In honour of International Women’s Day, I thought I’d take a look at the Bechdel Test, what it is, and whether it is useful.
The Bechdel Test is primarily used to examine the representation of women and whether their characters are people in their own right, or, effectively, ‘accessories’ to the men. In order for a film to pass the Bechdel Test, it must fulfill three conditions:
- There are two (named) female characters
- The two characters have a conversation
- The conversation is not about a man
If a film meets all three of these conditions, it is concluded (on a general scale) that the film features active female characters, as opposed to passive ones, merely existing to serve the narrative of the male ones.
These seem like fairly basic (and few) conditions, right? So a lot of films must have a least one non-male-centered conversation between two women? Wrong. In fact, only around half of all films pass the test. Only half of all films find the time to meet these three conditions in amongst what is likely a myriad of conversations between men about a variety of topics as they take charge of the narrative.
This statistic is even reflected in this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture. Amongst the nine, only five pass the test:
Arrival – a female lead (in the form of a linguistics professor), has several conversations with her daughter throughout the film.
Hidden Figures – many conversations take place here between women working at NASA about topics ranging from physics to discrimination.
La La Land – a female lead (part of a two-hander) discusses life and career with roommates and professionals
Fences – a wife has a discussion with a young girl about shoes.
Lion – there are numerous conversations between numerous women in this film who are not simply confined to roles such as mother or girlfriend
This leaves four films (including the ultimate Best Picture winner) that do not pass the test. A couple have two named female characters but lack any interaction between them, theoretically rendering them to be there only to add to the male characters and their experiences.
This shows the test to be an effective, shorthand method to determine, what some would argue to be, a base level of female representation in a film. However, it does have its issues.
The test suggests that if women are only discussing a man, that they cannot be a three-dimensional character, or hold their own interests. Perhaps their other interests are shown in a visual way, or they discuss them with the male characters? The concept essentially rules out almost all romcoms which can have entirely active female protagonists (and in the good ones, they are pretty multi-dimensional). The film could be starring almost solely women, yet if it is based around a romantic fascination with one man it will not pass the test. Similarly, in these types of films, love is often the focus, and in films that essentially only feature dialogue that propels the plot forward, it would be unlikely to find a conversation about anything else (and, as the majority of these films that star women are heterosexual, a man may be the topic of conversation). This does occur in films about men, however, far less frequently, suggesting it is the prevalence of films like these (or the fact that these are the ones that make up most of the representation of women in cinema), that is the real issue. The focus is not always a romantic one either. Perhaps there is a platonic or familial bond the character is pursuing in light of their curiosity or in search for something specific themselves (furthering their character); the man is not necessarily something always to be desired or to look up at.
However, you would be hard-pressed to find as many films of these types of situations where the genders are reversed.
The test can also omit films that are essentially a female one-hander, or a two-hander equal shared between a male and female pair. A film which could only feature a woman would not pass this test, despite 100% of the cast and 100% of the screentime being devoted to a woman.
However, to see these as real issues is to accept the test as the be-all and end-all of understanding gender bias in film. It isn’t, but is is a much-needed reminder that more real women need to be shown on out screens, if an absurd proportion of films cannot meet the most minimum of requirements relating to female representation.
It may not be a complete measurement, but it is a start, and really does help to highlight the ridiculous inequality and gender bias that still plagues film, starting a conversation that will hopefully move forward an issue whose progress has been passing at a glacial pace.
The more we all understand about issues of underrepresentation (for all – women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ – be it in front of or behind the camera), the more we can work towards improving this, and have a cinema that really reflects the world its supposed to hold a mirror up to.