The Bechdel Test is a tool to assess the presence of women in films. It was created in 1985 and can be used for any fictional work (books, TV series, plays, etc.). The Bechdel Test is very much an exercise in critical thinking. It encourages the viewer to challenge the choices that have been made in the film-making process, especially around questions of gender representation. To pass the test, a film has to answer yes to three very simple questions:
1. Is there more than one named female character?
2. Do the female characters have a conversation at any point?
3. Is that conversation about something other than a man?
This seems pretty straightforward and easy. Yet, the majority of films today do not pass the test. Give yourself a few seconds and try to come up with three films that would pass the test… Not that easy, right? The fact that such few films pass the test is intriguing, especially in Western societies, where women’s rights and feminist movements have had great impacts within the last decades. Clearly, the test teaches us a few lessons about the society in which we live.
According to Vox.com, half of the 2014’s films do not pass the test. A quick research of the best films of 2014 so far (Moviefone, CinemaBlend, The Guardian, IMDb) and we can see that out of the top five films that are the most frequently cited (The Lego Movie, Under The Skin, Guardians Of The Galaxy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Captain America) only two pass the test: The Lego Movie and Guardians Of The Galaxy.
Many films simply fail the test because there is only one female character, even if the woman is one of the main characters. Other films fail because they tend to only feature women with minor roles. The plot usually doesn’t require them to interact because they are only relevant in terms of their relation to men. Then, the significant number of films failing at the third phase of the test is reflective of how the film industry is willing to portray women: as sexualised or hyper-romantic beings whose only purpose is to have sex or find love.
The Bechdel Test is important for many different reasons. Mainly, women represent half of the world population, so it seems reasonable for them to represent fifty percent of the roles in the film industry. Clearly, this lack of representation of women in films has an impact on women viewers. It means that women spend their time watching films about men or about women whose only goal in life is to talk about men. This not only perpetuates stereotypes about women but it also provides very few female role models for boys and girls and gives a false perception of what women’s lives are, as there is certainly a lot more to a woman’s life than men and her love or sex life.
Now, I would argue that the Bechdel Test is a beginner’s guide to gender equality in films. Going beyond the Bechdel Test would mean setting higher standards of assessment, such as having as many female characters as there are male characters, or women having thought-provoking conversations rather than conversations about pedicures or shopping (don’t get me wrong, it is fine for women to talk about pedicures or shopping, as long as these are not the only things they talk about!). Another aspect that would enhance women’s presence on screen would be the representation of women of colour, non-straight, trans and queer women, disabled women, non-conventionally good looking women and possibly more female heroines who aren’t only surrounded by men.