Yes, I’ve been with the Mutants for a few years now and written several dozen features and reviews, but I’m really just making up this whole “Look at me! I’m a movie critic!” thing as I go along. As a result, I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting ways to examine films.
Most recently, I stumbled on a blog about a movie “law” that I had never heard of: The Bechdel Test. Named for Alison Bechdel, who first published it in 1985 as a part of her influential LBGT comic series, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” The Bechdel Test is a simple measurement of a film’s active female presence.
It’s easy to remember and apply and, in fact, only has three rules. To pass the Bechdel Test:
1) A movie must have at least two female characters
2) That talk to each other
3) About something other than a man.
There is a little bit of wiggle room on the precision of each rule, but the test is simple, elegant, and completely fascinating to me. I thought back over the new movies I’ve seen so far this year. Scream 4 passed. So did Thor, but barely. Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t. Neither did Battle: Los Angeles, The Lincoln Lawyer, Dylan Dog or The Green Hornet. Even going back over the 2010 films I saw, I’m not sure more than a handful actually meets those three criteria.
There are variations on the Bechdel Test as well. One is known as the Mo Movie Measure (also named for a character in “Dykes to Watch Out For”) and states that both women involved must be characters with names. Another puts requirements on what constitutes “talking” to another female. A third expands the off-limits topics to include relationships, weddings, and hookups. And remember, this isn’t saying that there can be no discussion of these things—only that, at some point, the conversation should be about something else.
Being a 21st century guy with a love of film in all genres and a pretty open-mind, I decided to evaluate my favorite films in light of the Bechdel Test. This is what I found:
Goodfellas – Failed. There are more than two female characters and they do talk to each other, but it’s only about their husbands. Karen talks to her little girls occasionally, but it’s always in the background and I think they’re too young to count.
Aliens – Passed. Ripley and Vasquez talk about killing aliens.
Almost Famous – Passed. Frances McDormand argues with her daughter, Zooey Deschanel, about the music she listens to. Interestingly, the Band Aids, for all their screen time together, only *really* seem to talk to and about the men.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – Failed. Less than two female characters.
The Great Escape – Failed. Less than two female characters.
The Usual Suspects – Failed. This one does have two female characters, Edie Finnerin and Keyser Soze’s wife, but the wife only exists in a flashback and dies almost immediately.
The Godfather – Failed. There are a few women here, but only Kay and Connie ever speak to each other and it’s about Michael and Carlo.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – Failed. Two female characters—Arwen and (briefly) Rosie Cotton—but they never speak.
[EDIT: Whoops, I forgot about Galadriel! The movie still fails, though.]
Groundhog Day – Failed. There are a few female characters, but they’re always talking to Phil or about him.
The Princess Bride – Failed. There are more than two female characters, but only Buttercup and the old hag ever speak, and that’s all about Westley. (Boo! Boo!)
Two for ten. Not a great ratio, but I suppose a lot of my favorites tend to be in genres you expect to be male dominated, so it’s not that surprising.
In the interest of further research, I took a random sampling of my DVD collection: two shelves, chosen arbitrarily, holding a total of 211 films—roughly 30% of my collection. They were not organized in any particular order and not comprised of any specific genre. Out of 211 films, I knew I could scrub up a healthy number of Bechdel-approved movies. I mean, surely there would be a stack that met those three little requirements.
Heavenly Creatures, Crouching Tiger, and The Descent each have multiple prominent roles for women. They were easy to spot. But PCU passes by virtue of just two scenes and The Quick and the Dead has only one. And Serenity? I had to rewatch Serenity just to be sure.
A Closer Look At Serenity
Now I know what you’re thinking. Of course Serenity passes the Bechdel Test! This is Joss Whedon we’re talking about!
And you ought to be right. This should be a no-brainer. We at the Mutant Reviewers from Hell (along with most any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, or The Astonishing X-Men) are happy to point to Joss as a shining example of a creative mind who is unafraid of gender equality. He writes stories that are not just girl friendly, but girl-centric. He loves empowered females and even knows how to portray one who wears high heels instead of combat boots.
In his sci-fi series Firefly, Joss presents four strong, likeable, butt-kicking women: Zoe, the cool, confident second-in-command to Captain Mal Reynolds; Kaylee, Mal’s scrappy, bubbly, cute-as-a-button engineer; Inara, a geisha-like call girl (known as a Companion) who mingles with and commands respect from the highest in high society; and River, a fragmented, damaged teenage girl who possesses tremendous physical and mental powers she can’t control.
Throughout the show’s fourteen episodes, these four establish relationships and friendships, drive the story forward, and develop as characters. The men (and the show) would matter less without them.
Four years after Firefly’s abrupt cancellation, the story was concluded on the big screen with the film Serenity. Now, obviously two hours isn’t long enough to give every character their due and satisfyingly wrap up everything that the TV show introduced, so I’ve never held that against this film. But, from a purely Bechdel point of view, lets look at how the women of Serenity measure up:
- Zoe talks to Mal, Wash, and Jayne (a male). She says one line to Kaylee, but it’s about Wash. She and River have a wordless, head-shakey conversation about the threat presented by a man at the bank.
- Kaylee talks to Mal, Simon, and Jayne. She talks to Zoe once about Wash.
- Inara talks to Mal and The Operative only.
- River talks to Mal and Simon. She talks to Zoe via head shakes about a man.
That’s it. Serenity, straight from the brain of God’s-gift-to-feminists Joss Whedon, passes The Bechdel Test due to one lonely scene: in the very beginning of the movie, River, in flashback, speaks to a female schoolteacher about the war between the Alliance and the Independents. This is the only female interaction that doesn’t focus on a man in the entire film. If you apply the Mo Movie Measure mentioned above, this scene doesn’t even qualify since the teacher never gets a name.
In the land of Hollywood, one single scene is the best Joss Whedon could do.
So, where am I going with all this? To be honest, I’m not exactly sure. I don’t think the Bechdel Test is some kind of incontrovertible barometer for feminism on film. I don’t even think it’s telling us anything about the movie industry that we don’t already know. It certainly illustrates a disturbing trend, however. Are we really okay with this? Maybe more importantly, is there actually a way to change it?
Personally, I can’t help wondering if my lack of Bechdel-approved movies says something about me. I’d like to think not. Then again, I just looked through 211 films that I watched, enjoyed, and paid money to own. 204 of them don’t meet three very simple criteria. That’s got to mean something, right?
What about the rest of you? Does The Bechdel Test mean something, or is it just an interesting little factoid that washed up on the shores of my web browser yesterday morning? How do your favorite films stack up? Do you think it reveals something about us? Or is it all sound and fury, signifying nothing?
For information on The Bechdel Test, please visit: