The Bechdel Test

I found this to be very illuminating:

This is one of those things that is so fucking obvious that you spend a few minutes slapping yourself in the head for not thinking of it first.

It’s difficult to assess how films do on this test off the top of my head. But after thinking about it for a while, I’m somewhat stunned at just how many films fail it. For example, of the 25 top-rated films on IMDB, going by memory:

Three of the movies — Shawshank Redemption, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and 12 Angry Men have no significant female characters at all.

Eight films — Stars Wars, Empire Strikes Back, the Dark Night, Casablanca, Fight Club, Once Upon a Time in the West, the Usual Suspects and Seven Samurai — have only one significant female character. Same goes, incidentally, for the Star Wars prequels. To be fair, the female characters in several of those films are strong. But they fail the test. My recollection is that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and City of God also fall into this category.

The LOTR movies and Pulp Fiction have several women, but they do not interact.

Goodfellas and both The Godfather films have several female character who interact. But my recall is that they only discuss the men in their lives. Raiders of the Lost Ark has a brief exchange between Marion and Sala’s wife about monkey, but I don’t think that counts. I’m not sure about The Matrix but I don’t recall a female conversation. There’s a reference to an offscreen conversation between Trinity and the Oracle. But that was about Neo.

Only four of the top 25 films meet this test:

Schindler’s List, despite being dominated by its male characters, has numerous scenes of Jewish women discussing the situation.

Rear Window passes the test. Despite Hitch’s icy blonde reputation, he always had interesting female characters. Psycho fails the test, but mostly because of the way the film is structured.

Silence of the Lambs has some interaction between Clarice and one of her friends at the academy.

But even those four are marginal passes.

So is this indicative of extensive sexism in Hollywood? Yes and no. One problem is that a number of those films deal with subjects — war, crime, prison — which have historically been male-dominated. Others take place in circumstances where there few women — 12 Angry Men, for example, was written when juries were usually all-male.

In addition, IMDB’s top 25 movies among women is little different. Most of the women-favored movies are identical to the male-favored list and the new ones aren’t exactly breaking the mold. Amelie and Forest Gump I don’t recall well enough but think they fail. Gone With the Wind passes (more on that in a second). I’ve not seen American History X but doubt that it passes. To Kill a Mockingbird and Beauty and the Beast pass, I think. Up fails, as does WALL-E. So one could argue that women aren’t exactly demanding movies that pass the Bechdel test. Even the conventional “chick flick”, if I can use the term, is mostly about romance.

However, that misses the point, in my opinion. The problem is that our movies have, for the most part, been heavily divided between “chick flicks” about romance and “guy movies” about everything else. This doesn’t have to be the case; it simply represents a blind spot in the mostly male writers, producers and directors of movies and TV. Almost all of the top 25 movies could have passed the Bechdel test if writers gave two shits about creating more than one interesting woman character. The movies that do pass the test didn’t exactly go out their way to do it. They just rounded the movies out a bit, made them fuller and more realistic.

In the end, this trend may be less of symptom of sexism than sexism convolved with writers attempting to economize on character development. One thing I’ve noticed in movies and TV is the startling number of characters who are single children, have deceased parents or have no children of their own. This is mainly because it gets so complicated to write about real people with real families and real circles of friends. Writers also tend to write exclusively male characters since it’s so easy to write your own gender and “Gary Stu” the damned thing. (As an unpublished writer myself, I used to be that way. But I eventually started writing female characters and found them far more interesting.)

As an example of how things could be different, you can contrast Star Trek: The Next Generation against Babylon 5. The latter had interesting female characters who frequently talked about something other than men. The former, however, danced on the blade quite a bit, never seeming to know what to do with its female characters (although it still usually passed the test). This was a principle reason why, in my opinion, B5 was the better show.

As another example — the most successful movie of all time — Gone With the Wind — is a vast war epic that has numerous interactions with women that are not just about men (just mostly about men … Oh, Ashley!) Titanic and Avatar dominated the box office and, I think, both pass the test or at least dance on the blade.

I’m not saying that people should rewrite movies to make sure they pass this test. If nothing else, I don’t want to watch a movie and hear my brain shriek “Bechdel scene” when some pointless all-women conversation is shoe-horned in. The Bechdel test is a thought experiment, not a recipe. Some movies and genres are simply unsuited to having multiple dynamic women characters — Lawrence of Arabia or Master and Commander, for example. “Bechdelling up” books like LOTR would be misguided and smack of tokenism.

No, I think the lesson here is that Hollywood still has a blind spot. Not about women, but about life.

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