UNPOPULAR OPINION: The Bechdel Test Doesn't Help Women

Many movies, rightly, do not make the cut with the Bechdel test. But others that shouldn't be cut are included as well.
Publish date:
May 12, 2016
unpopular opinion, sexism, bechdel test, Gender Discrimination, Women In Film

As usual, Amy Schumer hit the bullseye in her sketch that aired last week on Inside Amy Schumer. In the sketch, Steve Buscemi announced the nominees for Best Actress noting that, "Without the five beautiful, talented women we're honoring now, their movies would only have five names on the poster, instead of six." The sketch goes on to parody how the best actress nominees all play the role of wives whose performances revolves around crying on the phone. Flat, one-dimensional roles that, in 2016, you would think we would be far in past.

It is so difficult to find deep and complicated women portrayed in film — probably because of the gender gap in writing, producing, and directorial roles. Most works of fiction are by men. Female characters made up just 15 percent of protagonists and only 30 percent of all speaking characters in the top 100 grossing movies. In 2014, the six largest studios only had three movies directed by women. It's outrageous.

How do we judge if a work of fiction represents different women's experiences? How do we find a movie or book with interesting women characters who have depth? For a long time, I would look to see if it passed the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test asks if a work of fiction has 1) at least two women 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man. Sometimes this test includes the requirement that the woman is a named character. The test is used as an indicator for the active presence of women in films and other fiction. Alison Bechdel originally featured these criteria in her comic, Dykes to Watch Out For, based on a conversation she had with her friend, Liz Wallace. I have a deep appreciation for this easy to apply, clever test.

Yet I think we've reached a point where the Bechdel test is outdated and we need a more empirical method to shed light on the truly atrocious lack of complex roles for women. Many movies, rightly, do not make the cut with the Bechdel test. But others that shouldn't be cut are included as well.

According to the BechdelTest.com website, movies like The 5th Wave, Jane Got a Gun, Shrek, Edge of Tomorrow — the list could go on and on — do not pass the test. The 5th Wave and Jane Got A Gun have female protagonists! Yet, they fail. I was surprised to learn Shrek didn't pass the test (since Princess Fiona definitely is one of the more well-rounded women characters from my childhood). And the Edge of Tomorrow definitely had a badass female character. This makes the Bechdel test perhaps over-inclusive of films that I would generally think should pass because there are dynamic female characters.

But the Bechdel test can also be under-inclusive. A lot of the movies that seem to pass the test are perplexingly lacking in female interaction. One of the bigger films of 2015, Jurassic World, passes the test. Yet, the main female character falls into several damsel-in-distress stereotypes and generally revolves around the men in her life. Kingsman: The Secret Service centered on all male characters, with a sparse few conversations between some of the named women characters, none of which were truly integral to the plot — and this movie passes the test.

All this is to say: the Bechdel test has limitations. For instance, the topic of conversation between the women can be about marriage or babies or things that are traditionally associated with stereotypical female roles, and it would still pass. The test doesn't do much to ensure that the female characters have more than a few lines, and aren't simply the token women. I always feel like you can judge the importance of the woman character's role by asking how the plot would be affected if she wasn't there. No material alteration? Then the writer didn't do a good job of including a complex female character.

I think we need another way to discern if a woman has a meaningful, representative role in works of fiction. The Bechdel test is under inclusive, over inclusive, and doesn't answer the question of whether women are getting time to develop into complex characters. While I know that no method will ever be perfect, I propose that we use a new way to judge if women have an active presence by using a more empirical method.

Recently, two people took the initiative to compile data on the number of words spoken by male and female characters across ~2,000 films. Then they made an assortment of graphics and data to back up what we already knew, but with more certainty: men speak more often than women. I think this is an excellent way to determine if women have an active presence in a work of fiction. This makes sense: if a woman speaks more in a movie, she is likelier to have greater character development and more depth. Of course, that won't always be true, however it does seem to be a clear indication of the extent of gender representation.

The data really speaks for itself. The analysts found that there was no genre that didn't over-represent men. Even romantic comedies, traditionally associated with women viewers, have men speaking, on average, 58% of the time. Only 22% of films have actresses with the most amount of dialogue. The saddest statistic, the authors found, were that only 18% of films had women occupied in two of the three main roles. This happened in 82% of films with men in the top two of the three main roles.

All this data paints an even starker picture than the Bechdel test did, but I think greater accuracy and more honesty is important in assessing how well we are doing at representing complex female characters. The current assessment: not well. But knowledge is power. The more we realize where the gender imbalances are, the more accurately we can demand representation.