Women, Film, and The Bechdel Test

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I don’t know what I’m doing.

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.

Official DVD Collection of the He-Man Woman Hater's Club

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.

I found seven. Seven movies that passed the Bechdel Test out of more than two hundred: PCU; The Quick and the Dead; Heavenly Creatures; The Descent; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and Serenity.

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:


    • Actually, I can think of plenty of movies that fit that criteria. Off the top of my head, most of the male-to-male conversations in ‘The Rocketeer’, for example, involve the jetpack that’s the center of the story. Similarly, almost all of the dialogue (between males or otherwise) in ‘The Great Waldo Pepper’ involves aviation to some degree.

      • Off the top of your head, you come up with with “The Rocketeer” and “The Great Waldo Pepper”? Your mind works in strange ways, Deneb.

  1. I found this very interesting. Great article, Al.

    I didn’t know about the Bechdel test before reading this, but there have been plenty of times that I thought in depth about the movies I enjoy and how many of them have prominent female roles.

    In fact, let’s look at my list of favorite movies in my Mutant Bio. Having never looked at my movies this way, I could be remembering wrong, so sue me. Also, I could stand to update this list:

    Spirited Away- Depending on the age limit, this might work. Chihiro has conversations with Yubaba, Zeniba, Lin and her own mother that have nothing to do with Haku or her dad. Lin talks with Yubaba, and her nameless (!) fellow female workers. Again, I haven’t seen it for a while so I could be wrong.

    The Princess Bride: You covered that.

    A Christmas Story: I don’t think so.

    Pride and Predjudice: I’m fairly certain Elizabeth has conversations with Caroline and Lady Catherine that aren’t about men. I think she had talks with both about what makes an “accomplished” lady, and I think she talked about her family with both women (not including the huge blowout over Catherine hearing Darcy wanted to marry her).

    The Emperor’s New Groove: The only scene with two women is when Yzma and Kronk are looking for Cuzco and Pacha. They stop at Pacha’s house and talk to his wife (Chicha) and kids. I don’t think her name is said in the movie, and otherwise I think all she and Yzma talk about is how she is related to Pacha (which is the lie she says to get information out of Chicha).

    Star Wars Trilogy (and yes, I leave it that way): No.

    V for Vendetta: Well…umm…you know, I think Evey talks to her girl friend at the beginning of the film about the state of their government, but then again they might have been talking about V’s actions. I also can’t remember if she’s named. It has actually been a while since I re-watched this one.

    Oldboy: Negatory

    Shaun of the Dead: I feel pretty certain that every conversation (what little there is) between the women is pretty much just about Shaun or David.

    1st Pirates movie: You covered it.

    Dang. Spirited Away is the only movie in that list that I feel confident can pass.

    • Nah, you were right about ‘VfV’. There aren’t many female characters in it, true, but near the beginning, there are several exchanges between women that don’t directly involve V. They’re about things that involve him, true, but they’re not directly ABOUT him – remember, before his broadcast on TV, only Evie and the government higher-ups actually know about the guy. The conversations in question involve government lies regarding the Old Bailey’s destruction, Evie’s boss telling her to go get coffee, and the purpose of the V costumes he’s sent to the TV studio. They’re a little hazy as examples, since two of them MENTION men, but the conversations themselves are not ultimately ABOUT men, so I’d say they pass.
      (And yes, I have seen that movie far too many times.)

  2. Good article, Al!

    I’m torn on the Bechdel test, especially for movies. Some movies shouldn’t have to pass it. Some should. It depends on what the movie is about, I guess. But it really is depressing how many movies don’t, and that when they do, they’re automatically called “chick movies”. (Which I’ve called them myself, many times.) (Also, I did this once for BSG. It’s sad how hard it is to come up with female-female friendships in BSG, although I did better than I thought I would. But to cheer you up- ten movies that aren’t “romantic comedies” that pass the Bechdel test:

    1.) Legally Blonde-Elle and Brooke talk about the murder trial, Elle and her girflriends talk about her going to Harvard

    2.) Bring It On- surprisingly girl-powered, and they talk about cheerleading a lot more than they talk about boys

    3.) The Devil Wears Prada- almost all the girl-girl conversation focuses around career-related issues.

    4.) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix- McGonagall vs. Umbridge = Best. Showdowns. EVER.

    5.) The Incredibles- Edna and Helen discuss the costumes in one of my favorite scenes 🙂

    6.) Bend It Like Beckham- lots of girl talk about soccer

    7.) Chicago- if they talk about men, it’s more about how to kill them than anything else

    8.) Chicken Run- female chickens discuss escape plans

    9.) Saved!- girls talk about God

    10.) G.I. Jane- Jordan really ends up craving that female-female connection. Plus, the Senator is female as well, and they have a few pretty awesome confrontations.

