The Bechdel test exposes sexism in movies

Run Lola Run features a strong female protagonist, but where are all the other women in the story?

What do the films Avatar, Run Lola Run, and the original Star Wars trilogy have in common? All three of these films, and many, many more, fail what's called the Bechdel test.

Created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, the test is simple.To pass, a film must have:

1) two or more named/important female characters

2) female characters who converse with each other in the film 

3) female characters have conversations about topics other than men

While it seems easy enough to meet these requirements, about half the films released today fail this simple test. Even recent movies starring strong female leads (like Mako Mori from Pacific Rim) flunk because she was just one prominent female character surrounded by a group of guys, never interacting with other women. 

Just because a film passes the test doesn't mean it's good (Sex and the City 2, for example, passed with flying colours). It isn’t even necessarily meant to determine whether a film is sexist. But the Bechdel test (sometimes also called the Bechdel rule) is a useful and now-popular tool to check how realistically women are portrayed in movies. 

Bechdel failures will often feature women talking only about the men in their lives (as if they had no interest in career or female friends): it's the case in the majority of romantic comedies, superhero movies, heist films, and adventure quest stories. Women are relegated to the role of "romantic interest" or "helpful sidekick" (or sometimes even "villain"), making it hard to even see a reason they would ever have to talk to each other -- especially about anything other than a man. 

A disturbing trend also uses femininity as a kind of characterization, rather than one of one of many traits. Smurfette springs to mind, as well as many women in heist films.

The male characters are classified by their personalities and their jobs, while the lone woman is classified by the fact that she's a woman, as though that's the only trait that audiences need to know. Instead of the "geeky" smurf or the "adventurous" smurf, Smurfette is just the "girl" smurf, as if that should reveal everything about her.

Smurfette, the "girl" smurf

The trouble is that many filmmakers aren't encourged to portray women in complex and realistic roles. On her blog, Jennifer Kesler writes that as a film student at UCLA, her professors encouraged her and her peers to actively fail the Bechdel test, in order to increase a film’s chances of success.

But audiences are prepared to embrace female protagonists and girls who are more than just girlfriends, as evidenced by the success of such films as Alien and The Hunger Games; it’s only Hollywood that’s not ready for a more well-rounded, grown-up take on gender in the movies.

In 86 years of Academy Awards, only seven women have won for screenwriting, and two of those were co-writers with a male counterpart. The fact is, most of Hollywood is still run by men, arguably writing screenplays that speak to their own fantasies.

There is still hope for change, though, as long as audiences make themselves aware of the imbalance in portrayal among the sexes. The Bechdel test is an easy way to point out what's missing in a film's portrayal of women.

And thankfully, not all professors are like the one in UCLA, encouraging students to ignore gender problems in film.

 “I’ve been aware of the Bechdel test since its inception and find it a brilliant device for analyzing some films.  I think Bechdel is a brilliant commentator on the lives of women (and  men),” says UBC creative writing associate professor Peggy Thompson, who specializes in teaching writing for film and television.

The reality that approximately half the films that gain distribution fail to meet this standard shows that things sorely need to change. The next time you watch a movie in the theatres, see if it passes the test: you might be surprised by the result. 

Not talking about men...Sigourney Weaver in Alien

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