Pearson: More than failing a test, Hollywood failing women

By Wendy Pearson
February 20, 2014

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I suspect by now most people have heard of the Bechdel Test, although few of them will be familiar with the cartoon series, Dykes to Watch Out For!, by Alison Bechdel, in which it originated.

The comic strip shows two women discussing whether or not to go to the movies. One character, Ginger, explains she doesn’t often see films because she has “this rule.” Any film she watches has to satisfy “three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.”

Bechdel wrote and drew this strip back in 1985, nearly 30 years ago, but Ginger’s comment that she hasn’t seen a film since Alien (1979) remains strangely contemporary.

A lot of films fail the Bechdel Test. While a viewer who applies the Bechdel Test in 2014 might not have to wait six years between films, her choices would still be severely limited. In fact, even today, film (and particularly Hollywood film) represents the human race as composed primarily of males, usually white.

In Geena Davis’  Two Easy Steps to Make Hollywood Less Sexist, Davis, drawing on research by Dr. Stacy Smith of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, writes:

The basics are 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 per cent female characters; and that the ratio of male-female characters has been exactly the same since 1946. Throw in the hypersexualization of many of the female characters that are there, even in G-rated movies, and their lack of occupations and aspirations and you get the picture.

Davis, an Academy Award-winning actor, founded the Institute for Gender in the Media after noticing the astounding dearth of female characters in programs her children were watching. Davis has suggested two simple solutions for dealing with the problem: that writers go through their scripts and change some names from male to female and that, in describing a crowd scene, they write: “‘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 per cent female otherwise.”

Davis’s suggestions might well have a significant impact on the number of films available to those who prefer their screen experiences to pass the Bechdel Test. Nevertheless, the Bechdel Test is not fool proof. Indeed, it was never intended to become – as it has – a rule for rating gender inclusion in film. And, as Katy Waldman has pointed out in Slate, it sets the bar too low – perhaps because it was not aiming to set a bar at all.

Bechdel herself has written, “I just can’t seem to rise to the occasion of talking about this fundamental principle over and over again, as if it’s somehow new, or open to debate.”

Waldman wants a more developed principle, one that matches in intent Davis’ goal of furthering female representation in film. That desire should, in theory, be matched by Hollywood executives’ desire for profit, since a study by Vocativ in 2013 clearly showed that films that passed the Bechdel Test made more money than those that did not.

Yet, this year’s Academy Awards once more feature more films that fail the Bechdel Test (Captain Phillips, Gravity, Her, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street) than pass it (American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Philomena). At a ratio of 5:4, the awards are perhaps approaching closer to the Bechdel Test, but that does not mean that the representation of women in film has suddenly taken a significant turn for the better.

Rather than suggesting a revision of the Bechdel Test to raise the bar, Waldman suggests Hollywood should be aiming to represent not only quantitatively more women, but a greater diversity of women in a much larger variety of roles. This would include making films that take female desire seriously, that allow women to engage in abstract discussion about different aspects of the world, that would make a woman’s story the centre of the film, rather than relegating her to the role of sidekick or domestic goddess, that would recognize the existence and plenitude of women of colour, lesbian and bisexual women, transgender women and a whole host of others who don’t fit within the very narrow strictures created by ideals of white female beauty and passivity to which so much of this culture adheres.

The Bechdel Test was originally created as a tongue-in-cheek comment about the difficulty of finding films which don’t marginalize women as adjuncts in a male world.

Were we to supersede it today, we might find ourselves watching films in which women are more than 17 per cent of any crowd and more than one quarter of the characters on screen. Indeed, these might be films in which women are the protagonists and heroes and the subjects of their own stories, wherever those stories may take them.

Wendy Pearson is a professor in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research.


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