Failing the Test

Alison Bechdel and the Cult of the Filmic Man

Art by Erika Altosaar

There’s this recurring motif to conversations about films that they don’t actually matter and what goes on in a movie isn’t important—it’s just a movie. It’s not real life. If you don’t like it, watch other movies. Vote with your dollars.

But what do you do when all the candidates take the same tack?

Unfortunately, that’s more or less the case when it comes to women in film. It may be cliché by now in our post-equality society to point out the excesses of women being portrayed as sex objects à la Megan Fox working on her car in Transformers. Most movies, of course, don’t stoop to that level of obvious objectification.

But, as with many other aspects of gender relations, though the nature of the interactions on the surface of the subject may have changed, the underlying dynamic—of inequality, of male dominance and female submission—remains firmly entrenched.

To those who would suggest that this is just paranoid feminism knee-jerking to the remains of an ethos that died out in the 20th century, I present a compelling counter-argument: the Bechdel Test.

The brainchild of American author Alison Bechdel, writer of Fun Home and Dykes to Watch Out For, the test asks of films a few simple questions. Are there at least two female characters? Do they talk to each other at any point on-screen? And do they talk about something other than a male character?

It’s an ingenious test because, with three simple questions, you can deduce whether any attention has been paid to women by the filmmakers at all.
If there are fewer than two female characters, then the film doesn’t interest itself with women, period.

If there are at least two female characters, but they never talk, then likely there isn’t much by way of female dialogue, and the female characters serve primarily just to support, antagonize or flesh out the male characters.

And if there are two female characters, and they talk, but they only talk about a male character, then they are likely still incredibly two-dimensional, given their prizing of the male character to the exclusion of their own lives or interests.

Ultimately, if a movie fails the Bechdel Test, it’s a movie about men, where women are supporting characters at best. So how do Hollywood films fare?
Not well, unfortunately.

If we consider a pass on a test as a 60, Hollywood is still failing, by a fair margin. Currently, 52 per cent of films graded by users are passing the test. There’s a degree of subjectivity to it, of course, and there’s the caveat that things are improving. Female representation has spiked over the past decade. We’re approaching a passing grade.

It’s incredibly encouraging—and films like last year’s Bridesmaids prove that movies can put women front and centre and succeed both critically and commercially.

Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous to suggest that, if movies here and there are giving women a fair shake, and 50-or-so per cent of movies pass a test that looks for the barest minimum of female representation, that they have achieved filmic equality.

At this year’s Academy Awards, for instance, only two of the ten Best Film nominees passed the Bechdel Test. Meanwhile, after last year’s first-ever Best Director win by a woman, the nominees were all men this year.

Movies are still by men, about men, and as a result, largely for men. If we were to posit a gender-flipped version of the Bechdel Test—Are there at least two male characters, do they talk to each other, and do they talk about something other than a female? —you can bet more than 52 per cent would pass.

In fact, it would surprise me to find a single movie that wouldn’t. Maybe a movie that takes place on a distant alien planet, with no genders—and no gender inequality. But until we live on a planet that looks more like that one, let’s call a spade a spade: for all the accusations of Hollywood’s liberal bias, it’s still failing the test.

And let’s be clear, a film can pass the Bechdel Test and still give women short shrift. But it’s a good measuring stick. If 80 or 90 per cent of movies were passing, we at least would be seeing women in films—women’s stories, women’s struggles, women’s narrative arcs, women’s triumphs and failures.

Right now, more often than not, women in movie theatres are still spectators—whether they’re in the seats or on the screen.