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Last time I talked about The Bechdel Test, a test that began as a joke and has evolved into a widely-used measure of female representation in movies and other media. The test is simple: if there are two named female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man during the course of the movie, the movie passes. Otherwise it fails.
The Bechdel test worries me not only because most movies fail it, but because of how it is often applied: rather than looking at the number of movies that fail in aggregate, which is useful, people have begun to use the test as the primary 'feminist' measure of individual movies, where it is not nearly as useful and is actually dangerously limiting.
On the other hand, the Bechdel test can still be useful. If we consider some of the reasons why so many movies fail this simple test, perhaps we can figure out a better way to gauge female representation in movies and, more importantly, what we can tell directors, writers, and other media creators that we want to see in future movies beyond two named women having a conversation about something other than a man.
Reason #5: The vast majority of background characters in films are male.
One simple reason why many movies fail is that they don't have two named female characters, even in the background.
Geena Davis, discussing the work of Stacy Smith, Ph.D. at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, pointed out that her research showed that:
"…for every one female-speaking character in family-rated films (G, PG and PG-13), there are roughly three male characters; that crowd and group scenes in these films – live-action and animated – contain only 17 percent female characters; and that the ratio of male-female characters has been exactly the same since 1946."
Davis goes on to theorize that the dearth of female characters in the general populace of these films has a deep effect on our culture and way of thinking, one which is reflected in society today: "Couldn't it be that the percentage of women in leadership positions in many areas of society — Congress, law partners, Fortune 500 board members, military officers, tenured professors and many more — stall out at around 17 percent because that's the ratio we've come to see as the norm?"
A movie may pass the Bechdel test, but if it's set in a world that, for no good reason, is 83% male, can we really say that it is helping improve representation?
After analyzing the results of Smith's research, Davis came up with "Two Easy Steps to Make Hollywood Less Sexist".
Step 1: Go through the projects you're already working on and change a bunch of the characters' first names to women's names. With one stroke you've created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they've had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women – and it's not a big deal?
Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, "A crowd gathers, which is half female." That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don't gather, I don't know.
And there you have it. You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue.
Reason #4: The vast majority of supporting characters in film are male.
Having more women on the screen, even in the background, would likely increase the number of movies that pass the Bechdel test, but it's really the bare minimum that a movie studio can do to improve representation. Stacy Smith's research found that out of 5,554 distinct speaking characters in the122 family films they surveyed, 29.2% were female and 70.8% were male. Clearly, movie studios have a long way to go if they want to equalize representation, and increasing the number of women in the background is only a beginning.
Even better would be to make more supporting characters female, especially in non-traditional roles. We're used to seeing women limited to a few specific roles in the popular media we consume. Women are traditionally victims or villains: someone to be rescued, something that 'rewards' a man for successfully overcoming the movie's obstacles…or a villain, someone who is one of the obstacles the lead character must overcome.
One recent example of a movie that cast a female in a non-traditional role is Pacific Rim. Mako Mori could have been played by anyone. It would have been easy to make her character another white male like the lead character. Instead, she was a Japanese female – a groundbreaking choice for Hollywood.
Of course, Pacific Rim still didn't pass the Bechdel test. It had two named female characters in supporting roles, but they never spoke to each other. (Who else would have liked to have seen a conversation between Mako Mori and Sasha Kaidonovsky?)
Reason #3: Nearly all viewpoint characters in mainstream movies are male.
Having more female background characters and supporting characters would be fantastic, but neither would address the real reason at the heart of why so many movies fail the Bechdel Test. In short, if a mainstream movie is targeting any audience other than women specifically, the viewpoint character is almost always a male.
Stories revolve around the viewpoint character or characters. We see through their eyes. We feel for them. We identify with them. There are female characters in many movies – mothers, love interests – but it's never their story. It's the man's story, and the female characters, as with all the non-POV characters, are generally only important in how they affect the main character's story. Their relationships and interactions revolve around the lead character.
Most point-of-view characters have a very definite, narrow set of traits: most are male. Most are white. Most are straight. Most are able-bodied. And so on. The vast majority of movies ever made tell the story from a male's, or a gr
oup of males', point-of-view.
Why is this the case? It's due to a poisonous assumption that underlays our popular culture. It goes like this: men are not interested in watching movies or consuming media that star characters that are different from themselves. Men, we are told in ways both overt and subtle, want to watch movies about men. Specifically, white, straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered men want to see movies about people who are just like them – and ONLY movies about people who are just like them.
Oddly, everyone *else* is assumed to have no trouble identifying with the white, straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered male protagonist. No movie executives are expressing concern that the limited male viewpoint of, say, the Iron Man or Spiderman or Batman trilogies will somehow keep female audiences away in droves. Yet suggesting that studios create a movie starring a woman often elicits a knee-jerk reaction of, "Oh, men won't go see it if it stars a woman."
It's insulting. It's horribly insulting to white, straight, able-bodied men everywhere to assume that they are so lacking in empathy and interest in anyone unlike themselves that they will actively reject media that stars a character that differs from themselves in some important respect.
