March 23, 2010

The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies

Originally posted at Feminist Frequency by Anita Sarkeesian and cross-posted at Gender Across Borders.

The Bechdel Test is a simple way to gauge the active presence of female characters in Hollywood films and just how well rounded and complete those roles are.  It was created by Allison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985.  It is astonishing the number of popular movies that can’t pass this simple test.  It demonstrates how little women’s complex and interesting lives are underrepresented or non existent in the film industry.  We have jobs, creative projects, friendships and struggles among many other things that are actually interesting in our lives… so Hollywood, start writing about it!

Check out other great blogs and commentary about the Bechdel Test:

  1. The Bechdel Test Movie List: here you can find a long, long list of movies and where they rate on the Bechdel Test.
  2. Why Film Schools Teach Screenwriters Not to Pass the Bechdel Test’s by Jennifer Kesler.  This is a must read – exposing the systemic problems of the film industry starting with film school.
  3. See the original comic strip “The Rule” here.
  4. You can visit Allison Bechdel’s site here and I highly recommend her graphic novel Fun Home
  5. Over at the Blog “The Angry Black Woman” she adapted the Bechdel Test to apply to race.  Take a look: The Bechdel Test and Race in Popular Fiction



20 Comments »

  1. [...] 3. Thou shalt watch every movie while wondering if it will pass the Bechdel Test. [...]

    Pingback by Oh no, someone wants to make a feminist culture manifest(a) | Allison McNeely — May 13, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

  2. Sounds like BS to me, just because they’re both female doesn’t mean they will have much in common or even get along outside work, does talking about the job they’re both working on count?

    Comment by tia — May 14, 2010 @ 6:35 am

  3. Thanks, Tia, but if you listen to Anita again you’ll see she mentions this point. She says that this test is not a measure of a feminist movie, a good movie for women etc, just simply a test for female presence and if that female presence interacts.

    Comment by Melanie — May 14, 2010 @ 7:03 am

  4. I was actually watching Pulp Fiction last night when I thought of this. It *does* pass the test, even though it’s listed as a movie that doesn’t.

    In the scene where Vincent Vega goes to bug drugs over at Lance’s place, in the other room his wife, Jody is talking to Trudi about piercings. Last time I checked, piercings were not men.

    Maybe it’s not a long scene, but it still passes the test. Makes me wonder about all the other movies listed.

    Comment by Prospero's Daughter — May 16, 2010 @ 5:54 am

  5. I’ll pass this on to Anita Sarkeesian.

    Comment by Melanie — May 16, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

  6. Your video doesn’t pass your own test…

    Comment by Jim — May 25, 2010 @ 10:58 am

  7. This isn’t a movie, it’s just a video. There isn’t a plot or a storyline. It’s just information.

    Comment by Egle — June 6, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

  8. to be fair, wall-e is kind of a pathetic example. everything else — i gotcha.

    Comment by weetz — June 16, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

  9. Perhaps, just maybe, if people that believed in a certain point of view spent less time complaining, and more time doing something, they would accomplish more. I.e. if you want more movies where women are portrayed realistically, go out and make them. And complaining about how “they theaters won’t play them”, etc, doesn’t count as doing something, either. Build your own theater. Complaining not terribly effective.

    Comment by Jayce — August 1, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

  10. I think this is just circular logic. Men write most block buster movies and most men have trouble writing woman’s dialog. I remember that from college. Women write movies that appeal more to women and these movies are not usually block busters. Will there be a block buster that fits your criteria? If you get a man to write like a woman or a woman to write like a man (unnatural state of mind).

    Comment by Jim — August 5, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

  11. While I can understand wanting more women and more womanly interests portrayed in films, I have to ask if this is an issue of people against women, or rather people writing what they know? certainly the majority of script writers seem to be male. If a male scriptwriter tried and failed to portray a feminine conversations accurately, wouldn’t that show up somewhere on the feminist radar?

    Comment by Ed — August 8, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

  12. Wall-E? Unfair.

    I protested at Shriek, but despite the fact that there is a strong female in the movie, the men in that movie do interact with each other and on much more interesting topics, which results in unbalanced character depth.

    Comment by Nahida — August 16, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

  13. It’s a fair point, but it’s easy to do this with any specified group. Consider what I call the “Triple N Test” for Asian males.

