Thursday, October 31, 2013

Gender Roles in Movies and the Bechdel Test

I recently watched this TED talk:

It's a short and interesting discussion on the roles that males and females play in movies, particularly kid's movies, and how much influence the behaviour of the protagonists might be having on children and their view of the world. One big example is the typical hero's journey story, where the male protagonist must embark on a journey and fight to eventually achieve some goal, which will often be a female depicted as a prize or reward to be 'won' by the hero (or at least whose affections must be 'won' through heroism).

Not wanting to digress into the topic of objectification of women in movies, what I want to talk about here is an interesting test that the speaker in the above talk made me aware of, one that acts as a basic but surprisingly effective gauge of just how well women are being represented in movies. It's called the Bechdel test.

The Bechdel Test

Simply stated, a movie passes the Bechdel test if it can meet the following criteria:
  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.
Sounds like a pretty low bar, right? And it certainly should be. The test is far from bulletproof, but it serves as a rough guide as to whether women are actually being represented as fleshed out characters, or if they only exist as love interests to the male characters, or to support them rather than having any independent story of their own.

Now, it's certainly true that some movies may fail the test for non-sexist reasons, such as In The Name of the Rose, which is set in a monastery, or Gravity, which clearly has a strong female protagonist, but simply not enough characters to pass the test. I won't single out any of these kinds of movies here.

So, here are some popular and well known movies that fail the test (that you might otherwise expect them not to):
  • The entire Star Wars original trilogy
  • The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • All Indiana Jones movies
  • Avatar
  • The Avengers
  • Total Recall (both versions, and even with the remake having both Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale in major roles, plenty of men talk to each other about stuff, but no two women do the same)

And some big movies just from the last year that all fail the test:
  • Star Trek into Darkness
  • The Great Gatsby
  • The Internship
  • The Lone Ranger
  • Grown-Ups 2
  • Hangover 3
  • Gangster Squad
  • Jack the Giant Slayer
  • Pacific Rim
  • Pain and Gain
  • Planes
  • Riddick
  • RIPD
  • This is the End
  • The World's End
  • Warm Bodies
  • White House Down
  • Olympus Has Fallen
Now, you might complain and say that some of the movies listed above are clearly 'guy' movies, such as Hangover 3. But I think part of the point is that so many of our movies, and most of the biggest budget ones, are 'guy' movies, and maybe that's a problem.

Looking at the IMDB top 10 movies, only 4 of the movies pass the test:
  • The Godfather Part 2
  • Pulp Fiction
  • The Dark Knight
  • Schindler's List
Though it should be noted that both Pulp Fiction and The Dark Knight barely pass the test and it's a bit questionable if they should be included.

Now, being positive, here are a few big movies from the last year that actually do pass the test:
  • World War Z
  • Elysium
  • Despicable Me 2
  • Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
  • The Heat
  • Fast and Furious 6
  • Iron Man 3
  • Man of Steel
  • Red 2
  • The Smurfs 2
  • We're the Millers
Again, it should be noted that some of these just barely scrape by (e.g. World War Z, Iron Man 3, man of Steel), so they shouldn't exactly start patting themselves on the back or anything!

An interesting resource that has categorization of thousands of movies with discussion as to why they pass or fail the test can be found here:

The Male Bechdel Test

As an alternative to the Bechdel test, I thought of a test that, for want of a better name, I call the Male Bechdel test. It's basically taking the same rules as the Bechdel test, and applying them to men. Given the number of big movies that don't have two women speaking to each other about something other than a man, I think it would be really interesting to know how many movies don't have at least two men talking to each other about something other than a woman.

I'm betting the list will be pretty small, if we again don't count movies where there aren't enough characters to pass or if the setting makes it reasonable not to have men there. Though interestingly, Gravity, which fails the Bechdel test despite being almost entirely centered on Sandra Bullock's character, still passes the Male Bechdel test, with George Clooney's character talking to both the other male astronaut at the start of the movie, and the male mission control character!

I haven't been able to find any online references that look at something like the Male Bechdel test, and I can't think of any movies off the top of my head that definitely fail it, though there are probably various romantic comedies and female-centered dramas that will fail. However, I have a suspicion that a surprising number of them would still pass.


In the end, I think the main thing I learned from looking into the Bechdel test is how far we still are from having interesting female characters in movies that are considered mainstream movies (and not 'chick flicks'). There will always be gung-ho action movies that will be uninteresting to most women, and there will always be romance/relationship movies that will be uninteresting to most men, but it shouldn't be so rare to have interesting female characters in the vast array of general movies that are supposed to appeal to both sexes.

I recently watched the movie Brave for the first time, Pixar's first movie with a female protagonist. It's a shame that the movie wasn't really that good, due largely to having the director replaced half way through, because from what I heard, the original vision of the movie would have been one that people could point to as a positive example of a movie with a female protagonist. Instead, it may end up being used as an excuse by movie executives to say, "see, people don't want female protagonists. It doesn't sell."

Let's hope movie studios will continue trying to make movies with strong female characters, and that we, the consumers, reward those efforts so they keep on happening, rather than proving to the studios that they're right to think that people don't want to see a change in the status quo.

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