And yet, we foster this stereotype.
Jennifer Kesler, discussing her experiences taking film classes at UCLA, was told:
"I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women; men of color, etc.) – as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see.
"I was stunned. I’d just moved from a state that still held Ku Klux Klan rallies only to find an even more insidious form of bigotry in California – running an industry that shaped our entire culture. "
If we want more movies to pass the Bechdel test, we need to stop treating white, straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered men as though they are incapable of appreciating stories about children, people of color, queer people, disabled people, transgendered people, and yes, even women.
And we need to start making more mainstream-targeted movies that star women.
Reason #2: Female characters lack society.
Even when a woman stars or co-stars in a movie, often all of her important relationships are with males. Erica Friedman discussed this concept in an excellent answer to a question on Quora, a couple of excerpts from which I've included below (with her permission). The full answer, along with several other excellent answers can be found here.
"Women, in all but the chickiest of chick flicks, are without society. They have a husband and a son, and when those are killed, she'll don a leather body suit and carry guns, but she never seems to have any friends. In action movies, each side gets one woman and they fight each other, but there's never more than one woman per team (if there is a woman at all on the team.)"
"How many characters are there in the story? Do the men talk to each other? The women only talk with the men. The plot may have insisted the two women never meet, but don't you think it's odd that any woman, other than one in a very extreme situation, could go a whole day without at least having one conversation with another woman? Doesn't that strike you as odd?
"It does me. Every time I watch a movie like Tomb Raider, with a "powerful female character" lead, who is completely isolated from the company of other women for any reason. "
One movie that made this phenomenon extremely clear to me was "The Little Mermaid". Ariel, the star of the movie, has six older sisters. SIX. And yet, throughout the entire movie, she doesn't speak to a single one of them, nor do any of them speak to her. The movie does pass the Bechdel test, but only because of a (mostly-sung) conversation between Ariel and Ursula, the villain of the movie, and a brief exchange between Ariel and a maid, during which Ariel can't speak but responds expressively.
Every other person she has meaningful interactions with is male: Flounder, her best friend, Sebastian, who was tasked to watch over her (and who is arguably as much of a viewpoint character as Ariel herself), Prince Eric, whom Ariel falls in love with (and who also has multiple scenes from his viewpoint), her father, who lectures her and fears for her, Scuttle, her friend the Seagull, Flotsam and Jetsam, Ursula's pets, and Grimsby, Eric's advisor.
Even Eric's dog, Max, is male.
The plot necessarily isolates Ariel, and yet…isn't it strange that she goes through the entire movie without ever once speaking to any of her sisters, or having any of them speak to her? Was there no one among those six older sisters that she could go to? No one she could talk to about her love of human artifacts, her pain when her father destroyed her collection? No one who was worried about her or furious with her for angering their father? Why did Disney bother to give Ariel sisters at all – since their existence literally made no difference whatsoever to the plot?
This is what we mean when we say that female characters lack society: even when a woman stars in a movie, everyone around her and all of the important people in her life are often male. The only exception to this is sometimes the villain, who, being the villain, is hardly a sympathetic companion for the star.
What the Bechdel Test really tells us, is that women are only valued for their relationships to men – at least on the silver screen. (And in a lot of other pop culture media, too; see: DC Comics). Women are not important for themselves, but for their role in relation to the male characters of the story. And this is true even when the viewpoint character is a woman.
Reason #1: Screenwriters are specifically taught not to write conversations between women.
The fact that so many movies fail the Bechdel test is not accidental, according to Jennifer Kesler. She attempted to follow her UCLA teachers' advice, making white male characters the leads in her stories. But then she was told that:
"…there was still something wrong with my writing, something unanticipated by my professors. My scripts had multiple women with names. Talking to each other. About something other than men. That, they explained nervously, was not okay. I asked why."
She had a hard time getting a real answer, until:
"Finally, I got one blessedly telling explanation from an industry pro: 'The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.' "
In other words, movies don't pass the Bechdel test because screenwriters are taught to actively avoid writing conversations between female characters – even if those conversations advance the plot.
But, as the industry professional she spoke with hastened to assure her, "I mean, that’s not how I see it, that’s how they see it."
I'm not sure what 'they' think women talk about. One thing I can tell you is that I frequently talk with more women than men thr
oughout the day…and only a small fraction of our conversations revolve around men or menstruation. Come to think of it, neither did Sarah Connor's. Or Princess Leia's.
Or Ellen Ripley's.
I want more than to see more movies pass the Bechdel Test. I want to see a positive, meaningful shift in our perceptions. I want to see more women in the background, as supporting characters, and starring in movies. But most of all, I want to see people stop fostering the insulting assumption that men are somehow incapable of appreciating a movie that stars a woman unless the movie is violent enough or the woman is naked enough.
If we can get past this perception, more movies will pass the Bechdel test organically, not because someone consciously decided to make a movie that passed the test.