In a cinematic world where female characters are either stuck in the sexist, objectified and dumbed down caricatures of the past or are caught in a cycle of clever retro-sexism where they are the unattainable manic pixie dream girls of any man’s fantasy, there is a need for greater and ACCURATE representation of the lives and experiences of women around the world.
On the surface of it, we can easily identify movies and films where women simple “share” the screen with their male counterparts, where they are used as a mere plot device to further the male protagonists journey or in some absurd cases where women play next to no role. There are certain categories such as biographies or films based on social issues such as gender and race where more females are found in deserving roles, but in other genres such as action or thrillers, they act as accessories to the men.
So, how does one categorize and filter out movies and films that have proper female representation? Well, that’s where the Bechdel Test comes in. First coined by cartoonist Allison Bechdel way back in 1985 in a comic strip titled “Dykes to Watch Out For,” unknowingly became a universal test to gauge whether or not a movie was actual female representation. As per the test, for a film or TV show to pass it they must have
- Two or more female characters,
- That talk to each other.
- About something other than a man
Sounds simple enough right? Well, that is not the case even today. In 2018 only 24 films passed the Bechdel test. Yes just 24. You would think that in the 21st century we would have realized by now that real women have loads to talk about other than men and their relationships with men. Unfortunately for a majority of film makers and directors, the focus is still entirely on men. The Bechdel Test, or more appropriately the Bechdel Wallace test since the true inspiration behind it came from Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace, became a revolutionary new way to present social commentary around gender representation in pop fiction and ultimately in the media.
However, critics have analysed that no matter how revolutionary, the test is an incomplete way to gauge actual representation and it has been criticized to ask only the bare minimum from the film and TV industry. Merely having the criteria of having two women discuss ANYTHING other than men is not a true depiction of the reality that not only are female actresses paid less than men even in Hollywood but also that their roles are limited.
Another huge discrepancy in the test is the fact that just because a movie such as Disney’s Frozen might have passed with flying colours, that doesnt mean some themes in the movie are not sexist or regressive. Alternatively, for a movie such as Sandra Bullock’s award winning “Gravity”, she had no conversations with other women since she was the only female character. Does this make the movie sexist? Or is the test inherently flawed?
Well, truth be told neither question is right in it’s entirety because the Bechdel Test is more of a litmus test than an absolute measure. Gravity fails the test but A Star Is Born passes simply because in one scene Lady Gaga has an unimportant conversation with a stage manager? This is only one example out of thousands where movies that barely depict true female representation pass.
However, the test does point us to an array of more important issues such as why do more films and TV shows not cast more female leads. Are women in their entirety not interesting to view? Luckily some gems such as “Annihilation” and “Oceans 8” shows us that is not the case. So even though the test might not be the best indicator, with the current scenario of the film and TV industry, it might be the only way we currently have. For now, we’ll be content in hoping that movies passing the bare minimum required by the test become the rule as Allison Bechdel put it and not the exception.