    • I definitely don’t believe it should be something every movie needs to worry about. War movies, for example, are almost guaranteed to fail and I don’t expect them to change (nor would I want them to if it was solely out of the desire to include a girl). But, given that women make up 50% of the human race, it’s amazing to me how routinely they seem to be excluded or devalued in the medium.

    • Wow, all of the movies on your list suck. And all the movies that pass the test (Star Wars, the Godfather, Great Escape, etc) are great. So in conclusion, we’ve learned that Film + the Bechdel Test = Crappy movies.

      • No, we’ve learned that you and I have different taste, especially since I’m pretty sure you’re not trying to tell me that women having a function in movies beyond love interests is a bad thing.

  3. I have a much smaller movie collection but the only movie I have that passes the test is Ghost World. I own maybe fifteen. Those aren’t such good odds.

  4. I love it. What you’re talking about when you mention “different ways to examine movies” is critical theory in literature. Films are definately film literature, so this applies. Critical theory is all about different ways of reading a text, through different hermeneutic lenses if you will. You should check out Lyotard’s the Postmodern Condition. You’ll like it.

    • I actually did Lit Crit Theory in college and every class made my brain hurt (in a good way–the best way, really). I’m unfamiliar with Lyotard, but I’ll give him a look. Thanks!

  5. Interestingly, I just got me a whole bunch of movies at the local flea market last weekend – I looooove flea markets – and almost every one of the ones I’ve seen so far passes this test.
    1: The China Syndrome – a conversation between Jane Fonda’s character and her make-up artist. It’s a pretty brief exchange, but I’m pretty sure it involves news, not men.
    2: The Bat – lots of female characters in this one, and while most of the conversations between them involve the titular (male) maniac, there’s several that don’t, including random background chitchat.
    3: Millennium – the female operatives from the future in this one talk mainly about the missions they’re on.
    4: Angel – several exchanges between hookers regarding their aspirations for the future.
    5: Defenseless – the main character is a female lawyer who has several conversations with other women, some of which do and some of which don’t involve men.
    I don’t know whether I’m an exceptionally enlightened fellow, or whether it’s just coincidence. Probably coincidence.

  6. Well, they’re both about aviation, and I just watched ‘Waldo Pepper’ not too long ago, so…

  7. Do the women have to talk ONLY to each other, or can men be involved in the conversation too? Like in The Breakfast Club, I don’t think Claire and Alison ever talk just the two of them except during the makeover scene (which I’m not counting), but they talk to each other in the group scenes about stuff that has nothing to do with men.

    • The Breakfast Club is an interesting case because there are so few one-on-one conversations between any characters. Off the top of my head, I can think of two short scenes with Bender and Claire, one very short exchange between Andrew and Allison, and a scene with Bender and Vernon. Most of the real conversations occur with all five students involved, really. It almost fails the reverse-Bechdel.

  8. Doesn’t the Science Channel show new episodes of Firefly? I’ve never been a fan, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the promos.

    • I’m guessing what they show is the OLD episodes of Firefly, which they show promos for. The series has enough big-time fans that the Net would be on FIRE by now if new episodes were being produced – not to mention the fact that all the actors and so forth have already moved on in their careers and are doing other things. I mean, anything’s POSSIBLE, but…

  9. The only people likely to see this are those with a Comments RSS Feed. But anyway, for the past several months I’ve been applying this test to the movies featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. and the results are in (some of them a bit surprising). Let me tell you it wasn’t easy, as it required me to actively pay attention to the often dreadful dialogue. This is of course a work in progress, as I don’t currently have access to all the episodes.

    • Interesting. Going by that criteria, it would seem that old B-movies were surprisingly enlightened – on a casual glance, I’m seeing far more passes than fails.

      • You would be correct. Even more interesting is breaking it down by decade. This is what it looks like:

        Forties: 3 Pass, 1 Fail

        Fifties: 8 Pass, 9 Fail, 2 Ambiguous

        Sixties: 12 Pass, 8 Fail

        Seventies: 4 Pass, 0 Fail

        Eighties: 2 Pass, 6 Fail

        Nineties: 2 Pass, 3 Fail

        Total: 31 Pass, 27 Fail, 2 Ambiguous

      • So in terms of this particular criteria, the ’50’s were actually a surprisingly enlightened time, it would seem, as they’re almost equal in terms of passes and fails, whereas things actually get MORE unequal as the decades pass. Interesting indeed.

  10. It’s me again. So a while back, I went on an MST3K marathon of one episode a day in production code order, as there were a few episodes I’ve never gotten around to viewing. Along the way, I noted Bechdel Test results of the movies. The final count of Seasons 1-12 are as follows: 105 Pass, 90 Fail, and 1 (Santa Claus) is ambiguous and depends on whether you consider the doll in Lupita’s dream to be a mouthpiece for Pitch or a separate entity. For further details, I’ve compiled writings on the experience and am passing them through one last proofing.

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