Monday, April 2, 2012

B is for Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test is designed to measure the amount of impact women have in a film.

It's very simple.  You only have to meet three steps:

1. Are there at least two women with names in the film?  If yes, proceed.

2. Do those two women talk to each other in the film?  If yes, proceed.

3. Is at least one of their conversations about a topic OTHER THAN a man? If yes, then HURRAY!  Your film has met the bare minimum requirement for representing half of our population.

Women! It's almost like they're people!
Despite how easy it should be to pass this low bar, only 4 of the 9 films most recently nominated for Best Picture pass: The Help, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, and Hugo.  In Midnight in Paris and Hugo, the third requirement (having named female characters have a conversation about a topic other than a man), the required conversation happened once and it lasted for less than a minute in a full-length motion picture.

Women! As it turns out, they are people -- just 0.8% of the time!
I've been thinking about some of my favorite movies (and some movies that I just happened to see) and how they fare.

Gone with the Wind passes.

The Godfather does not.

Knocked Up squeaks by.

28 Days Later passes.

The Departed does not.

Watchmen does not.  (For a moment, I thought it did.  Then as I mentally replayed all the conversations Laurie has with her mother Sally, I realized they all involved talking about men: an anonymous comic collector in Mexico, the Comedian, and Dr. Manhattan.)

I could not think of a single romantic comedy besides Bridesmaids that passes, which is a depressing thought.   

Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (yes, I saw it, despite my protestations) does not pass.  What's more, despite it ostensibly being about FEMINISM, not only does it fail, but it fails steps 2 and 3: not a single, named female character in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo ever has a conversation with another female character, regardless of topic. Every woman who speaks in that film speaks to a man or a woman without a name (hello, lesbian bar hookup).

Paranormal Activity 2 and 3 pass.

True Grit barely passes.

3:10 to Yuma does not pass.

The Dark Knight does not pass.

The Big Lebowski does not pass.

No Country for Old Men does not pass.

Thor passes.

The Hunger Games passes.

And the funny thing is, as far as I can tell, this is purely a film issue, because television programs (good, bad, cheesetastic alike) inevitably pass.

The Vampire Diaries passes.  Lost passes.  Modern Family passes.  Game of Thrones passes.  Downton Abbey passes.  Revenge passes.  Jersey Shore passes (I assume).  Hell, even The Bachelor passes. (Sometimes they talk about how much they hate the other women.)

I don't bring this up to make people feel bad about the movies they love, but I think it's important for people to be aware of the media they consume. Most viewers are aware that the women they see in magazines and movies have been altered -- digitally enhanced to remove flaws and whiten teeth, the film stretched in editing to make them appear both thinner and taller -- and if you didn't know that, seriously, you can hop off the treadmill now. You're comparing yourself to something that doesn't exist.*

But most of us just accept the way women's personalities are also marginalized in film. Most roles for women in films fall into the wife-or-girlfriend-of-hero category, or bitter-type-A-personality-single-shrew category, not-conventially-attractive-but-at-least-she's-funny-comic-relief (if she's lucky) category, or Lifetime-original-series-staring-Meredith-Baxter-Birney. Any role that doesn't fit one of those four molds is heralded as REVOLUTIONARY (see, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo--gasp! a woman can be badass! Bridesmaids--gasp! women can be funny!) despite any other failings it might have.

So the next time you're out for a picture show, raise your jumbo-sized Diet Coke to the Katniss Everdeens, the Margaret Thatchers, the Skeeter Phelans, the Kristy Reys, and the Annie Walkers of filmography. They may not be perfect, but at least they sometimes think about survival/politics/civil rights/demonic possession/unemployment, respectively, in addition to men.

*For some more (more educated, more interesting) reading on images of women in pop culture, please see Beauty Redefined


  1. I'd like to think this is why I don't really watch movies but am obsessed with TV. This has to be the fact that the writers have to think of at least 2 short plot lines each episode, in addition to the longer story arc (which probably involves some sort of love story). This requires lots of characters (some of which have to be women) and lots of conversations about plots that just can't be romantic ones. In a movie, you have one basic primary plot. You can make it more complicated than in a TV show, but it will still be primarily about one thing, which is usually either violence (which is why some movies fail all three, like the Godfather or Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) or love, where all conversations must be about the opposite sex, or else.

    30 Rock easily passes, so I feel all of my entertainment choices have been validated. Thanks.

    1. That's definitely true. Television can't afford to remain focused on a single narrative the way a film has to. That being said, I do find it troubling that even in an action film, you can't have two women with names discuss the problem (terrorism, theft, kidnapping, jailbreak, etc.) at hand, or in a romantic comedy, two women discuss something else that women talk about all the time (career, children, life balance, dieting, ANYTHING) when theoretically that *is* what your movie is about.

