The Oscars and the Bechdel Test

February 15, 2012

It’s been a few years since I’ve checked in with The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies so I thought it would be a good time to look in on Hollywood and see if there’s been any substantial improvement in women’s representations on the big screen.  In this updated video, I go through the 2011 films nominated for Best Picture at the 84th annual Academy Awards and see how they measure up to the Bechdel Test. Keep watching because I also propose a small addendum to help clarify the spirit of the test and provide a solution on how Hollywood can fix the glaring problem that the Bechdel Test exposes. I’ll also address the question, “What about the reverse test?” and I’ll show an alternative test that has been adapted by critics to identify the presence of people of colour in films.  Sprinkled throughout this video I offer a few movie recommendations.

Watch my original Bechdel Test for Women in Movies video.

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It’s been a few years since I’ve checked in with The Bechdel Test For Women in Movies so I thought I’d be a good time to look in on Hollywood and see if there’s been any substantial improvement in women’s representations on the big screen.  One way to do this is to apply the test to the films that have been nominated for best picture in the 2011 Academy Awards, since the Oscars are widely regarded as the “best of the best” at least as determined by the industry itself. But before I get to that, here’s a quick refresher on what the Bechdel Test is and how it works.

The Bechdel Test is a very basic gauge to measure women’s relevance to a film’s plot and generally to assess female presence in Hollywood movies. It was popularized by Allison Bechdel in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For back in 1985. In order to pass the test a film just needs to fulfill these three, very simple, criteria: A movie has to have at least two women in it who have names, who talk to each other, about something besides a man. Pretty simple right? I mean this is really the absolute lowest that we could possibly set the bar for women’s meaningful presence in movies.

Let’s remember that this was made as a bit of a joke to make fun of the fact that there are so few movies with significant female characters in them. The reason the test has become so important in recent years is because it actually does highlight a serious and ongoing problem within the entertainment industry.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the Academy Award best picture nominee’s for 2011 and see how they measure up to the Bechdel Test.

First up the Descendents. It’s a story of a father pulling his family through a crisis.  The mother is basically fridged before the opening credits even finish rolling to provide the catalyst for the father figure’s growth. This film does pass the test because of a handful of brief interactions between female characters, including between the two daughters, Alex and Scottie.

Moneyball is a story about an American League baseball team centered around their general manager Billy Beane.  It fails the test badly, not even having two female characters speak to each other at all. Even so it’s a surprisingly funny and captivating movie.

Tree of Life is a more experimental film about a boy and his family.  It fails the test because the only brief scene where two women talk, the conversation is about the death of the family’s son. While it’s true there’s very little dialogue in the film as a whole, the father and the son do speak to each other on multiple occasions.

Hugo is a whimsical film about an orphan boy trying to solve a mystery left by his father.  And while there are two named female characters who speak to each other, their conversation is always in relationship to a man except this one 5 second interaction that some might argue constitutes a pass.

CLIP: Hugo (2011)
Isabelle: You were an actress? A real cinema actress, it’s impossibly romantic mama.
Mama: It wasn’t like that, we weren’t movie stars like they have today.

If while at the theater you drop your box of junior mints, and by the time you pick em up you’ve missed the one scene in the whole film where women actually talk to each other, there’s something clearly wrong.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close also fails the test.  It follows the story of a boy dealing with the trauma of losing his father on 9/11.  Two women never talk to each other about anything other then the boy.

In classic Woody Allan style, Midnight in Paris is about a man struggling to discover himself and while there’s a handful of women in the picture, they never really discuss anything other then men and men’s influence on their lives.  Some critics have argued that this brief scene between Inez and her mother constitutes a pass.

CLIP: Midnight in Paris (2011)
Helen: Come look at these Inez. Wouldn’t these be charming in a Malibu beach house?
Inez: oh
Helen: Combien monsieur?
Shop Owner: dix-huit mille
Helen : Merci
Inez : What is that ?
Helen: They’re a steal at 18,000 dollars.
Gil: 18,000 dollars for this!?
Helen: Oh wait it’s euros…

But as you’ll notice Owen Wilson’s character and the shop keeper are also involved in the interaction.  So I’d say it fails. But I’ll come back to this one line question later in the video
What’s even more embarrassing about this film is that one of the most important historical figures that Gil interacts with is Gertrude Stein.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with her, Stein is one of the most famous writers and lesbians in American history, and Woody Allan has the nerve to not have her speak to another female character in the entire film.
War Horse is a story about a boy and his horse. It fails. So moving on.

The Help is a woman centered story with a large female cast, there’s no doubt that this film passes the test. While the film is deeply problematic when it comes to portraying issues of racism in America, both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer give incredible and moving performances.

Finally, we have the The Artist, which it’s true, is a silent film.  So you might be asking how we can apply the Bechdel Test to a film without any spoken dialogue? Well in classic Silent movie style characters do communicate with each other via title cards, mouthing words, facial expressions, physical gestures and pantomime.
So for this one I’ll accept any non-verbal communication between two women that has any significance to the plot that’s not about a man.  And amazingly… it still fails.

