Does a movie have two named female characters? Do these characters talk to each other? And if so, do they talk about something other than a man? If you can answer “yes” to these three questions, then the movie has just passed the Bechdel Test.
This elegant little checklist was popularized by Alison Bechdel and her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Apparently, a character refused to watch movies if they failed this test. There’s even a website that lists and discusses movies with regards to this test. Despite not being affiliated with Bechdel, the site does seem to uphold the spirit of the test. It rates films and allows readers to post comments and dispute ratings. It provides links to IMDB pages and reviews. It also points out that passing movies are not necessarily good or even “feminist-friendly” movies. If one scene in a macho action movie has two housewives exchanging Tupperware tips, the movie passes. Of course, most of the 1530 movies included (as of September 24, 2010) are from the last decade, but a decent amount of older films are there too.
Okay, so why is this interesting? Well, for one it is possible that this whole idea was spawned from the hilarious 1982 SNL “Focus on Film” skit in which Eddie Murphy, playing a film critic with a big racial chip on his shoulder, refuses to see movies that lack black people. Murphy is making fun of a certain kind of black person here. It’s funny. I don’t know if “Dykes to Watch Out For” plays along with the humor or takes such an absolutist stance seriously, but the blog sure seems to follow this latter course. This seems like an instance of life imitating art, but maybe not in the way the artist had originally intended.
Another interesting bit is that the Bechdel Test makes us A) think back to all the movies we’ve seen to determine if they pass the test, and B) wonder why we never seemed to notice or care that so many of them failed. (Only around 50% of the movies cataloged on the website pass the test). Nice food for thought for the mildly peckish. I say this not to be snarky, but to point out that the Bechdel Test will always be ancillary to everyone’s own personal Liked It/Disliked It test. A movie can have two women discussing astrophysics and still be a waste of one’s time and money.
What’s most interesting however is how unfair and insufficient the test really is. For one, it rates movies that don’t include women at all. So Deliverance, Das Boot, Paths of Glory, Patton, and many other of my favorite films all fail. No way I can get on board with that.
There are certain assumptions you have to buy if you want to enjoy any dramatic art. Some of these include time and place. So if a story assumes to take place, say, in a maximum security prison, or in a medieval monastery, or on the Moon July 20, 1969, or some other setting in which women for some reason or another are scarce, well then, that’s okay. There are countless times and places in life, and audiences should accept the same for movies too. A setting shouldn’t be off limits simply because it lacks a certain kind of person. But the Bechdel Test asserts that it is.
Another problem with the test is that it simply does not apply in so many circumstances even when movies do include named female characters. What about something like the Blair Witch Project? One girl, two guys. Or how about Boys Don’t Cry? The website says BDC passes the test, but there is apparently much controversy over whether a female character who identifies herself as male should be considered female. Then, of course, I would like to see someone Bechdel this.
So in response, I did a little research that would help explain why so many films fail the Bechdel Test. My hypothesis was that film producers tend to want their movies to make a lot of money. And if you write scripts with the Bechdel Test in mind, then the odds for making a lot of money go way down.
To test this hypothesis, I looked at the most financially successful movies of all time to see how many of them pass the test. I was guessing the answer was not many. My source was the IMDB All Time Box Office movies list. As of September, 19, 2010, 412 films grossed over $200 million. Of these, 238 were included on the Bechdel Test page. So with 238 as our denominator, we got 156 fails and 82 passes. This is a fail rate of almost two-thirds. So clearly, films with two women talking to each other about anything other than a man are riskier propositions that films lack such scenes. Slam dunk, right? If you’re a producer, director, or scriptwriter and you want to make a successful movie perhaps passing the Bechdel Test shouldn’t be so high upon your list of priorities.
It gets even more interesting when you segment the list. Among the top ten movies, it’s fifty-fifty. In the top twenty, eleven fail and nine pass. It’s only among your run of the mill
blockbusters that the failures start pulling away. Among the top fifty, it’s 32 to 18 (64%). Top hundred: 68 to 32 (68%). Top 200: 133 to 67 (66.5%). I believe this is what statisticians would call a trend. 2 in 3 blockbusters fail the Bechdel Test.
Before I conclude, something must be said of the movies not included on the Bechdel List site, all 174 of them. Perhaps if these were included the results might be different. Yes, perhaps. I’ve included my sources, so you can see for yourselves. Here are some male-centric movies, more or less oozing testosterone, that the Bechdel site has yet to rate:
5 James Bond movies
3 Fast and Furious movies
3 of 4 Lethal Weapon movies
3 Mummy movies
3 Spider-Man movies
2 Beverly Hills Cop movies
2 Crocodile Dundee movies
2 Die Hard movies
2 Mission: Impossible movies
2 National Treasure movies
2 Jaws movies
2 Rocky movies
2 Superman movies
Bad Boys 2
Rambo: First Blood Part 2
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
There are many others, of course. And some of them may pass the test. Judging from their IMDB pages, however, it’s rather unlikely. It seems to me that the two-thirds failure rate might actually increase if all 412 movies were tested. Perhaps when the people at the www.Bechdeltest.com add more movies to their page (and to their credit, they do update frequently), we’ll know for sure.
As for the Bechdel Test itself, there seems to be two purposes:
1) Applying a kind of popular pressure on movie producers to include more women in meaningful ways in movies by,
2) Letting people know when movies don’t include women in meaningful ways, so they can avoid them.
While this is admirable in a consumer-advocate kind of way, it is my opinion that it will have little, if any effect. Reason why is that people have always known that the most popular movies typically involve men more than women. And they’ve never really cared, or else they would have done something about it years ago. I doubt a simple test is going to change that.