    The blockbuster passes the test if a major Asian male character does not fit into any of the following categories:

    Ninja – (References to martial arts, swords, gross stereotypes)
    Nerd – (Can’t get a girl, socially hopeless, geeky, etc.)
    Naughty – (Villain, or portrayal as immoral outsider)

    Sounds fair, right? But just like the Bechdel test, it’s difficult to find a Blockbuster that passes without question.

    Comment by TikiTemple — August 20, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

  14. Thanks for this video, Anita. I stumbled onto your website searching for “Girl Power” movies to devote my blog to next month.

    While no one can seem to agree on what feminism is, or whether Nine to Five or G.I. Jane are feminist movies or not, the Bechdel Test can measure whether a movie acknowledges women or for whatever reason, ignores them.

    Lots of great films flunk this test. A lot of pap like Sex and the City 2 passes with flying colors. But it’s fascinating to realize how few movies are willing or able to feature two women talking about something other than men.

    Comment by Joe Valdez — August 21, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

  15. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off also passes the test- there are multiple women in the movie with names- Jeanie Bueller, Sloane Peterson, Katie Bueller, Grace, Florence Sparrow (the nurse), and Simone Adamly, to name a few- and they have interactions with each other that do not involve talking about a man. For example, Jeanie talks to Katie about how she feels mistreated. Florence has a conversation with Sloane about how her grandmother is dead. Although many of these conversations indirectly include Ferris, they are not “about a man”. Makes me wonder how many of the other movies listed actually pass the test.

    Comment by CoffeeSpoons — August 25, 2010 @ 11:37 am

  16. I agree that it’s undesirable for Hollywood to perpetuate the idea that only men can “drive the plot” so to speak, but you can’t possibly apply this test to movies like Braveheart and Gladiator – They’re portraying societies where women really were, for the most part, ineffectual. The filmmakers could have easily inserted a scene with two women talking to one another, but what about? War and politics were male endeavors at the time.

    The test doesn’t apply to many films on this list. A film about prison is going to have inherently few women – Most inmates are male (don’t know about correctional workers). Austin Powers is about womanizing and the objectification of women, so it’s unreasonable to expect it to pass. Wall-E is about robots, but moreover features only two (if that) main characters and zero real supporting characters, so the probability that two men would talk to one another is low, let alone two women.

    Any crime movie can’t heavily feature women, so Reservoir Dogs is out too. I’ll give you a pass on the Bourne movies since it might under-represent women in the CIA.

    Milk is a true story, and most of the major players in real life were men, so the prominence of female characters is obviously going to be limited both by what really happened and their importance to the real-life situation.

    Most of the crappy blockbusters certainly fail the test though. Particularly troubling are movies aimed at children, like Toy Story – If the youth are continually bombarded with stories where women are little more than a love interest, we’re not making any progress.

    Comment by Tyler — September 8, 2010 @ 8:32 pm

  17. Tyler, I agree that a lot of those male themed movies might not be expected to pass the test (such as war movies, prison movies, etc.), but that doesn’t mean they can’t. The effect of war on women can make for an interesting story, for example, just look at Gone With the Wind. And as a reader pointed out above, Pulp Fiction passed the test, it is a crime movie. That said, if a crime/war movie doesn’t pass the test, it’s understandable. I think it would be interesting to see which movies didn’t pass the reverse Bechdel test (men talking to each other). I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. Mona Lisa’s Smile?

    Comment by Tony — January 2, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

  18. I’m not sure, but I think Death Proof may fail the reverse Bechdel test. It only has three male characters and I don’t think they ever talk to each other.
    And Vera Drake, definitively. Even if there are men talking to each other, it’s about her.
    Oh, and probably Chicago too.

    Comment by AP² — February 13, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

  19. @AP, Death Proof passes the reverse Bechdel Test as far as I’m aware. After Stuntman Mike’s first killer crash, Sheriff Earl McGraw (a recurring character in several Tarantino films) discusses the driver’s motives with his son, Edgar. Arguably, they’re still talking about the women who were killed, but after a certain point the conversation focuses on Mike rather than his victims.

    Comment by vespa — July 4, 2011 @ 10:47 am

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