Reel Talk: Is the Bechdel Test enough to save the female lead?

September 4, 2014

The film industry, like the majority of industries, has a female problem.

That’s probably not the first time you’ve heard that, but people have started to try to objectively assess the issue. For many, the biggest marker that a film has succeeded in portraying females realistically is whether it will pass the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test originated in the 1980s, but has risen in popularity and is now generally considered as the end-all, be-all of a film’s treatment of female characters. The test is simple: in order for a movie to pass the test, it must have at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men.

The Bechdel Test objectively gauges the presence of women in film, often giving an unexpected evaluation. Many blockbuster favorites fail the simple test. The entire Lord of The Rings Trilogy fails, most installments of Harry Potter fails, and even Spike Jonze’s 2013 film, Her.

Four of the top five grossing films of the year so far pass the Bechdel Test, according to BechdelTest.com. Guardians of the Galaxy, The LEGO Movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and Maleficent all pass while only Captain America: Winter Soldier fails the test. This seems like a big success for women in film.

While, according to the Bechdel Test, the film industry has made progress, it is important to note that four of these same top five films—Captain America included—have male protagonists. Guardians of the Galaxy has Zoe Saldana on the top of its bill—as an alien—but only next to three other male characters. Of the other three top 2014 films, The LEGO Movie does the best job of developing a female character. A total badass, Wyldstyle takes shit from no one as she helps Emmett, the male protagonist, develop as a character. They fall in love, etc.

In an age that is often dubbed post-feminist, we must continue to strive for a high standard for female representation in film. Some tests have been derived from the Bechdel Test to try to standardize a successfully feminist film, including another film test intended to highlight films that don’t pass the Bechdel Test, but contain strong female characters. Named after female character Mako Mori in Pacific Rim, a passing film must contain at least one female character with an independent story arc that doesn’t simply support a male character’s story. 

This other standard feels like a cop out. Lowering our expectations of female characters in film isn’t the answer to films failing the Bechdel Test. If anything, the Mako Mori test should be used to strengthen the Bechdel. Why don’t we simply expect women to be their own characters without contributing to the development of men?

Sweden, however, seems to be leading the path of institutional change. Late last year, the country introduced a new rating system that assigned letter grades to films based on their passage or failure of the Bechdel Test. But expecting this social democracy’s policies to trickle back to Hollywood films seems hopeful.

The fact of the matter is that it is unrealistic to seek real, balanced representation of women in today’s industry. Beyond the drastically skewed ratio of male roles, there is also an overrepresentation of men behind the scenes. The aforementioned top five films (and the next five) were all directed by males, and most of their screenplays were written by men. We cannot expect that these male writers and directors will have the same lived experience as an actual female. 

The film industry and its critics need something better than the Bechdel Test. Maybe they need to develop female roles into full characters. Maybe there need to be more Mako Mori’s. But maybe that is unrealistic. Maybe too many damsels are still in distress.

Dayana Morales Gomez
Dayana Morales Gomez is the former editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Voice. She graduated from the School of Foreign Service.

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Comments 3

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    PREACH. We could always have (and still need) more powerful and independent female role models. Great piece.

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    Also, after reading the discussion on BechdelTest.com, I’m not so sure I would classify GotG as passing–it’s hard to discount the fact that both Gamora and Nebula are both A) in servitude to men and B) that their primary motivations stem from these men. It may not be in a romantic sense (and the male-but-no-female nudity is appreciated). The actual strip’s rules are unclear as far as how the conversation pertains to men. They may talk to each other about something other than a man, but the presence of the men in question necessitated said conversation…. I guess it’s really up to you about how strongly you interpret the test. For me, I would say it fails.

    As a sidenote, Pratt’s shirtless scene doesn’t have a female counterpoint, but Saldana’s costume throughout has a deep v-neck. Ehh…

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