Wanted: Two Named Women with Something Meaningful to Say
There was a time when I wanted to see every movie that came to town. I preferred quality films, of course, but even in the bad ones I could revel in the craft of telling a story on a big screen. I could dive deep into the worlds being created and emerge with cultural memes and enlightenment.
I could do this because I’m a guy, a white one, and every film in some way is about me.
In most films, some part of me feels represented. I’m Hal in Thelma & Louise. I’m Ed Masry in Erin Brockovich. I’m Buddy Threadgoode in Fried Green Tomatoes and Emmett in Legally Blonde. I usually get a choice of how I want to fit in, rejecting less desirable characters. Outside of my particular demographic, however, representation is a crap shoot. When the narrative of a movie lacks anyone who looks like you, the remaining on-screen characters have to be extrapolated into a make-shift perch to let you in.
As the majority group spanning all other demographics, women have been required to do a surprising amount of mental gymnastics in order to remain fans of action pictures, superhero films and most other genres. 43 percent* of films fail the most basic criteria that place women in the stories on screen:
The movie has at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man.
This is the Bechdel Test (also called the Bechdel-Wallace Test, or The Rule). It is named for the author of its origin story in 1985, resurfacing two decades later as a critique of movie making. I didn’t learn about it until Anita Sarkeesian explained the test in her Feminist Frequency video series in 2009 (and revisited a few years later).
To be clear, this is a low bar. Real life passes the Bechdel Test daily** for almost everyone, but in the ideal worlds we recreate on screen, it’s a coin toss. Bechdel is a misunderstood litmus test, a measure of systemic bias rather than the degree of feminism in any given film.
Many of the movies that ultimately pass the test do so on technicalities and only because the criteria is simple. Captain America: Civil War passed because Scarlet Witch and Black Widow have a brief exchange on earpieces shared by the rest of the men on the team. The Lego Movie passes because female actresses voice animated characters — Wyldstyle and Unkitty — who have a single call-and-response exchange.
The fact that there is a pervasive question whether a new release will pass the Bechdel Test is proof of its effectiveness as a critical metric.
What’s a Guy to Do
My initial response to the Bechdel Test was the typical one: That’s interesting, but it doesn’t keep a film from being great. I happily stood in line with my geek friends to see more X-Men and the first installment of The Hobbit.
Because I loved the cinema, I clung to the argument that context matters. There are no females in the adventuring party that leaves the Shire because there weren’t any in the book Tolkien wrote. In Wages of Fear, we can acknowledge that Mario treats Linda terribly before moving on to appreciate the novel contributions to suspense by director Henri-Georges Clouzot. Certainly, expectations of gender equity in the 21st century cannot be applied to stories by the Greatest Generation.
Contemporary films don’t get that pass. Despite appearing to live in an equitable age, Hollywood relies too much on successful formulas and brands of the past to sell movie tickets. Ocean’s 11 made $5 million in 1960, so a remake in 2001 with the same all-male roles ought to do great, too (It did: $450 million). Need to scratch that feminist itch? You’ve still got Thelma and Louise.
Gender isn’t the only casualty, of course, but perceptions of race and sexual orientation seem to have evolved sufficiently to shun films of the past. Two childhood favorites—Song of the South and Holiday Inn—have not withstood the test of time. Reconstruction Era stereotypes and the practice of blackface make such movies unwatchable.
Similarly, the past decade has seen a dramatic shift in what constitutes an acceptable depiction of sexual orientation. Despite being one of the first DVDs we owned, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) is now out of our movie rotation due to the transphobic treatment of Lois Einhorn, as well as a torrent of homophobic jokes that seemed forgivable two decades ago.
As my spouse often wonders: Why don’t we see sexism with the same revulsion?
The line was crossed for me in 2013 with the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness. If J.J. Abrams couldn’t use a socially progressive show to re-imagine a future that includes two women having a meaningful conversation, it was clear something is wrong with mainstream storytelling. I don’t have the power to hire for diversity, but I decided I would consider the Bechdel Test when deciding to pay to see a movie.
Protest proved painful. It meant I couldn’t finish The Hobbit trilogy and risked staying home for future Marvel films, a series that had just cleared Iron Man 3. My boycott extended well beyond superheroes and dystopian worlds, however. Over the past four years, I intentionally avoided seeing a number of otherwise desirable movies in the theatre specifically because of their inability to pass this simple test, including 42, The Imitation Game, and Get Out.
For every missed water cooler debate about movie plot holes, I gained a talking point to critique the substance of the industry. I now seek out and become more excited about movies that pass the test, and I think more deeply about alternative casting that could make representation problems go away altogether.
In establishing my boycott, I did leave myself some loopholes.
First, strict adherence to the Rule requires that I refuse to pay to watch the movie. I also decline offers from others to buy a ticket for me as a way to circumvent failure. Combined with a need to verify Bechdel Test status before seeing a film, I stay home on most opening weekends. However, if I wait for it to show up for free on Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, or on a flight across the country, I can eventually watch what I want.
Second, taking a cue from environmentalists, I have created a Bechdel Offset: If I pay money for a movie that passes the test but also fails the Reverse Bechdel Test (i.e., at least two named men talk to each other about something other than a woman), then I can use that credit to also see any movie I want.
