the test that hollywood is failing

by Paola Lupi

Edited by Kyra Krall

When I was 15, I first heard of the Bechdel test. I was at this amazing summer camp in Spain, and we were all tasked to produce small projects to work on something that interested us most in society. I had chosen feminism. I was a 15 years old girl, insecure and inexperienced, but since I first heard of feminism, a year before or so, I was captivated by it. And, I would like to add, I did not know the half of what it really meant at the time, and sure as hell I still know nothing compared to what I should. Nonetheless, I was thinking about what my project could be about and one of the leaders of the camp came to talk to me with information about the Bechdel test, which he thought would be useful for  my project. We had 1 hour of phone use in the camp every day and for the following days I used all the hours available researching. I ended up working with a group about something different - in a project focused on male participation in the feminist movement, another important topic that I care about today, - and put my thoughts on the Bechdel test aside. Until today.


To pass the Bechdel test, a movie has to meet 3 requirements: it has to have at least two named women, who talk to each other, about something other than a man.


Not hard right? I mean, as a woman I can guarantee that in my life I had plenty of conversations with other women that were not about men. And, after all, movies are in some extravagant way, more or less, a representation we could  find ourselves in, if we were living in a world of magic, or on Mars, or in 18th century England, and so on.


All women have conversed with other women about things other than men. But do all women in movies do that too?


Apparently not. The statistics on this one keep changing and it is hard to keep up and database on all movies and whether or not they passed the test. On the other hand, some stats can be useful: in 2017, “females comprised 24% of sole protagonists, 37% of major characters, and 34% of all speaking characters.”[1] Additionally, “In films with exclusively male directors and/or writers, females accounted for 20% of protagonists, 33% of major characters, and 32% of all speaking characters.”[2]. Both figures are about the top 100 grossing films of that year.


It is hard to believe, but some of our favourite movies lack female representation, although we might leave the cinema (or our couch) thinking otherwise: the trilogy of the Lord of the Rings doesn’t pass the test, nor do many of the Avengers movies, or Toy Story.


The test doesn’t survive criticism: especially of those who think there are many brilliant movies that fail the test and yet still portray strong female characters.


Such movies are often called feminist by the mainstream media: in fact, by typing on google “feminist movies” one can find endless movies with female actresses. Whether or not that is accurate or feminist is an ongoing debate. There are some who think that yes, one strong female who is represented in a non-sexist, non-misogynistic way, suffices to make a movie feminist. An article from Decider disagrees. For the author, the label feminist on a movie needs to be attributed when the movie addresses the political sphere of feminism and tackles the topic of equal rights.[3] Obviously there are not just two ways to look at it, but surely it can give the audience a better way to look at movies and how they are targeted to us.


Bustle shows a whole list of movies that fit the first definition of “feminist movies”.[4] And although it is fantastic to know that there is more than one angle to look at, once saying that the 4th movie of Harry Potter fails the test, alongside some of the Star Wars movies and Breakfast at Tiffany’s - to name a few -, it still makes me ask questions like: does the representation of one or two great female characters who  are deep and opinionated and strong counterbalance the fact that they are alone in a sea of men? Does one great female lead suffice, or are we in fact entitled to a great second female lead as well, and a fantastic supporting actress and an inspiring and named woman who appears in  a few scenes? I like to think that we shouldn’t settle, and that calling out some movies - yes, maybe amazing movies and movies with a few strong female characters that are called “feminist” by some - for their lack of representation is not wrong, and that it doesn’t bring us back: it brings us forward, it asks for more. Because we deserve more.

And these are just general statistics about women, which tend to exclude the more difficult reality of women of colour, or LGBTQ+ women. These will shock you more: also in the 100 top grossing 2017 films “68% of all female characters were white. 16% were Black, 7% were Latina, 7% were Asian, and 2% were of another race or ethnicity!”[5] showing that some women are largely  more represented than others. And it is much harder to find films with trans women and actresses, for that matter. Representation in media and on screen is increasing, without a doubt. But there is a reason if, at almost all Oscars now, we are given disappointing statistics about the presence of women actors and directors and so on: because there aren’t as many as there should be.


So, while someone complains about the Bechdel test because it says that some movies fail due to the “little inconvenience” of not being able to show a single conversation between two named women that is not about a man, I think the flaw of the Bechdel test is another one: it doesn’t take into consideration intersectionality and that, while it is hard to see representation of women in movies, it is much harder to see representations of non-white, non-straight, non-cis women. It is harder to see these categories being represented in an empowering, non stereotypical way. I think we should think of better ways to judge representation in movies, not because the current way is too harsh on “good” movies, but because it gives the film industry too much credit. Women should not settle at seeing themselves represented as a complex white character, once in a while. We should ask to be represented as we are: not just complex from time to time, but profound, elaborate, different, always changing, unique, inspiring, empowering, overwhelmed sometimes, tired maybe, but always rising, always fighting and always asking “what more can we do?”


This is not to say that we are not to appreciate movies that are not conforming to the Bechdel test, and that do not have the  show of diversity that I would like to see. Simply, even if we can love films that lack such requirements, and give them awards and celebrate the art of film making within them, as we often do, we should not forget that even if we love something, everything can be better. And maybe, some of these amazing movies would  be better with more women in it.


Because, if you ask me, if my life was a movie, it would have so many women, all very vocal, strong, independent, with different dreams and ambitions and life goals, and with all of them I talk about many fascinating  topics, like politics and constitutional law and environmental studies and feminism and books and good movies. If my life was a movie all these conversations would be crucial to my character development and would have to be in it. And maybe, and I say maybe, a few of them might be about men - but no guarantees.


[2] ibid