Women on Screen: The Bechdel Test

2017 was an exhausting year.

Academically and personally, my 2017 was filled with a number of significant challenges, but on a societal level, both internationally and nationally, we all experienced a number of difficult or exacting events, revelations, and conversations. No matter our distinct backgrounds and positionalities, 2017 demanded that we all embrace some discomfort and do some serious self-reflection. Hard but, no doubt, valuable.

One of the big “revelations” of 2017 was the Harvey Weinstein scandal, followed by the #MeToo campaign that prompted the disclosure of numerous accounts of sexual misconduct across the workforce. I place revelation in quotations because, while the details may have been shocking and disappointing, the larger reality of male misuse of power comes as no surprise to most women. We all have stories of harassment, whether small or big.

Within the context of Hollywood, the scandal once again drew attention to the male-dominated nature of the industry. One ramification of this male-domination is toxic work environments for the minority of female colleagues, but the prevalence of men in the industry also ends up shaping the narratives that are told on-screen. Back in 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel popularized a simple test (created by her friend Liz Wallace) to evaluate how women were represented in movies. The test has just 3 questions:

  1. Does the movie have at least two women in it?
  2. Do those women have a conversation with each other?
  3. Do they talk about something other than a man?

The Bechdel Test proposes a fairly low standard for films, and one that doesn’t take into account other factors such as race and ethnicity. But it is a helpful start, especially when you realize that:

Approximately 69% of IMDB’s top 250 films fail the Bechdel Test.

Some beloved films that fail this test include: 

  • Casablanca (1942)

  • Vertigo (1958)
    • (And most of Hitchcock’s films)
  • Star Wars (1977)

  • Blade Runner (1982)
  • The Princess Bride (1987)
  • Forrest Gump (1994)

  • Toy Story (1995)
  • The Truman Show (1998)
  • Magnolia (1999)
  • The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
  • Finding Nemo (2003)

 

In 2016, 1/3 of the highest grossing films completely failed the test and roughly 50% passed, so we are making some progress. However, even those films that technically passed the test are not necessarily exemplary figures. For example, DC Comic’s Suicide Squad technically passes the Bechdel Test but, as Kristen Santer points out, the female characters “are depicted poorly, defined by their relationships with men and are often greatly mistreated.” Many critics drew attention to the film’s troubling portrayal of The Joker’s abusive and manipulative treatment of Harley Quinn, which she continually accepts and even embraces.

But, why does any of this matter? If those movies I listed above were good, are we not simply splitting hairs by trying to count the female characters and pick apart their topics of conversation? 

I want to be clear here that I am not proposing that a movie can’t be aesthetically or narratively good if women are not adequately represented in that movie. I am also not suggesting that movies focused on male stories should be avoided. Some of my favorite films are films that fail or barely pass the Bechdel Test, such as Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

What I do want to draw attention to, however, is the fact that over 50% of the world’s population are women, yet our movies do not reflect this reality. Stories focus on men’s struggles, and women tend to be portrayed in relation to the men in their lives. When movies do concentrate on female characters, too often those films are marketed towards female audiences. This perpetuates the unspoken expectation that women find pleasure in watching male-driven films, such as action-driven thrillers like the Bourne films or war films like Saving Private Ryan or even quiet, thoughtful films like Good Will Hunting, while men are less likely to find pleasure in watching female-driven narratives. 

I don’t think this assumption reflects any true reality. What it does reflect is the assumptions being constructed and perpetuated by those individuals producing and distributing our media. This brings us back to where I began–with the Weinstein scandal and #MeToo. When you have an industry controlled by misogynistic, powerful men, then it is no surprise when our media and entertainment reflect the ideals held by those individuals. And then those beliefs trickle down into society and shape the way that men and women see themselves and each other.

Hollywood is not solely responsible for the circulation of such ideas, but as a media scholar, it is one of my responsibilities to call them out for the part that it plays. It is also my responsibility to bring awareness to the larger public so that we can all be attentive to our media consumption and hold Hollywood accountable for its actions.

The Bechdel Test is limited and flawed, but it is a place to start as we think about media representation. In my next post, however, I want to step beyond the Bechdel Test. This past semester, I have been thinking quite a bit about how questions of representation can actually fail us when we interrogate our media. Keep an eye out for that proposal in the next week, and if you want to make sure you never miss a post, be sure to subscribe below.

Curious about the Bechdel Test? Want to learn more? Here are some helpful links!

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