This second option is extremely rare. It would be OK that 10 percent of all movies don’t even have two named women if the same was also true for men. It is a short list of movies that pass the Bechdel Test while under-representing men.
Since I already owned Juno (2007), we bought a DVD of Maleficent (2014) to allow me to see Captain America: Winter Soldier, a film which initially was marked as failing the test until Internet discussion changed it to a pass. Last year, we got at least two qualifiers as new releases—Bad Moms and the Ghostbusters remake—one of which I used to let me see Star Trek Beyond in the theatre. That leaves me plus-two, as I hoard for the future.
Change the Rules?
While an effective tool for internalizing my sensitivity to women’s representation in media, my Bechdel Test boycott cut off access to a number of important films that advance representation for other demographics. Oscar-award winner Moonlight — a three-part story of the relationship of two gay men — doesn’t pass the test. That, more than any other missed film, prompted me to consider adjusting my rules.
Over the years, the Bechdel Test has spawned several variants, each of which promotes a representational strength of a failed film.
In 2013, Pacific Rim didn’t pass the test. However, one of the female leads was universally lauded, neither sexualized nor dependent on someone else’s call to action. To pass the Mako Mori Rule, a movie must have at least one strong female character who gets her own narrative that does not support a man.
The DuVerney Test—coined by writer Manohla Dargis in honor of director Ava DuVerney—challenges how often minorities serve as scenery for a white story by asking whether minorities have fully-realized lives in the film. Similarly, the Russo Test demands that at least one LGBT character be instrumental to the narrative and not defined by their sexual orientation.
Including these rules as alternatives would certainly expand my selection pool. Moonlight, for example, would become permissible by virtue of arguably passing DuVerney and Russo. However, what makes the Bechdel Test work is that it is simple, objective and provable. These other tests open themselves up to interpretation.
I want more films like Moonlight to be made, with the artistic freedom to cast as the story demands, but I want those choices to be intentional. It should be uncommon for a film about present day to be devoid of large segments of people who contribute to it. For me, the lowest-hanging fruit to harvest involves seeing women as central to storytelling.
All representation matters, but my protest is about women.
Creating an Inviting World
While the rules embedded in the test seem insignificant, following them can have measurable effects on the industry.
Three years ago, the Bechdel Test became institutionalized. To highlight issues of gender bias, Swedish cinemas adopted the A-Rating for films, which requires passing the test. The Scandinavian cable TV channel Viasat Film then used the rating for programming and reviews. Gender equity became a political priority for leaders, who also committed 50 percent of the Swedish film institute’s funding to women filmmakers. This policy shift doesn’t occur without awareness created, in part, by checking the Bechdel Test.
For six decades, the gender ratio in mainstream movies has remained 2:1 in favor of males. In 2011, for example, the top 100 U.S. films saw women comprise only one-third of all characters and just 11 percent of protagonists. Only one in five prime-time shows featured a gender-balanced cast, and when a family film is narrated, 74 percent of the time that voice is male.
Female characters who do make it on screen are twice as likely to be seen in explicit sexual scenes (males are more likely to be portrayed as violent). The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media conducted a study in 2012 of 400 movies, finding gender differences in sexy attire, thin bodies and speaking roles.
Visibility is critical because it creates role models, and positive role models reduce gaps. This effect can be seen in West Benegal, where MIT’s Esther Duflo studied attitudes on education and achievement. In areas with long-serving female leaders in local government, the gender gap in teen education disappeared.
Films that pass the Bechdel Test are more varied and balanced. Analysis of scripts stored in the Internet Movie Script Database and Script-o-rama looked at the number of words spoken by characters of each gender and how often they referenced men or women. When the results were graphed, there was a clear shift toward gender equity in both categories for movies that passed the test.
Polygraph did something similar, looking at show runners instead of the content of the scripts. Examining 4000 films since 1995, Polygraph compared the Bechdel results to IMDB producer, director and writer data. It turns out gender equity in writers and directors helps create more Bechdel-approved movies. Passes jumped from 47 to 62 percent by adding at least 1 woman to the writing team. A woman director drops the failure from 41 to just ten percent.
Surprise! Women might pay more attention to the representation of their own gender on screen.
We need that improvement everywhere. Men are seven times as likely to be quoted in newspapers and on television, even when discussing subjects concerning women. Women hold only 15 percent of board seats and less than one quarter of all government positions across the country, where policies are set.
Is there a Bechdel Test for that? Maybe it is as simple as using your own power to promote inclusion, as you are able, and to call attention to inequity when you don’t hold decision-making power. I am a drop in the $35 billion bucket that is the film industry, but I can use whatever financial power I hold to endorse the kind of filmmaking our society needs.
In the meantime, no Spider-Man: Homecoming for me.
* The stats are likely inflated by the nature of the crowdsourced data collection, although anecdotally it does feel like adherence is trending positive. Since I started my protest in May 2013, the Bechdel Test Movie List database has doubled in size and improved from a 53 percent passing rate.
** Picture the last two hours of your life. Did it include any women in conversation? Movies, which average around 115 minutes, are time-compressed. Try to imagine a day, week, month, year, lifetime without hearing two women whose names you know talking about something other than a man.