Friday, November 8, 2013

The Bechdel Test for Gender Bias: Bad for Movies, Good for TV

by Sara N.

Willow and Buffy, shown here discussing gender bias.
Sweden, that bounteous promised land of very good things, has added an intriguing component to one of its movie ratings systems: a test to evaluate gender bias onscreen.

A handful of Swedish cinemas have introduced a new ratings system under which a film can only earn an A rating if it passes the Bechdel test. The test, proposed by cartoonist Allison Bechdel, rates a piece of fiction on three criteria: Are there a) at least two female characters who b) talk to one another about c) something other than a man.

Great idea, right? As it turns out, this test is bad news for an embarrassingly large chunk of American cinema, and it's not always the best predictor of a movie's quality.

Consider the top-grossing films of 2013 so far. Iron Man 3, Fast and Furious 6, Despicable Me 2, and Oz the Great and Powerful pass, but many of these films skate by with the bare minimum amount of conversation between two female characters. So does World War Z, for the scene in which Brad Pitt's girl children talk to one another; no adult women have a conversation. Man of Steel passes, kind of, although the women aren't talking to one another as much as barking orders at each other. Does that really count as a conversation? Rounding out the top 10 are Gravity, Monsters University, The Croods, and Star Trek: Into Darkness, none of which pass, either because there's only one woman in the movie or because the women don't speak to one another.  (All of these ratings come from

Fast and Furious 6: That bastion of feminist filmmaking. 
The Bechdel test isn't perfect. I mean, can anyone argue that Gravity is an inferior movie in its depictions of women when compared to Fast and Furious 6? Plus, hugely entertaining films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars movies, and all but one of the Harry Potter movies don't pass the test. (Frustrating, no?)

So, applying the Bechdel test to our films provides some useful information, but it isn't a cure-all for what ails us. That will come from more sensitive and inclusive writing and casting in Hollywood. Over and over, studies have shown that male characters vastly outnumber female characters, and female characters aren't given enough to do. Research findings show that only 33 percent of characters in the top 100 U.S. films in 2011 were women, and that there have been two male characters for every female character in movies for the past 60 years. Also disheartening: twice as many female characters were shown in explicit sexual scenes than male characters.

In short, movies still have lots of ground to make up. What's interesting to me is how much better sci fi/fantasy television shows do on the Bechdel test. Off the top of my head, these shows all pass, maybe not for every single episode, but on the whole:

Sydney and Francie know that hugging is like talking.
American Horror Story: Coven, Game of Thrones, Sleepy Hollow, The Walking Dead, Arrow, Once Upon a Time, Battlestar Galactica, The Witches of East End (I'm going to keep mentioning it until you people start watching it!), Grimm, True Blood, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Fringe, Doctor Who, Lost, Xena: Warrior Princess (duh!), Alias, and pretty much all of Joss Whedon's body of work, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Firefly to Dollhouse to Angel (Cordelia and Fred talked to each other, right?).

Sure, plenty of terrific shows don't pass. Supernatural and The X-Files don't do a great job of showing two women together at once, let alone talking. Smallville tended to be all about Clark. Did Gwen talk to any of the other women in Torchwood about anything other than Owen? And how often did Beverly Crusher and Deanna Troi get together to chat in Ten Forward about career advancement in Star Fleet?

Still, I'm grateful for the abundance of television offerings that either put women front and center or give them plenty to do as part of an ensemble. If only more movies would follow suit. After all, women make up a huge portion of the movie-going public. How about we make Pacific Rim 2 focus on Mako and her all-women Jeager team? That would be Bechdel-approved.
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