Monday, December 28, 2015

Ask JKM a Question: Gender Representation and The Bechdel Test?

A regular reader who wishes to remain anonymous, writes:

"Last summer there seemed to be a lot of discussion about feminism and men's rights in regards to blockbuster genre movies like The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road.  

What's your take on all this? 

And finally, how do you feel about the Bechdel Test?"

Thank you for the questions, Anon.  

I noticed the gender war last summer too.

The opening salvo may have occurred before Joss Whedon fell on his sword with Ultron, when he noted that Jurassic World is "70s sexist."  That statement seemed to set the tenor for the summer.

Why do I think this is happening now?  

There are two reasons.  

First, many women feel (rightly) that they are underrepresented by Hollywood films. And when women are represented in major films it is often in traditional, stereotypical terms: as a princess, a prize-to-be-won, as a wife or girlfriend. As you may note, all those roles derive their agency from a man.

The second reason is that some very sensitive men apparently feel that by making women more equally represented in films (especially genre films), something precious is being taken away from them.

Those are the two root causes of the controversy.  

One reason -- the first -- is valid.  The facts and statistics back up the women's argument.

The second reason is ridiculous. It embarrasses me that so many folks of my sex are so petty about this subject. One strong female character shows up in a summer blockbuster and men are suddenly victims, and being discriminated against?

Yeah, right.

Onto the first issue: female representation. 

I highly recommend all readers check out Dr. Martha Lauzen's "It's a Man's (Celluloid) World: On-Screen Representations of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2013" for a wake-up call about just how biased major Hollywood films remain.  

Among some of the findings: Women only represent 30% of all speaking parts in the top 100 films of 2013, and only 15 percent of such films feature a female protagonist. 

Furthermore, women -- when they do appear in these films -- are rarely portrayed as leaders, are frequently seen as younger than their male counterparts, and are often defined in terms of their marital status (as opposed to male characters, who are not defined in that fashion).

Leaving behind these on-screen aspects of female participation in movies, between 2009 and 2014 less than 5% of all major film releases were directed by women. 

So clearly, Hollywood has a long distance to travel if it wishes to achieve gender equality both in front of and behind the camera.

The men who felt rage over the presence of Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road are acting -- either consciously or unconsciously -- as territorial gatekeepers...and that's just not good. Once upon a time, male fans gladly embraced strong female characters like Furiosa; characters with names like Ripley, Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, Dana Scully, or even Buffy Summers.

I'm not writing a polemic here, but facts are facts. One side is right, using arguments based on facts and statistics. The other side is just being really petty, or emotional.

You also asked me about the Bechdel Test, and for me, that's a much thornier subject than the summer movie sex wars.

I absolutely recognize the importance, the necessity even of the Bechdel Test, and yet at the same time don't like it very much. I don't question its motives, but I do question its effectiveness as an instrument.

In particular, I don't feel it is the right tool with which to tackle the problem of gender representation in film.


First a definition might be in order: The Bechdel Test is a checklist, essentially, to determine gender bias.  

To achieve a passing score on the Bechdel Test, a film must feature at least two women, they must talk to one another, and their discussion must concern a subject other than a man. 

The test was originated by award-winning cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel.

My concern here is that one of the test’s criteria -- talking -- is not the right one for a medium that is primarily visual in nature.  

There are many films out there in which there is very little dialogue at all (think: Walkabout, or more recently, Under the Skin.). 

So cataloging who "talks" in a film isn't necessarily an indication of gender equality.

Additionally, there are some films in which, accurately, there should be no women, or oppositely, no men for that matter, on screen. 

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) fails the Bechdel Test and yet it is a great film that thrives on its setting: an isolated outpost in Antarctica during the 1980s populated exclusively by men.

The absence of women in the film actually represents part of the underlying tension. The incorrect assumption of Bechdel is that a movie can only be about something when that something is present and actively discussed on screen, not when that something is (intentionally) absent, or when not speaking.

A horror movie critic I admire, B.J. Colangelo, even describes The Thing as an unexpectedly "feminist" movie, and makes a case for why she believes this is the case.  

Still, the Carpenter flick fails the Bechdel Test.

Other films that fail the Bechdel Test include: Jaws (1975), King Kong (1933), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Princess Bride (1986) and The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Casablanca (1942) and Citizen Kane (1941) both fail the test too. 

