same argument that violent video games create aggressive and violent youth. Parenting damn it. Not only that but human interaction. It`s unfortunate that some people do learn about the world through the media. This does not mean that we should start controlling the output of media.