Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

What the Bechdel test doesn’t tell us about women on film

Four cinemas in Sweden recently pledged to rate films based on whether they pass what is known as the “Bechdel test,” a means of evaluating gender bias in film, named after American graphic artist Alison…

An excerpt from Alison Bechdel’s comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For (1985). Wikimedia

Four cinemas in Sweden recently pledged to rate films based on whether they pass what is known as the “Bechdel test,” a means of evaluating gender bias in film, named after American graphic artist Alison Bechdel. Only films that pass the test will be given an “A rating”.

The rules for the test, modelled on a comic strip from 1985 (see above), are as follows:

  1. The film has to have at least two women in it.

  2. The two women must talk to each other.

  3. They must talk about something besides a man.

While it might not seem too hard to meet these criteria, at the time of writing, only around half of the 4,537 films surveyed in this online database obey all three of the rules.

There are a number of surprising fails, like Run Lola Run, even with its compelling female lead; and more complicated fails, like The Hurt Locker, helmed by the first female winner of the Best Director Oscar, but only involving one female character.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and the entire Lord of the Rings series also fail the test (both films have two or more women in them but they do not speak to each other).

Many pundits have spoken in support of the test in the past, and now there are many voices getting behind its implementation in theatres.

But there are also those who have challenged the new Scandinavian approach, and some who critique the limitations of the test itself.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to correct the gender imbalance on our screens, especially if doing so were as simple as including a scene of two women discussing the weather.

And yet, by concerning ourselves with surface appearances, we run the risk of overlooking some of the most problematic (and fascinating) prospects of film as a medium.

Scratching the surface

The major issue with the Bechdel test is that it only demands small modifications to the narrative events in the movies we watch, and doesn’t ask for any deep, structural changes.

Ultimately, the test ends up telling us that the content of a film is more important than its form; that is to say, we are being told that what is most important about women on screen is simply what they do, not how they are shown to do it.

We need to start thinking more deeply about how films are shot and edited, and what those choices do to make us think differently about women in cinema.

If the absence of female characters is cause for concern, we should also consider how the cameras in big budget films tend to frame female bodies in an overtly sexualised fashion.

More often than we’d care to admit, the Hollywood camera not only follows the eyes of male characters in deciding what to focus on, but it routinely keys us into a male perspective, constraining us to view women on screen in a very particular manner.

The following scene from the 2007 film Transformers should serve to demonstrate the point:

And, lo and behold, Transformers actually passes the test!

But if this (very obvious) example reveals only the negative aspects of film form for women, then what of cinema’s ability to represent female characters in a more flattering light?

In the stunning prologue to the 2011 film Melancholia, Danish director Lars von Trier creates a long, wordless montage that draws comparisons between the niggling depression of the film’s female lead, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), and nothing less than the end of the world:

In this film, the series of conversations between Justine, her sister, and her mother, are all fairly muddled and inconsequential.

Instead, it is set-pieces like the one above that offer the lasting images of the film, and help us to understand something about those otherwise strange female relationships.

The form of a film can serve in other ways to make us rethink the power of women on screen. Even when a director chooses to show a female character in absolute isolation – and hence not roadworthy for those few Swedish cinemas – there is often something very powerful in showing just how powerless she is.

In US director Jeff Nichols’ fantastic Mud (2013), we see Reese Witherspoon locked inside a motel room for most of the film, in which almost all of her lines revolve around one man – namely Matthew McConaughey.

In this case, Witherspoon’s character never comes into contact with other women, but it’s precisely this lack of female community, and her attachment to male friends and foes, that makes her character at the same time complicated, pitiable, and infuriating.

Alien – the gold standard?

Bechdel’s original comic strip ends on an interesting note. For the cartoon character speaking, the last movie that passed the test (circa 1985) was Ridley Scott’s Alien. In that film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the other female crew-member, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), discuss the film’s monster (thereby passing the Bechdel test).

Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) Wikipedia

But for those of us who know the film, we will also know that it is not dialogue, but the lack of dialogue that makes Alien such a haunting experience. Indeed, who really remembers the words that pass between Ripley and Lambert on board the Nostromo?

Feminist film critics have been far more interested in how we interpret the final scene, in which Ripley – the lead character and sole survivor – is reduced to her underwear.

In these last shots, the camera, which until now has moved in such a fascinating way through the corridors of the ship, seems to revert to old Hollywood habits, embarrassingly ogling Weaver’s body (or does it?)

The Bechdel test doesn’t speak to a question of film form like this one, and so by following it to the letter, we would miss a good deal of cinema’s political significance.

It is questions like these, rather than those of the test, that filmmakers need to start answering first.

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

26 Comments sorted by

  1. Citizen SG

    Citizen

    Well it appears that the The Counselor passes the Bechdel test, at least despite murmurings of misogyny. The inclusion of the Hurt Locker in a discussion of the bechdel test seems bizarre - why would a movie about a male dominated job need to include a focus on female-female relationships - surely this is logically peripheral to any story concentrating on bomb disposal in the middle east theatre? And why is having a female director at all relevant? Ought a director's artistic decisions be dictated by gender?

    report
  2. Liz Bassett

    teacher

    The Bechdel test is satirical: the joke is that so many films fail to match even these super-simplistic criteria.
    It's absurd to try using it as a basis for serious criticism.

    report
  3. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    I think this rating highly sexist and feminist.

