Close your eyes and think back to the last movie that you saw. Got it? Now, imagine the setting, the way the characters interacted and conversed with their friends and surroundings; now think about the conversation. Were there at least two named female characters? If you answered “yes”, did they have a conversation with one another? And if you answered “yes” again, was that conversation about something other than a man? If your answer was “no”, that’s not uncommon. In fact, about half of movies can’t answer, “yes” to all three.
These three questions make up what is known as The Bechdel Test, based off of a cartoon by Alison Bechdel (shown below). It is designed to point out how gendered movies can be. Frequently in movies, women are portrayed in a rather stereotypical fashion: as mothers, daughters, trophies, boy-obsessed teens, over-emotional girls, and the list goes on. This unequal distribution of characteristics given to females reinforces the stereotypes that are perpetuated throughout society.
According to bechdeltest.com, there are about 5,482 movies that are currently in their ever-expanding database. Of these movies, 3,127 (57%) pass all three tests, 563 (10%) pass two tests, 1,217 (22%) pass one test, and 574 (11%) pass zero tests. As you can see, about 2,355 movies don’t meet all three criteria. If say, the average run time of a movie is 1.5 hours, multiply that by 2,355, and that equates to about 147 days worth of time in which movies don’t portray women with equal depth as they do with men. Movies such as the original Star Wars trilogy, Back to the Future, The Social Network, and Run Lola Run, are amongst the many movies that do not pass the test. That being said, there are also a solid chunk of movies that do pass the test such as The Wizard of Oz, Titanic, and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For a more complete list visit bechdeltest.com.
An interesting thing about this test is that it doesn’t even specify how many times the two women have to interact or for how long, it just has to be a conversation not about a man. This still leaves the floor open for conversation about babies, cooking, and cleaning which are still very stereotypical female topics. Therefore, though this test clearly sets aside one way in which women are portrayed in movies, it doesn’t cover the full spectrum of feminism, nor does it have to. It is a very basic way of looking at an aspect of female representation, and I believe that it serves as a catalyst to get others thinking about women in media and to go beyond the surface of the issue.
I don’t believe that we should necessarily be critical of movies that don’t pass this test either. On websites such as tvtropes.org, they highlight that it makes sense for some movies not to pass it, such as movies with all male casts or movies that have only one female character, or even romantic comedies where the entire plot is designed to talk about relationships. But there is still some form of gender analysis that can be taken from these types of films in regard to why there is a whole genre dedicated to romance and relationships or why war movies generally portray just men.
Film is an entertainment industry and therefore many producers are going to make movies that either follow a successful formula or are aimed at a particular audience. A common and successful formula that comes to mind is that of the “Rom Com”: girl and guy meet, girl and guy hate each other, girl and guy love each other, girl and guy split up, girl and guy get back together and live happily ever after. Overlay that with some cheesy music and you’ve got a new box office hit. Why is it then that this has become such a universal formula? Romantic Comedies are basically like crack to some people. This could very well be the embodiment of the Uses and Gratifications Theory related to mass communication, stating why and how people uses media to satisfy their needs. Therefore these formulaic romance movies could serve the needs of people who live vicariously through characters pursuing love that they don’t have in their lives, or it could serve the purpose of forming emotional ties, or parasocial relationships to fictional characters so that individuals feel a connection that they may be lacking. There are hundred of reasons why the “Rom Com” formula persists, but either way, it has become a staple of film culture and often times female characters are cast in a stereotypical fashion that doesn’t give them much depth.
The film industry is also dominated by men. According to wmm.com, based off of stats from 2013, women make up about 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers writers, cinematographers, and editors. Therefore, 84% percent of the industry is dominated by men (a rather skewed ratio). With this lack in female perspective, it’s no wonder women are underrepresented in roles. This is furthered by the fact that in movies “only 11% of all clearly identifiable protagonists are female, [and] 78% are male.” Therefore, I believe that a solution to this obstacle in the representation of women is to encourage more women in the film industry, to facilitate a more diverse perspective and to generate a more equal and fair representation of women in movies.
So, why should you care? Media is a very pervasive industry and its influence is ever growing as can be seen by the rapid technological advances in streaming of media on different devices and across countries. Therefore, it’s a very powerful medium to deliver messages about culture and individuals. By under representing women and casting them in roles that lack depth or focus, this can affect how people see women as a gender and what to expect from them. If women are more adequately represented, I believe that it will be an empowering experience for females and encourage them to pursue activities beyond what is considered conventional norms and not fall into a preconceived notion that is purported by the media of what they should be doing. The Bechdel Test is one way in which we can begin to think about these inequalities and representations and use it to jump start our thoughts on the representation of women in films and television, as well as media as a whole.
To view more ways in which women are misrepresented check out the documentary, Miss Representation.