  2. Very interesting. Hmm, I watch a lot of romantic comedies so a lot fail.

    1. I find the fact that romantic comedies fail a lot extremely disturbing. Films that are hypothetically about women still manage to be focused entirely on men. What, screenwriters, you can't even have a woman call her sister to chat about an upcoming vacation or something?

      Romantic comedies are theoretically the most reality-based (ie, nothing fantastical happens in them, it just portrays love in a heightened way), so you would think they would have the easiest time showing some facet of life that didn't involve the hunt for a man. But they don't.

    2. I think the thing about romantic comedies is not that they are about men, but that they are focused on relationships. The point of rom coms is for the girl to get the boy or vice versa. So every scene of that movie is going to be about either pulling them together or pushing them apart.

  3. WOW, this is so eyeopening. I will have to pay attention to this when I watch movies from now on.

  4. Ha! This is funny. I never realized this. Midnight in Paris is one of my favorite movies. I think the scene you refer to is when the fiance is talking to her mom about whether or not to buy a chair. Well, at least they're talking about shopping instead of a man. Geesh!

    1. Yup, that would be the scene. As a friend pointed out (and she liked the movie for the most part), the fact that GERTRUDE STEIN is in the movie but NEVER speaks to another woman is a travesty.

    2. Does Gertrude not speak to the girl the main character falls in love with or zelda at all? I thought I remembered them talking in her house but I must be imagining things!

    3. I don't think she does, but I would be happy to be wrong. It's kind of depressing to think that she doesn't.

  5. Your criteria seems overly restrictive to me. I don't think the BBC's Pride and Prejudice would pass your test, and yet it's a pretty good adaptation of Jane Austen. Did Jane Austen misrepresent women?

    Frued would say that every book, every painting, every song, is ultimately about sex. Can a movie only be feminist if the sub-text is homoerotic, i.e. if there is no maleness present in the conversation?

    1. First of all, it's not my criteria. The Bechdel test is something someone else came up with back in the 80s.

      Second, I would strongly disagree with the idea that it's overly restrictive. If anything, it is the LOWEST possible bar. Two women, with names, having at least one conversation about ANYTHING that isn't a man? That literally happens to me and billions of other women EVERY DAY, and yet there are hundreds of movies where it doesn't happen even *once*? That's ridiculous.

      List of things that are not a man: health, profession, travel, shopping, food, theology, pedicures, earrings, computers, national security, politics, civil rights, opera, email, pop culture, economic obsolescence, chemical engineering, this desk I'm sitting at right now ... yeah, pretty much everything that isn't "a man" qualifies as "not a man."

      And none of those things are homoerotic.

      And none of them by themselves qualifies as "feminist" just because it doesn't automatically revolve around a man.

      If you need any proof, just apply a male-Bechdel test to any given movie. Two male characters with names who talk to each other about any topic other than a woman = guess what? NEARLY EVERY SINGLE MOVIE PASSES. Because men talk about things that are not women *all the time* and we all acknowledge that this is normal. It's just the converse that apparently isn't true, at least in film, where the rule apparently goes:

      Men talking about anything = "normal"
      Women talking about men = "normal"

      All the Bechdel test does is highlight how film has reduced the norm for female behavior.

      Regarding Pride and Prejudice, the characters talk about their prospects for inheritance, their reputations, dances, their village, their desire to travel, their mother, and their sisters. So Pride and Prejudice passes handily. The fact that they ALSO talk about Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, and Wickham doesn't make Pride and Prejudice anti- or pro-feminist, it just makes it well-rounded. Unlike, for example, nearly every single Katherine Heigl romantic comedy.

      What does it say about a film when, over the course of 96 minutes in The Ugly Truth (for example), a movie about a woman who is a successful television producer doesn't have ONE single conversation with another woman about ANY topic other than a man? Not a word about her apartment, her pets, her neighborhood, her job, her commute, her eyesight, her dentist. A successful, professional woman apparently has nothing to say to her successful, professional female colleagues and friends about, oh I don't know ... her profession, perhaps? No, she only wants to talk about Gerard Butler. But wait! What does she talk about when she's talking *to* Gerard Butler? Oh yes, that's when she can finally start talking about something else.

      Finally, Freud said everything was about sex because *he* was obsessed with sex. Frankly, Freud said a lot of things that weren't right and which psychology no longer follows. (In fact, that's true of a lot of smart people. Jung hung his hat on the archetype, it doesn't mean that we all do what we do because we see ourselves on a hero quest.)

