By Molly Labell
What’s your favorite flick? For a good cry, I like to watch Good Will Hunting; when I want some laughs, I know Bridesmaids will do the trick. My experience watching both movies has been a little different ever since I started using The Bechdel Test, though. Created by feminist activist and cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the test is a pretty thorough and interesting way to measure gender diversity in movies (though it’s applicable while watching TV and reading, too). It’s simple: if a movie passes, it means that the story has ALL three of the following:
At least two female characters with names.
A conversation between two female characters.
At least one conversation between them that is about something other than men.
Once you know the criteria, you’ll be alarmed when you realize just how many movies don’t pass the test. The original Star Wars trilogy fails, as does the Lord of The Rings series. Recent films like The Great Gatsby, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Life of Pi meet some but not all of the criteria; the latest installments of the Iron Man, Spider Man and Star Trek franchises fail, too. Sure, there are plenty of movies that uphold Bechdel’s standards (FYI: Bridesmaids passes, Good Will Hunting doesn’t), but it’s important to remember that an A+ on the test is not necessarily an indication of the film’s feminist foundation or its commitment to empowering women and girls. Disney’s original Cinderella cartoon passes, but I’d hardly consider that a feminist film. The first Sex and the City movie passes, too, but keep in mind that most of the conversations that aren’t about men are about clothing. (Not that women can’t love fashion and call themselves feminists, of course, but it reinforces harmful, traditional stereotypes when women are only shown discussing the contents of their closets.)
Pretty shocking, huh? It’s scary to think that movies in which women engage with one another are so few and far between, or that female characters often don’t warrant enough value to be named. In writer Jennifer Kesler’s 2008 article, “Why Film Schools Teach Screenwriters Not to Pass the Bechdel Test,” Kesler discusses her experiences in film school, where professors told her that movie producers weren’t interested in female-driven stories. Kesler explains: “According to Hollywood, if two women came on screen and started talking, the target male audience’s brain would glaze over and assume the women were talking about nail polish or shoes or something that didn’t pertain to the story. Only if they heard the name of a man in the story would they tune back in. By having women talk to each other about something other than men, I was ‘losing the audience.’”
Hang on—not only are women and women’s issues being written out of movies, movies are mostly made for men? Ugh! Television does a little better with Bechdel’s test, at least. While I’ve been struggling to come up with movies that pass, I can’t stop thinking of TV shows that do (Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, and Grey’s Anatomy immediately come to mind).
Whether what you’re watching passes the test with flying colors or falls short of meeting any of the criteria, the fact that there needs to be a test at all is a pretty big bummer. Women are half the population—we’re heads of government, we’re self-made billionaires, we’re Olympic athletes. Shouldn’t we have just as much exposure in pop culture? Shouldn’t our stories be told, too? The Bechdel test can also be adjusted: next time you’re watching something, think about how many named LGBTQ people or people of color are present on screen. Think about how often they’re allowed to discuss something other than their sexuality or ethnicity—how often, that is, that they’re allowed to become fully realized characters.
Any budding writers out there ready to make some serious changes to the film industry? Check out these great movies that pass the Bechdel Test:
Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
Now and Then
The Hunger Games
Real Women Have Curves