Movies, Women and the Bechdel Test

10 February 2014 Comments Off on Movies, Women and the Bechdel Test


The beginning of the new year brought with it many exciting changes as well as familiar, heartwarming rituals. An example of the former may be….whatever you changed in your life as part of your New Year’s resolutions. (Or perhaps you’re one of those people who think, “What’s the big deal, the first of January is simply the day after Tuesday.”)

An example of the latter, on the other hand, would be the awards season. The Academy Awards have yet to grace us with their arrival, but the Golden Globes of 2014 have already been distributed to their owners. I didn’t actually watch the ceremony, but unavoidably, I’ve come across snippets while minding my own business online.

One of those snippets included a quote about how 2013 was a great year for women in movies. This is true, with “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “Gravity” and “Frozen” leading the category. It’s the sort of thing that gets you thinking about women in movies. This, in turn, is a reflection of how well we are represented in creative/inventive fields, so it is of great consequence.

Let’s get this straight: I am no bra burner. In other words, I am not a die-hard believer that women are superior or that men are out to get us. I simply believe in equal rights for all. The past century has been great in terms of attaining some of those rights for women and girls, in terms of political and educational opportunities especially. Unfortunately, the established system that suffragettes and their descendants have been trying to reshape had determined certain roles for certain groups a long, long time ago. Even though we are technically seen as equal, this system causes girls to be raised and conditioned differently than our male counterparts.

This is most evident in toys. Boys’ toys (unexpected little rhyme there) are geared toward building, creating and/or destroying: all empowering acts that are meant to improve strength, confidence and cunning. Girls are more often expected to play with dolls whose hair they can brush, or plastic babies whose diapers they can change. Even when a little girl plays with a toy car, it is usually an uncomplicated one that she can simply push around. Inadvertently, girls are conditioned for maintenance, not progress. They make the nest, as it were. Understandably, these values originated from natural, biological differences; I don’t expect there to be a 1:1 ratio in every area. This is no reason why we should not be raising empowered, self-confident girls who can play with a Barbie, or build a tank out of Lego blocks. In the same way, boys should not be estranged from domestic life or whatever else is considered “girly” and grow up to be afraid of doing anything that is not undeniably macho.

Back on track: movies. The movie industry is one of the those that best indicate the presence of women in creative/inventive fields. Once again, it’s not because men are targeting women and consciously blocking their paths. However, it takes a greater effort for a female writer/director to overcome certain obstacles. Men tell men’s stories. It’s only natural. There are just getting to be enough women in the industry to tell women’s stories; hence we see more women in movies. The most important indicator, though, is the presence of women in movies (especially those with a male protagonist).

This presence does not come as easily as it sounds. A great way to test female presence/gender bias in movies is the Bechdel Test. It was coined by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985. In very simplistic terms, it asks a movie three questions:

1. Are there two (or more) female characters in the movie?

2. Do these two (or more) female characters talk to each other?

3. Do these two (or more) female characters talk to each other about something other than a man?

There are a staggeringly low number of productions that pass this test. It is not perfect, of course. There are many lines that can be interpreted in different ways, and many loopholes in the questions that allow for misguiding results. For example, “Gravity” technically fails the Bechdel Test, and at the first question, too: there aren’t two (or more) women in the movie. Keep in mind, though, that there are barely two characters, and it’s actually a very successful portrayal of a realistic, accomplished, self-confident woman with a solid personality, dealing with an exceedingly serious issue.

“The Hunger Games” is also a good example, especially as it appeals to a younger audience. Movies like this, or “Mulan,” or “Brave,” can teach little children about what girls are capable of, and perhaps subvert the patterns that undermine their potential without anyone realizing it. A teenaged girl can suffer through the economic and political challenges of a post-apocalyptic world, can think beyond the boys in her life (who are present, but not in the forefront of her mind). She can hunt, she can shoot, and she can change the world. She can be the main character in her own right, without having to be defined in relation to the male personas around her. I was very impressed by the books, but Jennifer Lawrence’s performance of this character stands on its own two feet. After seeing this movie, I felt it was no wonder that she should have gotten an Oscar at the age of 23 (only three years older than I am; what am I doing with my life?…).

Of course, women in the movie industry are not comprised of actresses alone. The women behind the camera, especially directors, are less visible and more scarce. For those who haven’t noticed yet, there is only one woman who has been recognized on the Academy Award level: Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” in 2009. For the past decade, there hasn’t even been another female candidate in that category. Funny how even though the director of this film was a woman, the story was written by and almost exclusively featured men, in an ultimately masculine scenario. Baby steps.