In 1985, comic artist Alison Bechdel created a simple test (Bechdel Test/ Mo Movie Measure) to measure the prominence of female roles in movies. It first appeared in the comic strip “Dykes to watch out for” and it advocates that in order for a movie to pass three things are required:
a) There are at least 2 named women in it
b) who talk to each other
c) about something other than a man.
Simple, right? “Come on, that’s easy; there are tons of movies that pass the test” you might think. Well, the truth is you’re wrong. Actually, chances are that most of your favourite movies probably don’t pass the test. According to bechdeltest.com, a crowdsourcing site for measuring results, 40% of movies don’t pass. Last additions,for instance, include Deadpool and Hail Caesar!. Strange isn’t it? Especially because the last time I did my math (bear with me though because I am a woman after all) women were like half the world population.
But even if a film does pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours, it can still fail to indicate how substantial the female characters are. Let me give you an example, Disney’s Frozen passes the test and it has been celebrated as feminist by public and critics alike. But the fact that the protagonists are women and actually have three conversations as adults shouldn’t count as victory. To put it in the words of Dani Coleman ‘’ There’s an ongoing problem, I think, with “strong female character” being made synonymous with “any fictional woman who isn’t just window dressing”. And it goes further than that. Alex, who runs the blog Something Classy did an investigation and found out that while the male Disney characters have a myriad of face sizes and very distinctive features, the female characters have basically the same face.
So while the men can be drawn with a variety of physical features, the women are constantly drawn to look pretty, or at least pleasant. Furthermore, women are usually cast as fragments of a male protagonist’s life, as wives, girlfriends, sisters or mothers circumventing the plot of “damsel in distress” most of the times. Women are often objectified in sexually explicit situations and violence against them is often depicted in a highly fetishized tone. Movies that show women as complete, all-rounded characters are few and far between and leadership roles such as engineers or scientists could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. “Girls, we do not, in fact, run this mother. Men are pervasive in startups, CEOs, engineering, politics – Hollywood is no exception. But in Hollywood, it’s plainly visible in the product. When men make films, what’s on-screen reflects the behind-the-scenes brotopia” as mentioned in an article via Polygraph.
Combine the fact that Hollywood is run by a white, male middle-class enclave that makes movies ridden with unconscious bias ( the unintentional reinforcement of stereotyping) and the source of the problem is staring us in the face. Therefore, it is not just women who suffer from the exclusion; it is characters that represent minority groups, people with disabilities and non-heteronormative sexual orientation and different ethnicities. If a character from these groups do manage to get some screen time it is substantially lower than that of their white male counterparts and they are usually defined by their ‘’distinctive traits’’. The annual Hollywood Diversity report from the Bunche Center at the University of California, Los Angeles studied 172 films in 2011. The report indicates, 89.5 % of leading actors are white, while only 10.5% were racial minorities. The actors were 74.4% male, while 25.6% were female.
Let us take a moment here and consolidate which 2016 Oscar nominated films pass the Bechdel test:
FAIL: Bridge of Spies, The Revenant, The Big Short, The Martian
PASS: Room, Mad Max: Fury Road, Brooklyn, Spotlight (with caveat)
Ok, balanced you might think. Hm, not so much. Even with the ones that pass there are red flags. Brie Larson’s character has only one discussion with her mother and one very short exchange with an unnamed reporter, while Rachel McAdam’s character has only two lines in the one and only scene they shared with her unnamed nana.
So it becomes crystal clear that even if the Bechdel Test could provide a useful tool for indicating gender disparity, there is still a lot to be done to eliminate gender bias from films.
This doesn’t mean that the quality of a movie is determined by whether it passes the Bechdel Test or not. However, our cinematic experience would definitely be more enhanced if the storyline featured factual and realistic representations of the gender spectrum.
It is true, that feminism is becoming more and more nuanced and the Bechdel Test might lack the intricate qualities to measure such a complex concept. But it does provide the framework for debate and hopefully we won’t even have to mention it in the future, as movies would be so gender balanced that it would slowly fade to outdated oblivion.
Read more about women in cinematography in the following infographic: