Bechdel Test Influencing Cinema and the Presence of Women

bechdel test

I was excited, and admittedly did a small fist pump, when Cate Blanchett gave a gentle critique during her Oscar acceptance speech for ‘Blue Jasmine’ by saying, “perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money.”

Well, I certainly want to see them and I have gladly given my money to some great female-centric, non-rom-com films from the past year. Turns out, I’m not the only one who thinks these strong female leads are awesome and worthy of a little box office love. People are turning out to see films about dynamic, strong, interesting women with more in their lives than the search for love.

Last fall, 4 theaters in Sweden decided that they were going to integrate the Bechdel Test into their rating system in order to promote a stronger female presence in the films they release. It’s a bold move that I think is amazing and would fully encourage more countries to emulate this practice.

“What is the Bechdel Test?” you might ask. Let’s watch this handy video to find out!

For a movie to pass the test, it needs to complete three criteria:

  1. It has to have at least two named female characters in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

So let’s be clear about one thing, a movie passing the Bechdel Test does NOT automatically make it a ‘good’ film. There are great movies that DON’T pass the Bechdel Test and that doesn’t make them a bad movie, it just means that movie doesn’t portray many women or the women they do portray are not multifaceted women, in general. You might think “Why is this necessary? It can NOT be that hard to pass this test!” Well, you’re right, there are not many criteria that a film has to meet. That’s such a low hurdle to clear.

…and yet

…many, many, MANY films simple don’t. Women are very frequently pigeon-holed into roles that focus primarily on getting or keeping a man. If not that, then it’s about how they are “trying to make it in a man’s world” and there just aren’t other women around.

So is it necessary? Well, let’s see. Think about the last 6 films you’ve watched and do a little cross-checking. Here are mine:

  1. Big Fish – No
  2. The Spectacular Now – No
  3. V for Vendetta – No
  4. Clue – Maybe, I can’t remember for sure, but it’s likely to pass given that half the cast was women.
  5. The Neverending Story – No
  6. The Kids Are Alright – YES! Yay! I got one! Whew!

Every time I’ve done this little exercise, most of the films don’t pass the test and I’m a woman who purposely seeks out that kind of material. And you don’t even notice it really! Here I am thinking “I love progressive female roles! I have good taste in movies! Most things that I watch MUST pass!”

NOPE!

Again, that doesn’t make a movie ‘bad’ (or I should say THAT isn’t what makes a movie ‘bad.’ It can fail and be bad, but it can pass and be bad too). But still, I say it IS necessary. Women want to have their heroes, role models, and movie icons too! We want to see a portrayal of women as they REALLY ARE! Women make up half the population, so it’s weird when they don’t make up half the cast in at least a good portion of films made, right? Why are there simply so few women around? Women are everywhere! They are out there changing the world! There’s so much material to be used in story-telling, why are we not taking advantage of it?!

Box office numbers are showing that men and women like these movies! A female-centric film should not be considered a niche market! Just look at last year’s examples of “Catching Fire,” “Frozen,” and “The Heat.” All huge money-makers. You know the highest grossing movie franchise in history, Harry Potter? Yeah, all but one of those movies passes the test. And it’s not for a lack of awesome ladies, it’s just that they are all too busy kicking ass in the last movie to have much in the way of conversation period.

There’s more stats and all sorts of good stuff in this article by Walt Hickey over at fivethirtyeight.com, which goes into much more detail, but trust me when I tell you, it is a myth to believe these movies aren’t profitable.

The Heat math lesson

After the success of “Bridesmaids” and “The Heat,” director Paul Feig has stated in an interview with GQ, he’s using the test as a standard for all his films. “I’m trying to make everything I do pass the Bechdel test. There are so many movies for women that are all about finding a guy and falling in love, and it’s like ‘that’s fine and those movies are fun’, but I’d like to explore other sides of women’s lives than that.”

Amen, brother. There are so many more things that happen in my life that have nothing to do with finding a man for me to fall in love with. Romance is great, but I want more!

xo,
Bryce

Bryce

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