It looks like out of the 9 best picture nominees in 2011 only 2 clearly pass the bechdel test, while 2 others are questionable about one line.  And notably only one film nominated is female centered.  Coming back to Hugo and Midnight in Paris, unfortunately, discussions and debates surrounding the Bechdel test often descend into quibbling over whether one brief and questionable exchange makes a movie pass the test or not.  It’s not really necessary to get bogged down in the minutia of whether one 10 second scene constitutes “talking to each other”. If there’s really that much of a debate about this point, then it’s a pretty good indicator that there’s a problem with women’s representation in the movie.

So, in the spirit of the Bechdel test, I’d like to respectfully propose adding a small addendum: A film has to have two named women who speak to each other for longer than 60 seconds about something besides a man.
This new 60 second rule would help to clarify the test and resolve some of the quibbles over one or two lines and if two women do speak to each other for more then 60 seconds there’s a slightly better chance that the dialogue will have some relevance to the plot, maybe.  I mean, its only 1 minute out of a 90 or 120 minute film that we’re talking about here, it’s still a really low bar.
Passing films still wouldn’t necessarily have substantial female roles it would make it harder for a movie to squeak by on a technicality.
For example if we look at the Best Picture nominees from 2010, 6 out of the 10 nominees might arguably get by but if we apply the new 60 second rule we find that half of them wouldn’t make the cut at all.

The three 2010 films that DO pass the test with women who speak to each other for more then 60 seconds about something other then a man are all actually female centered films. And if you haven’t seen Winter’s Bone yet, put it at the top of your list.  In addition to being a beautifully shot and well acted film, I highly recommend it for its complex presentation of gender and poverty in rural America.

Interestingly, even though True Grit is a female centered story, following the adventures of Mattie Ross struggling to get by in a man’s world, when we apply the 60 second rule the film doesn’t pass. In fact the only exchange she has with any other woman is with Mrs. Floyd the innkeeper and those incidental interactions total less than a minute.
This style of film where the female lead inhabits an almost entirely male world, brings to mind the Smurfette Principle which I’ve discussed in my Tropes vs Women video series.

Again, to be clear this test does not gauge the quality of a film, it doesn’t determine whether a film is feminist or not, and it doesn’t even determine whether a film is woman centered.
Some pretty awful movies including ones that have stereotypical and/or sexist representations of women might pass the test with flying colours.   Where really well made films that I would highly recommend might not.

The Bechdel test is best when used as a tool to evaluate Hollywood as an institution, it can be applied to pretty much any grouping of mainstream movies such as the Golden Globes nominees or the top grossing films of any given year, all with similar results. The test helps us identify the lack of relevant and meaningful female roles as a larger pattern in the film industry as a whole. The problem isn’t restricted to any individual movie, director or genre.
Every once and awhile we get a film like Bridesmaids that depict women and women’s relationships with one another in a more genuine and less “chick flicky way” but this happens about as often as women are nominated for best director by the Academy.

In response to the Bechdel Test, I’m often asked, well, what about the reverse? “Why isn’t there also a test to determine if two men talk to each other about something other then a woman”.
The answer to that is simple, the test is meant to indicate a problem, and there isn’t a problem with a lack of men interacting with one another.  The Bechdel test is useful because it can point out an institutional pattern and since there’s no problem with men and men’s stories being underrepresented in films, the reverse test is not useful or relevant.

Women aren’t the only ones marginalized in Hollywood movies, so one variation on the Bechdel Test that is actually useful is applying the test to the development and presence of characters of colour.
Alaya Dawn Johnson adapted the test to ask if a movie has two or more people of colour in it, who talk to each other about something other than a white person.  The percentage of films that pass the modified test is extremely small, even a movie like the Help which stars multiple named women of colour in prominent roles, passes by the narrowest of margins because characters are almost always talking to or about white people.

This variation of the test exposes the fact that Hollywood still basically refuses to make movies for a general audience that focuses on the lives of people of colour, unless it also stars a sympathetic white character. As Martha Southgate pointed out, “Implicit in The Help and a number of other popular works that deal with the civil rights era is the notion that a white character is somehow crucial or even necessary to this particular tale of black liberation.”

So with that in mind, and as I saw on George Takei’s facebook page, this may be a slightly more appropriate title for the movie.

So while it might be comforting to think that the number of important female roles in Hollywood films are slowly growing, the truth is they’re really not. Men are still primarily the studio executives, the writers, the directors and the major decision makers in the industry and they tell stories that they can relate to.   Not surprisingly this results in most movies focusing on men and men’s stories.  So while it might make sense that one specific film like Moneyball is male dominated and male centered and they wouldn’t or couldn’t incorporate women as major characters, the problem is that the vast majority of movies made in Hollywood are also male centered and male dominated. It’s depressingly clear that Hollywood doesn’t prioritize roles for women and isn’t interested in telling women’s stories.

The real solution here is for filmmakers and screen writers to focus more movies on women and women’s lives, that’s how we really solve this problem. There are literally thousands of compelling, important and courageous women’s stories just waiting to be told on the big screen. When there are as many stories that center on women, as there are on men, then there won’t be as much use for the Bechdel Test anymore, but sadly it seems, that’s still a long ways away.

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