THE BECHDEL TEST
(1) It has to have at least two
women in it, who have names,
(2) who talk to each other,
(3) about something
besides a man.
The test was popularized
by Alison Bechdel's comic
Dykes to Watch Out For,
in a 1985 strip called The Rule.
The Bechdel Test measures women’s presence in films
Conceived 30 years ago, the Bechdel test is a form of measuring fair female representation in any given film. Half way through the year-long Bechdel Test Fest, K takes a look at what has sometimes been a controversial issue.
How many films have you seen lately with at least two female characters, who both have names and who engage in a conversation that isn’t about a man?
These are the three simple rules of the Bechdel Test, which yields surprising results: only 58% of the almost six thousand films on its database pass. However it was never intended as a hard and fast rule to weed out sexism in cinema.
Inspired by a passage in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, cartoonist Alison Bechdel conceived it in her 1985 comic Dykes to Watch Out For as the set-up for a joke. The punch line being that the only film the protagonist had been able to watch recently was one where a monster was the topic of discussion, Alien.
Around five years ago the media seized upon the idea to apply it to Hollywood films. The test has since become hotly debated. Some argue it’s no more than a numbers game that doesn’t factor in sexual objectification or cookie-cutter Disney princesses. Others comment on its failure to highlight the lack of female film directors, currently down to an abysmal 7% of the 250 top grossing movies at US box offices in 2014 (The Celluloid Ceiling). Then again, it has got people talking about these issues.
The girl stays in the picture
The ratio of men to women in film currently stands at 2 to 1. “The Bechdel Test is very important because it raises the issue of where women are, and there are hardly any of them on our screens,” says film critic Corrina Antrobus, who is curating a year-long festival to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the test. “I totally agree with some of the criticisms that are bandied around, they’re very good points. It doesn’t mean the film is a feminist film, it certainly doesn’t mean the film is a good film. But on a large scale it really highlights the problems we’re facing with adequate female representation.”
But movies weren’t always this sexist. “Way back when, we didn’t need the test as much because there was better representation of women in the golden age of Hollywood,” she says. “You had such a thing as the woman’s picture, but it seems to be getting worse, hence the reason why the Bechdel test is important to keep the conversation going.” So where did all the women go?
The Bechdel test doesn’t mean the film is a feminist film, it certainly doesn’t mean the film is a good film. But on a large scale it really highlights the problems we’re facing with adequate female representation.
It’s been officially agreed that movies were invented (by the Lumiere brothers) in 1895. This brand new form of entertainment was not gender-specific, so as many men as women took the roles of directors, producers and writers, as well as retouchers, lab technicians, set designers, casting directors and musicians. Then sound came along and transformed film from frivolous amusement into big business. This meant a traditional hierarchy was imposed: men took the top jobs while women were largely relegated to the roles of secretaries and assistants.
Rebels with a cause
In the 1930s the woman’s film emerged. As well as melodramas featuring love triangles, unwed motherhood and battles for social standing as in Jezebel and The Bride Wore Red, there were comedies like The Women and tales about heroines like Johnny Guitar and A Woman Rebels, which appealed to the whole cinema audience. Film studios were by now huge, powerful entities producing stars like Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Katharine Hepburn, with the purpose of amassing a fan base and filling seats.
Woman’s film peaked during wartime years, leading some to believe it declined because the men returning from fighting didn’t want to watch women on screen. But who doesn’t want to see women in film? It was actually the demise of the studios in the 1960s, the emergence of TV and the import of foreign films that caused the shift.
“When the studio system broke down they were no longer creating stars that they had to build stories around,” says Jeanine Basinger, professor and author of How Hollywood Spoke to Women: 1930 – 1960. “And of course television arrived, broadcasting original dramas and sports events. All of a sudden you get movies having to find a way to appeal, so they got technological, they went widescreen, they got stereophonic sound and they started to develop more big action and epic movies which were about men. Women began to get left out.”
This hardly makes sense given that putting women in film means better results at the box office. At the time of writing nine out of the ten top-grossing movies worldwide this year pass the Bechdel Test, including Cinderella, 50 Shades of Grey and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Yet this is where the test reveals itself to be just the top layer of a very dense book; Cinderella has made headlines for the improbable cinching of Lilly James’ corset, while 50 Shades… has angered many with its scenes of sexual violence and the submissiveness of the female lead. During a promotional tour of Avengers: Age of Ultron, DJ Chris Evans and actor-singer-producer Jeremy Renner called Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow character a slut because “she’ll flirt with everyone.”
There’s something that no one ever wants to talk about, which is that stories about women did not disappear from society, they moved to television.
According to OpusData only 10% of doctors are played by women and 0% are bankers. In animation, more than in any other genre, the blonde, super-thin princess (viz Cinderella) is presented as the epitome of beauty. “Cinema shows us what is acceptable in society and tells us how to react to certain groups of people,” says Antrobus. “I think that if you sit around watching Hollywood movies all day you are going to end up thinking that a size six with big boobs is the typical image of beauty.”
It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out there’s a link between the lack of female film-makers and gender stereotyping. There is a silver lining however.
Thinking inside the box
As Jeanine points out, the numbers of women directors in Hollywood may be down, but this doesn’t apply to all media. “There’s something that no one ever wants to talk about, which is that stories about women did not disappear from society, they moved to television. And on TV you have the remnants of the woman’s film, comedies, domestic stories, police dramas and even action movies built around women. So it wasn’t that they disappeared, Hollywood had to compete.”
It’s clearly time for Hollywood to up its game again. Now that the wheel has been re-invented in terms of technological wizardry, there’s a valuable resource that has remained largely untapped for the last 50 years: women.
For more information on the Bechdel test
For a video introduction to the subject see The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies on