The Bechdel Test: Does Your Favorite Movie Pass?
A discussion of women in film
The Bechdel test, named after cartoon artist Alison Bechdel, is a way to measure if women are represented in a film or other media form. To satisfy the Bechdel test, there must be a) at least two female characters with names, b) who talk to each other, c) about something besides a man. It is a quick way to see if there is female representation, and it’s just kind of asking for the bare minimum.
A lot of people complain about how it's "feminist agenda" stuff, and that people should just make movies without having to satisfy diversity goals. But the test actually came out of a comic strip by Bechdel, in which two lesbians were talking about how they feel alienated by the media. One of the characters then devises a system for watching movies: the three-part requirements now known as the Bechdel test.
The test seems relatively simple. All a director would have to do is insert a single line of dialogue between two named female characters… easy, right? Not so fast. You’d be surprised how many popular films fall short of the Bechdel test.
I could easily make a list of incredibly sexist content, or films that omit women entirely. But instead I’ve only chosen movies that I think are mainstream and objectively well-made. I’m not trying to hate on all of these movies, I just want to point out that we can do better. And it’s crazy how something as simple as basic female representation is missing from so many popular films today.
1. Star Wars: The Original Trilogy
Right off the bat, this one pains me. I looked up to Princess Leia as a feminist icon as a kid. I still adore these movies, but as strong as Leia is, she's honestly the only female character. I mean... Mon Mothma? Aunt Beru? I'm grasping at straws here. But the real crux of it is that Leia never has a conversation with either of these women.
The first two of the Prequel Trilogy just barely pass, with Padme having conversations with her handmaidens and Shmi. However, Revenge of the Sith only has non-speaking female characters, besides Padme.
(This is why the animated and live-action TV shows are vastly superior... come at me if you want).
2. The Hobbit Trilogy
As kick-ass as Tauriel is, she has absolutely no character and sustenance. Her only personality trait, besides killing orcs, is that she is boy-crazy.
Besides her, we have Galadriel, who is rather bland, and Bard's daughters, who just scream and are frankly annoying.
3. Absolute icon (and L Word star) Pam Grier is Jackie Brown in the 1997 movie of the same name. My teenage obsession with Tarantino has faded over the years, but I just can't shake Jackie Brown and Hollywood. I think they're brilliant pieces of film, and they're damn fun to watch. Plus I like the ambiguity with how the female leads leave off: we never find out if Jackie ends up with Max in the last scene, and in Hollywood it's heavily implied that Sharon Tate will eventually leave Roman for Jay. Despite that they're my guilty pleasure movies, Tarantino and his films are incredibly problematic.
Jackie is kind of an isolated person, so one could make the argument against it. But... if you think about it, she does have at least a brief interaction with nearly every character in this movie. And historically, blaxploitation films usually have a lot of female rep. (1996's Set it Off for example.) I guess Tarantino "forgot" (in the same way that he "forgot" that the n-word is problematic). Whoops.
4. The Avengers
Marvel's women are so out of touch, it makes me want to ask the directors: Have you ever actually met a woman before? Black Widow is incredibly sexualized, never interacts with other women (there are only two others in this one), and gets tangled up in romances with half a dozen heroes. Like geez, Joss Whedon, I'm just trying to take my 7-year-old nephew to see a super hero movie, just cool it on the ass-fitted spandex. What am I talking about. I don't even have a nephew. Whatever.
Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a big improvement, but Marvel sabotaged itself with Captain Marvel. Just out her as gay already... And the "girl power" scene in Infinity War? Nobody asked for that.
Shuri and Valkyrie do score some points in my book, but that's a convo for another day.
5. The Lord of the Rings
Real shocker... we're back at LOTR! Now, Eowyn is gender-bending and an epic fighter, but her character relies on the idea that she's "just as good as a man," instead of being powerful just by herself. She is also greatly motivated by trying to get with Aragorn (I will never understand why he's so attractive- he looks like he's never met deodorant before) and of course, she ends up with Faramir for no discernable reason.
I actually adore LOTR, the books and the movies. The hobbits! The panoramas of New Zealand! The epic 20-minute battle sequences! But Arwen just threatens to push me away from the series. She is so lame, has no character structure, and is entirely reliant on Aragorn and Elrond's characters for substance.
Galadriel is there too, but she's not mega interesting. And of course none of these three interact.
Hamilton is fun to sing along to, but it's revisionist history. It paints a glossy picture, and erases Black and female struggles. It's no surprise that it fails the Bechdel test.
The craziest part is that the Schuyler sisters have several songs with JUST THEM... but all they sing about are men.
7. Almost all of Christopher Nolan's films
Nolan's women lack substance, barely add to the plot, and are extremely weak and fragile. Murph speaks with a minor character (Lois) in Interstellar, making it passable, and The Dark Knight has two extremely minor characters speak. Tenet, Inception, Dunkirk, Memento, The Prestige, and the other Batman's don't pass, and the female characters they have are remarkably unintelligent and useless. One could make the argument that two of them don't count because Dunkirk is a war movie, and Memento has an extremely limited cast, but it's the overall theme in his films that bother me.
8. Fight Club
For a movie that talks so incessantly about women, the women don't get to even... talk. I honestly like Chuck Pahliniuk's work, but I think it's been misinterpreted. I think David Fincher could have done a better job in translating the satire to the big screen.
9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Most of David Fincher's other movies don't pass either, including The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This is a movie about masculinity and the erasure of women, and Lisbeth is incredibly withdrawn and quiet, having been silenced all her life. So she barely interacts with anyone, but it still feels weird that there aren't any other women in the movie. I love the book, but the film minimized or erased all the female characters besides Lisbeth. It also minimized her bisexuality, and erased her girlfriend Mitzie.
10. Toy Story 1 and 2
Adding Barbie and Jessie seemed like an obvious reach by Pixar to be more inclusive, but the first two movies still fail the Bechdel test.
11. Half of Wes Anderson's movies
I want to go on a bit of a digression: a quick look at female rep in Wes's movies.
I'm not really grieved about it being 50/50. If Wes has learned that his female characters aren't the best, then at least he hasn't written stupid ones like Nolan. And there's no toxic masculinity, and if there is, it's addressed appropriately. I'm a Wes superfan, so let's go through the films one by one:
Bottle Rocket- (NO) This is a film about three brothers, and anyone they meet, male or female, is just a brief stop on their journey. Francis's girlfriend is uninteresting, but the point is that his commitment to his family comes first, and if she had been more developed we may have rooted for them to get together.
Rushmore- (YES) The high school teacher Rosemary in this movie is very underdeveloped. There's really no reason why the male characters all fall for her, expect a general female allure. But like many other high school movies, that just illuminates their naivety, even that of Bill Murray's adult character. The character of Margaret is a lot of fun though, and I wish we had seen more of her.
The Royal Tenenbaums- (YES) Margot is fantastic. She's so well written because she's silent, unreadable, and yet incredibly developed. And, Etheline Tenenbaum is a very strong character as well.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou- (NO) Jane is a superstar. A total badass. A woman that can do anything. She's pregnant, on her own, and embarking on an adventure across the ocean. Her romance with Ned adds a tenderness to the film and it doesn't feel forced.
The Darjeeling Limited- (NO) Similar to Bottle Rocket, it's about the brothers, first and foremost. Jack's underdeveloped girlfriends only serve to highlight that he isn't ready for a real relationship. Their mother is also pretty cool. Fed up with her husband, she decides to run away to a monastery. You go, girl.
Fantastic Mr. Fox- (NO) Not a lot of female rep. We have a couple of dotey farmwives, but they are kind of sweet, tbh. His wife is pretty cool, though, and she stands up for herself.
Moonrise Kingdom- (YES) This features two women going through identity exploration: Suzy as she grows into adolescence, and Mrs. Bishop as she goes through a sort of mid-life crisis. It's just a movie about crisis and growth in general, for both women and men, and I think both genders' struggles are represented really equally.
The Grand Budapest Hotel- (NO) This one fails the Bechdel test, hard. Agatha's character is really underdeveloped, and there are no female interactions.
Isle of Dogs- (YES) I love this movie, but let's face it, it's incredibly sexist. Nutmeg is really sexualized, which is weird because she's a dog and it's a kid's movie. Tracy is a strong character, but Peppermint is just there to pump out puppies.
The French Dispatch- (YES) While I agree that Léa Seydoux is gorgeous, the sheer length of the nude scenes made me uncomfortable. They weren't even sexualized, but it was just a little unnecessary.
Even worse, Timothee Chalamet's character has sex (offscreen) with both of the other female characters. I just felt like that degraded them and didn't add to the plot. And Tilda Swinton's character was just bland.
And that's it, folks! Let's end on a happy note. Here are a handful of my favorite female-led movies.
1. Disney Pixar's Brave. Merida is the stuff of feminist legend!
2. Duck Butter, a masterfully done, tender indie movie with Alia Shawkat.
3. Fried Green Tomatoes, a southern epic based on the book by famous lesbian author Fannie Flagg.
4. Annihilation, a dark sci-fi about five women, including Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson.
5. And to finish, a classic feminist film about a career woman trying to find balance, Baby Boom has a real 90s feel.