  6. great post! you are obviously a talented writer and deep thinker (the two do not always go together).

    found you thru a to z, and looking forward to reading more of your essays soon!!


  7. For a test that attempts to distinguish gender bias, it has its own bias against certain types of movies. Romantic comedies, as you've mentioned, but also films where women have a major impact but may not talk with other women on camera because the movie follows the male protagonist. And of course, those rare specimens where there are only a few named characters. (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset jump to mind, since I wrote about them for today. They have just one named woman, but she's half the film.)

    I'm not saying it's a bad test, just that the results are more of an interesting observation than any real statement about the state of cinema today. [end rant]

    1. The test isn't designed to find gender bias -- simply measure the amount of impact women have on the film. Taken individually, I don't think there is anything wrong with a movie like "The Godfather" (which is necessarily from Michael's point of view in a male-dominated society) only getting a yes on one of the three questions. Taken in the male-reverse, a movie like "The Help" would not pass, either, because it's a movie that by definition is about women. That doesn't mean either movie is biased, simply that it is a narrative that strongly represents one gender as opposed to both.

      The problem is when you apply the test to a large sample of films and *a significant percentage* don't pass. That does say something about gender-bias in film as a whole, even if some movies individually don't pass for valid, artistic reasons.

      Add to that the fact that there are 10 films that are predominantly male POV for every 1 film that is predominantly female POV says something about film generally. Maybe each movie chose its protagonist for valid reasons, but why are so many more films about male protagonists green lit than female protagonists? Add to that the fact that five months ago studio executives were worried about Hunger Games (despite its rabid fan base) due to its *female* protagonist -- add to that the fact that Disney changed the name of "Rapunzel" to "Tangled" and cut a trailer specifically to highlight Rapunzel's love interest Flynn instead of Rapunzel herself to make the film appear more "boy-friendly" -- add to that the fact that in over a decade of making films for children (generally made up of boys and girls) Pixar has never made a female-driven film until "Brave" -- men are clearly more strongly represented in film than women.

      Why that is = totally debatable. Your guess is as good as mine. But it's fairly clear that it is true.

      But I do totally agree that if you were to take a large sample of films for a Bechdel test "analysis" of some kind, there should be some sort of exception for films like "Before Sunrise"/"Before Sunset," due to the limited number of characters overall, or period pieces like "Saving Private Ryan" (which obviously only represent one gender for historical accuracy), and those sort of movies shouldn't be included in a larger sampling because they would skew the data. If someone were to do that sort of thing -- I'm sure if we googled it, we could find someone who already has. :)

    2. great comments on a great post. Count me as a new follower (was stopping by for the A to Z challenge).

  8. Fascinating and terrible. I had never noticed this, so I appreciate your bringing it to my attention, and I'll try to take note of how my favorite movies do with passing or failing the test.

    1. Glad you liked it :) It is kinda depressing though.

  9. Very interesting. You've got me thinking about this now. I'm pretty much going through every movie I've ever seen...

    1. It can be kind of a downer to think about sometimes :)

  10. I hope this hasn't been said because I don't have time to read the comments. Lisbeth has a conversation with Mikael's sister, Annika, in the second book. Does that count?

    1. It's just a movie test, so if the second movie includes that scene, then it would count. As I remember it, women do talk to each other in the first book, but for whatever reason, those conversations were left out of the American movie.

  11. Ooohhhh you were talking about the American movie. I was thinking of the Swedish ones. (Let me put my pretentious glasses on for a second haha.) She has the conversations with Annika in the second Swedish film. Then again, some involve her father and the abuse. I need to read those damn books again. The second and the third were just a wee tedious.

  12. This is fascinating! I will surely store this away and subconsciously rate movies as I am watching them to see if they touch on all three requirements. I bore of all-men movies, so generally I don't stick around a movie with less than two named women for long, but I haven't been looking at the other criteria.

    Thx for sharing!

    Alana @
    Found you through A to Z!

  13. I have heard of this before and it's pretty crazy! So many movies have a male main character, his buddies and maybe a girl he's interested in. (At least the ones I watch.) Chick-flicks tend to be about a bunch of girls that only talk about boys! It's kind of messed up. Some of my favourite movies that I think pass (but I'm not watching them straight through right now) are:

    ~ Tank Girl (Two kick-butt girls, talking about saving the world...)
    ~ Hudson Hawk (Pretty sure Sandra Bernhard interogates Andie MacDowell...)
    ~ Juno (She talks with her friend and step-mom about growing up stuff...)

    And that's pretty much all I can think of right now. Sad.

  14. Can you please send me the code for this script or please tell me in detail about this script?