    If women actors can’t talk to each other about a man, then women actors should not be able to talk to each other about a woman either.

    report
    1. Sunanda Creagh

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Just to clarify: the requirement to pass part 3 of the test is that the two women must talk to each other about something besides a man. They can discuss men, and usually do. The requirement is simply that they cover at least one other topic as well.

      The test does not state the two female characters "can't talk to each other about a man."

      report
    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Sunanda Creagh

      This is from http://bechdeltest.com/ which contains a database of movies rated according to the Bechdel test

      It has to have at least two [named] women in it
      2. Who talk to each other
      3. About something besides a man

      That does appear very sexist, as it portrays men as some type of evil.

      It is also sexist and feminist in that the same rules are not applied to men.

      For example:

      It has to have at least two [named] men in it
      2. Who talk to each other
      3. About something besides a woman.

      report
  4. Meg Thornton

    Dilletante

    It ought to be noted: the Bechdel test was originally used as the punchline for a joke. The joke sets up an incredibly low bar for female representation on film (if you think it's intended to be difficult, reverse the genders, and find out how many movies don't meet the criteria of at least 1) two male characters; 2) who talk to each other; 3) about something which isn't a woman. I'd be interested in hearing the results). But the punchline is that, according to that test, the protagonist of the…

    Read more
    1. Citizen SG

      Citizen

      In reply to Meg Thornton

      meg asks; "It's as though we can get the one thing (a major female protagonist) or the other (a film that passes a very basic test of female representation on screen), but not both."

      There was recently a spate of jane Austen movies but I expect you'd have to look outside the hollywood blockbuster genre (ie the Pacific rims) to see evidence of female protagonists and female representation. I'm sure they exist but I can't advise you as I'm too busy these days watching excellent cable series that all appear to have both strong female representation and female protagonists... oh, and strong dialogue, production values, acting and scriptwriting.

      report
    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Meg Thornton

      If the test was for complete gender equality, then it would have to include three extra rules.

      1. The film has to have at least two women in it.
      2. The two women must talk to each other.
      3. They must talk about something besides a man.
      4. The film has to have at least two men in it.
      5. The two men must talk to each other.
      6. They must talk about something besides a woman.

      This would be a real challenge for script writers, and for anyone keeping count.

      report
    3. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      7. Must have two gay men in it

      8. Must have two lesbian women in it

      9. 7 and 8 must have something positive to say about hetero sexuals

      report
    4. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      And there must be bisexuals (as most homosexuals appear to be bisexual anyway, and not truly homosexual), but a bisexual cannot talk about men or women.

      And aliens must declare their gender early in the movie, or declare if they have no gender (which would make it easier for script writers).

      report
    5. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      I saw a great "Bedchel-correct" movie the other night.

      Two women, and not once did they mention men. It would even pass the LGBTI friendly test as well.

      report
    6. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      But were there any men in the movie who mentioned or spoke to a woman?

      report
    7. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      There wasn't a single man in the movie Dale. Just two women, enjoying their time together. Not a lot of dialogue though.

      report
    8. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Ah, so the film didn't have true gender equality.

      Just feminist gender equality.

      report
    9. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Mike, I've seen a few in my time as well. The Swedish cinema-owners should be careful what they wish for, lest their main customers are groups of rowdy men out on a bucks night.

      report
  5. Anthea Walsh

    Coordinator

    I think this test is more tongue in cheek than anything, personally there are a lot more things about women in movies that annoy me. As an avid book reader I get more annoyed at the way that strong, smart, resourceful and feisty female characters get portrayed in the movie versions of the books they are based on. Sophie in the Da Vinci Code went from code breaker genius to helpless female, Fiona in Tomorrow When the War Began went from uncertain and unsure but ultimately rising to the challenge to…

    Read more
  6. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    This article is strangely silent on the most significant fact about the Bechdel Test: It comes from the radical separatist lesbian culture of a bygone age. While it is perfectly understandable that radical separatist lesbians in the 1980s didn't base their conversations on men, I'm not sure how much cinematic joy there is in films about lesbians sitting around bitching about women!

    report
    1. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Having said that, if privately owned businesses wish to restrict their product range, whether by gender representation, political ideology, language spoken, that is absolutely their right. It might be a very smart commercial move, especially in Sweden.

      report
    2. Sunanda Creagh

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Think you may have misinterpreted, Andy. The cinemas are not restricting their product range. They are giving the films ratings.

      report
    3. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Sunanda Creagh

      Ah, Sunanda, thanks for the correction. I think I was getting a bit over-excited, by all the potential commercial opportunities.

      report
  7. Sean Manning

    Physicist

    The simple fact is that movies are made for a particular target audience. You can't just make any kind of film you want and expect it to be watched by millions. If there is any problem at all it's not with the films but the film viewers.

    report
  8. Daniel Cotton

    Physicist/Astronomer

    My best example of a bizarre pass of the Blechdel Test comes from Moon – a file with basically one human character for 99% of it. During the film Sam Rockwell's character (Sam Bell) views a video message from home to his wife. During this video call she is interrupted and has a conversation with another woman, the nanny, who is off screen, about their daughter. So, the test is technically passed despite the fact that one of the women in the film is never seen, and the other appears only as a recording. Sam's daughter does make a later appearance in the film, but the tenuous nature of the event that gives the film a pass demonstrates how flimsy the test can be.

    report
  9. John Perry

    Teacher

    Why has no one commented on the movie posters that the two women characters pass by during their conversation?

    report