The most well-known way of determining whether a film has adequate gender equality is known as the Bechdel Test, comprised of three features: the film must feature two female characters, who talk to each other, about something which is not a man. You may have heard of this test, from whispers in the back of cinemas or footnotes in reviews of Disney princess movies. Some praise it, for bringing attention to the marginalisation of female characters in film, while others lament that it is not a truly accurate test.
The test is named for its creator, American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Aside from the Bechdel test, she is known for the comic series Dykes to Watch Out For as well as the graphic memoir Fun Home, which has received much recent attention due to a successful Broadway adaptation. Bechdel is also known for discussing themes of sexuality and gender non-conformity in her work. The idea for the test originated in Dykes to Watch Out For in a comic strip called ‘The Rule,’ where one female character explains her three criteria for seeing a film to another.
These three criteria may sound like a relatively easy threshold, but examining the results of recent box office films reveals otherwise. In a study done by Polygraph of 4,000 films from 1995-2015, they found that 37 per cent of films fail. And out of the eight films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year, half pass and half fail (including the winner, Spotlight). Even Pixar, a company known for making animated films hugely popular with children and families, do not have a good record – 10 out of their 16 films fail.
Of course, some stories will naturally include an all-male cast. But surely the same goes for films with all-female casts, which appear to be very rare. Instead, this argument seems to ignore the issue of gender inequity in film and seeks to bring to focus back to male characters. The website ‘A Voice for Men’ argued that a male version of the Bechdel Test was needed, comprising of elements such as ‘the absence of the mother is not required for the father to be portrayed as a competent dad’ and ‘the female protagonist shows interest in the male protagonist before he is the hero.’ Just by these criteria alone it becomes obvious that the problem does not go both ways given that they are made up of such specific elements. Character stereotypes definitely do exist for male characters as well, but the Bechdel Test is focused on the even simpler task getting autonomous female characters into the narrative in the first place.
Following the release of Maleficent, the idea of the Reverse Bechdel Test (a film featuring two male characters, who talk to each other, about something that is not a woman) was briefly raised. This also applies to Juno, Inside Out, Brave and potentially a handful of other films – but not even close to 37 per cent of films that fail to represent women.
Strangely enough, this issue doesn’t translate into films that have significant box office success. Out of the 10 highest grossing films of 2015, all but two pass the test (Spectre and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation). Women do buy 52 per cent of cinema tickets, so it makes sense that they would favour films that feature prominent female characters.
One of the key problems that the Bechdel test aims to highlight is the tokenism suffered by female characters in film. Far too often in a cast line-up, where all the characters have their differentiating factor that makes them important to the story, the female character’s feature is purely that she is female. This is often referred to as the ‘Smurfette’ problem, which comes from the comic series ‘The Smurfs’ where all the creatures’ names are adjectives that describe them – e.g. Papa Smurf, Jokey Smurf, Brainy Smurf – except for Smurfette. It doesn’t matter if she is a leader, funny or smart – her unique feature is her gender.
Katha Pollitt first highlighted this issue in 1991, writing ‘The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls are peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.’ But that’s from an article in 1991 – surely things have changed since then. Spencer Kornhaber writes a very similar article in 2015 about Black Widow in Marvel’s The Avengers, ‘it’s just plain bad storytelling to have only one woman on the team. It makes the entire scenario feel even more far-fetched, it leads screenwriters to make her a potential love interest for multiple characters, and it encourages people to start saying weird, sexist stuff: No matter what else she does, the character’s biggest distinguishing characteristic is her gender.’ 24 years have passed, but the same problem is still being lamented.
An even lower bar is posed by the ‘sexy lamp’ test, invented by Marvel writer Kelly Sue DeConnick – ‘if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.’ Such characters that spring to mind are ones like Lois Lane, Summer Finn and Daisy Buchanan.
Outside of the Bechdel Test and its multiple variations, it seems that a binary division still exists between films. As stated by Pollitt in reference to the Smurfette problem, girls are seen as peripheral. A social perception still exists that male characters will appeal to all, but only women will be interested in the stories of female characters. Women can enjoy films like The Avengers or Furious 7, but men can’t be seen watching Easy A or Cinderella.
Disney attributed the low box-office results of The Princess and the Frog to this exact reason – girls will see boy films, but no boy is going to see a film with the word ‘princess’ in the title. Perhaps this is true, as Disney hastily changed the titles of its next two films, Rapunzel and The Snow Queen, to Tangled and Frozen respectively and both experienced mass success at the box office. Even Frozen’s marketing campaign centred quite heavily around Olaf, a character who lacked any identifiable gendered traits (and is indeed male), instead of Elsa or Anna, the actual main characters. Disney still seem keen to herald the idea of a female princess as they are still the protagonists of their films, but they are not averse to disguising this fact if it means more people are willing to see them.
Therefore, it does seem that there are factors within film that the Bechdel Test doesn’t take into account, like the marketing of the film or the stories of the women themselves. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise, given that it is composed of three relatively straightforward criteria and films are much more nuanced than that.
Taking this into account, Polygraph then conducted a second study about Film Dialogue that examined over 2,000 screenplays. They found that female characters have the majority of dialogue in only 22 per cent of films and that even romantic-comedies (a genre considered very feminine) feature dialogue that is 58 per cent male. And out of the three top roles of each film, in only 18 per cent two are female compared to 82 per cent where two are male.
The results from the Bechdel Test may not seem credible but even in a more detailed and complex study, the results are exactly the same: there is still a gender bias in film.
Image: Noom Peerapong
Julia Faragher is a current university student with a passion for writing across all mediums, from novels and short stories to films, plays and poetry. Her adventure with writing began in November 2011, when she competed in National Novel Writing Month for the first time. Three years later, she had written three novels of more than 50,000 words each and fallen in love with writing. Since then, she has also had success writing in other areas, such as co-writing a play that won her high school competition and placing in the top 4 of last year’s ANU Interhall Poetry Slam. She also has a love for film, and served as the director, producer and writer for Dear Jasmine, winner of ‘Best Student Film’ at the Lights! Canberra! Action! Film Festival 2015. Other festival credits include Tropfest Jr, the All-American High School Film Festival and the Screen It Festival. She currently studies English, Gender Studies and Law at ANU and runs her own short film company, Skybound Productions.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.
Since reading this, I can’t help applying the Bechdel test to the movies I’m watching. Brooklyn did okay, but The Danish Girl has me stumped! Does it count if the female is talking to a male who’s a female on the inside? Anyway, great article and very thought-provoking. Thank you!