Is the Bechdel test failing us?

In a world increasingly concerned with equality between the sexes, it seems shocking that, of 5,788 films listed on the website, only 57% pass. In addition, the Geena Davies Institute on Gender in Media found that, of 120 films produced between 2010 and 2013, only 31% of all named characters were female, and only 7% of those films were directed by women.

Image: comiccollector

The Bechdel test was originally seen in a 1985 comic-strip by Alison Bechdel, from Dykes To Watch Out For and highlights Hollywood’s unshakable gender bias. In order for a film to pass the test, it has to feature two or more women in it, who speak to each other about something other than a man. Doesn’t seem like a big ask, does it?

At this year’s Oscars, only four of the eight films nominated for Best Picture passed the test – and even then, The Theory of Everything’s Felicity Jones’ only non-male orientated conversation with another woman was about her joining the church choir – not exactly a riveting plot point. Even more worrying is the distinct lack of women in powerful, decision-making positions; all five of the nominees for Best Directing this year were men, as were all of the nominees for both Adapted Screenplay and Original Screenplay. Perhaps this is hardly surprising, given that the AMPAS – Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – who decide the nominees and winners are overwhelmingly white, male, and over 60.

Image: New Line Cinema
Image: New Line Cinema

Even films or television series that are predisposed to a female audience have similar flaws. In Sex and the City, Miranda Hobbes, one of the four main female characters, highlights the series’ shortcomings by saying: ‘All we talk about anymore is Big, or balls, or small dicks. How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?’ In a series that was originally praised for its female leads and frank approach to women’s sexuality, a huge amount of its action centres around men, and what women have to do to get them.

Obviously, the Bechdel test has flaws, and can’t be applied to every film in a fair way; for example, The Shawshank Redemption features an almost entirely male cast, as it is set in a men’s prison, not because Frank Darabont didn’t want to cast strong female characters. Similarly, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose fails, as it set in a medieval monastery. Also, a conversation between two women based entirely around stereotypes still constitutes a pass: If two named women talk solely about shoes, shopping and babies, the film will pass.

Maybe the Bechdel test isn’t the best way to measure female presence in film, but at the very least it does highlight the lack of well-developed female roles in the acting world

Perhaps, then, it is more prudent to look at the subsequent tests inspired by the Bechdel model. The Mako Mori test – named after Rinko Kikuchi’s character in Pacific Rim – has the following criteria: there must be at least one female protagonist, who gets her own narrative arc, that isn’t about supporting a male character’s story. In other words, the film must include a female character whose removal from the plot would alter the course of the film. Again, this test doesn’t absolutely ensure gender equality in the film, but it’s a start.

Image: Pixar
Image: Pixar

The problem of gender bias in films is seemingly unlimited; Pixar are prime culprits for lack of diversity. Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Up, Ratatouille, and Monsters Inc. all fail the Bechdel test. In fact, of the 14 Pixar films produced, only four of them pass, with Brave being their first attempt at a female-driven plot. If you compare this to the amount of female lead characters in animated Studio Ghibli films, Pixar falls far behind. Hayao Miyazaki’s visions such as My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away seem to ignore gender in favour of plot and character development – perhaps the Western film industry should begin to follow suit.

Maybe the Bechdel test isn’t the best way to measure female presence in film, but at the very least, it does highlight the lack of well-developed female roles in the acting world. The Bechdel test’s findings are important in showing the disparity between reality, and the reality portrayed in films; despite half of the world’s population being female, there are roughly two male characters to every female one in film history, with the ratio standing at 3:1 in family films.

Hannah Tomes

Image: Dreamworks Pictures

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