How Important is the Bechdel Test? – movieScope
How Important is the Bechdel Test?
movieScope editor Nikki Baughan explains why the Bechdel Test is still an essential tool for examining the lack of gender equality in cinema.
Although it’s been in place since the mid-1980s, the Bechdel Test has been a hot topic of conversation this week – thanks largely to a video blog by Mark Kermode, which highlighted just how many films fail to get a passing grade.
Popularised by a 1985 comic strip by Alison Bechdel, the Bechdel Test judges the strength of a film’s female characters. There are three parts to the test; the film has to have at least two named women in it; they have to talk to each other; and they have to talk to each other about something besides a man. A more recent update to the test suggests that the women need to have a proper conversation of more than 30 seconds, rather than simply exchanging a couple of lines of throwaway dialogue.
The fact that many films fail this simple test is not new news; gender equality has been absent from cinema for over half a century, and the test holds up a damning magnifying glass to this disparity. In an interview for today’s Metro, I was asked about the importance of the test, and what relevance it has to today’s cinema.
Does the Bechdel test still matter in cinema today? If so, why?
Absolutely, yes, not least because it represents the wider issue of the terrible depiction of women in media and culture. Women are too often reduced to bit parts and stereotypes on screen, and this too often goes unnoticed. The Bechdel Test acts as a magnifying glass; by breaking down a film in these simple terms, it draws attention to the shocking gender disparity that exists in the majority of cinematic narratives.
I firmly believe that there’s a direct link between the representation of women on screen and our place within wider society; this gender stereotyping also happens in children’s and family films (and on TV shows), and if girls grow up without seeing strong female characters on screen – leaders, engineers, scientists, etc – it has a very real impact on how they see their place in the world. It’s a vicious circle, and the Bechdel Test is an important tool for highlighting this problem.
What recent films that you have seen have failed the test?
Many, sad to say, including most of the big summer films; The Great Gatsby, Pacific Rim, Man of Steel, World War Z, for example. Yes, they have female characters in them – indeed, striking characters like Daisy Buchanan, Mako Mori and Lois Lane – but they all fail the test for one reason or another. Unfortunately, these women are not independent characters in their own right, but designed to interact with and support the males around them.
Is a film a bad film if it fails the test?
No, not at all. Many films that are considered classics would fail the test, including ReservoirDogs, King Kong, Casablanca and The Big Sleep, but are still wonderful pieces of cinema. The Bechdel Test isn’t intended as a mark of quality, rather of gender diversity within a narrative. That is not to say that all films with strong female characters are instantly better than those without, but any story which portrays both genders on an equal (and realistic) footing will undoubtedly be a much richer experience.
Do any of your favourite films fail the Bechdel test?
Yes, lots! When Harry Met Sally is the one that immediately springs to mind; I adore it, but it fails the test spectacularly. North by Northwest, Psycho, Jaws… the list goes on. I’m pleased to say, however, that my favourite film of all time, Gone With The Wind, passes with flying colours; some may call into question its representations of race, but its female characters remain some of the strongest on screen.
What do you think of how women are currently represented in cinema?
Generally speaking, extremely poorly. Across all genres they are pigeon-holed and stereotyped as either the passive supporters of male characters – mothers, lovers, secretaries, etc – victims, or fantasy clichés (the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ is one such example). Women are also far more likely to be shown in sexually explicit situations, and violence against them is often fetishised. And, as mentioned above, you rarely see a woman in a leadership role, or employed in so-called ‘male’ professions like engineering or science.
We spoke to the wonderful writer/actress Alice Lowe (Sightseers) for our Women in Film issue, and she really summed up the problem when she told us that “it’s a constant frustration to me how one-dimensional the characters are in the scripts I get handed. They are just either a mother or a wife… Women usually remain constant and unchanging in film, and support the man on his journey.”
How boring does that sound? And yet, that’s the dismal fate of the majority of female characters.
Do you think audiences don’t want women characters in their movies or is it a case of studios second-guessing what they want?
I do think that studios think that so-called ‘female-centric’ films are more of a risk because male-dominated films do big business at the box office. But that that’s purely because audiences are not being given much of a choice; the majority of the films that make it to wide release – and are heavily promoted – are the ones with predominantly male characters. With most audiences, particularly those outside big cities, only being given access to a handful of films at their local multiplex, they are being force-fed this diet of male-centric cinema. It’s yet another vicious cycle.
Last year’s Women in Film and TV study revealed that females accounted for just 33 per cent of all characters in the top 100 films at the US box office. But this is nothing new; the Annenberg Public Policy Centre also published a study last year, which revealed that, since 1950, male film characters have outnumbered females by two to one. This is obviously a historical problem, exacerbated by the fact there are very few female screenwriters working today: researcher Susan Orozoco found that between 2010 and 2012, women wrote just 9 per cent of all sold ‘spec’ scripts. And when you consider that, in 2012, just 18 per cent of key behind the scenes roles in film were women, is it really any surprise that the majority of characters and narratives are male-centric? Male screenwriters write from their own perspective and experiences, and that usually (though not always) results in female characters that are either absent or entirely unsatisfactory.
What was the reaction like to movieScope’s Women in Film issue back in March?
That was the most important issue of my career, and I was thrilled that so many people responded so positively. I think this was because all the women we featured had a wealth of great knowledge and experience to share with our readers; they weren’t just featured because they were female. To them, their gender had nothing to do with their ability to do their job, and our readers really engaged with their stories.
There were some people who questioned the need for the issue, and who were genuinely surprised that the statistics for women working in the industry were so dismal, so I’m glad we also managed to draw attention to this disparity.
Are there any other ‘tests’ you think movies should pass?
It’s a sad fact that, for various reasons historical and financial, the mainstream film industry remains the enclave of the straight, white, middle-class male. As a result, it’s not just women who are suffering from exclusion; characters from different races, with disabilities, gay and bisexual characters and those from minority groups also don’t share equal amounts of screen time with their white male counterparts. And when they are seen on screen, often they are wholly defined by their race, sexuality or disability, etc.
I certainly don’t believe that we should start making films to any kind of quota system; positive discrimination is not a sustainable answer. I do think that the industry really needs to start broadening its horizons when it comes to diversity on screen, by nurturing and supporting filmmaking talent from all walks of life. Audiences will benefit from, and undoubtedly respond to, a more balanced perspective, whether that is gender, race, sexuality or disability.
Do you think initiatives like the Bechdel Test can make a difference?
I think it’s important to note that the issue of gender in film is not one that is immediately recognised by audiences. We have been seeing this disparity for so long – today’s audiences have literally grown up with it – so it’s natural to take male on-screen dominance as the norm. It’s essential that we keep challenging this status quo, keep banging the drum; there are many great organisations and individuals out there doing just that, including Women in Film and TV, Birds Eye View, Underwire, Women and Hollywood, MaryAnn Johanson of Flickfilosopher. Hopefully the message will start getting through. It’s going to take time, but we’re patient – and determined.