What does this fact point out? 

Well, a couple of things.

Primarily, that even the greatest films in cinema history are not immune to the problem of gender equality, because the problem is systemic. 

In this case, one can see why Bechdel is necessary, right?

But simultaneously, we must face the fact that the test misses (or fails) a large number of films that feature strong roles for women.  

Exhibit A is a film I name-checked above. The Blair Witch Project, features a remarkable female protagonist, Heather Donohue and yet it also fails the Bechdel Test. Heather is a leader in the film, the same age as her male counterparts, and her personal status (unmarried) is not discussed. 

So the film handles all of Bechdel's stated concerns brilliantly, but because there are not two women in leading roles talking about women, it still fails to achieve a passing grade.

Again, this example suggests to me that the Bechdel Test is not a very sharp instrument for determining gender equality.

Finally, the Bechdel Test ignores one of the most important aspects of understanding movies: historical context. 

As much as I wish this weren’t the case, it is simply not realistic or particularly useful to assume that a film made thirty, forty, fifty, or sixty years ago is going to pass a test based on a social movement or awakening of the present day.  

Again, the test reveals a systemic, historic and continuing problem, but singling out decades-old films for a problem we have only become highly conscious of recently is not a good idea, generally-speaking, for the fruitful study of an historical art form. 

Honestly, old films fail on any number of contemporary moral bases including racism, homophobia and even fat shaming. Gender representation isn't even the worst or most pronounced problem you'll find in film history if you dig deep.  Just go watch Song of the South.

The implication of testing these older films by today's standards is what deeply concerns me.  If old films fail the test, does that mean they are unworthy of being seen by current students of film? Should we just white-wash them out of existence, then?

Isn't that the ultimate implication of Bechdel? To disqualify a movie from holding a spot in your Netflix queue?

Well, film students and scholars should probably still watch Birth of a Nation (1915) for the role it plays in the development of film as a technological art form, despite the fact that the movie's content is overtly -- and atrociously -- racist. 

The film's context -- its very placement in history -- is what truly matters in this case, and that is why it should be seen, even today, by film students or film lovers...even as they hold their noses regarding the content/point-of-view. You get a clearer, fuller picture of film history if you watch the movie.

The Bechdel Test doesn't accommodate for historical context.  

My personal feeling on this is that it was never designed to. I believe the test was designed to remind viewers of existing Hollywood bias, not to measure a specific film’s artistic or cultural merit. 

But that's not how everybody uses it.

The point, I suppose, is that a lot of movies -- the vast majority, actually -- fail the test, because women are poorly and inadequately represented on screen. To repeat the facts: women directed only 5% of major releases between 2009 and 2014. They were leading characters in less than a third of the films. 

That is a stunning disparity.  

However, some movies of the last century are masterpieces of the form regardless of their demographic gestalt, and to suggest otherwise based on a recently-conceived and arbitrary bench mark is a grave mistake if it prevents even one potential audience member from seeing some great films. 

My bottom line: "Oh, it failed the Bechdel Test" should never be used as an excuse not to watch a movie like Citizen Kane or to appreciate a film's artistry. 

Instead, the Bechdel Test should be discussed to remind us all that Hollywood is still very much a man's world.  The glass ceiling is still in effect. 

So what’s the alternative to the Bechdel Test? 

I don't think I can say the test is bad, and unworthy if I don't provide some alternative, or find some other way to redress the problems it (courageously) attempts to take on.

Perhaps there could be a test that states -- flat-out -- you don’t grade films of the 20th century based on a 21st century historical context, for example.  

That gives us fifteen years to go back and pore over modern disparities but also lets a lot of older films -- products of their now-gone historical context -- off the hook.  

Because, really, what's the point of re-litigating the sexual politics underlining This is Spinal Tap or Citizen Kane in 2015?

And secondly: a test of of this sort shouldn't base passing/failing on who is talking, but rather, perhaps, how that character motivates the action

We might even need to drill down to real specifics. 

Like: who is actually on screen, and for how long? That data could help us get around the "talking" issue and approve films like Lucy (2014), Under the Skin (2014), Walkabout (1971) or The Blair Witch Project.  This will catch some films, but not all. The Thing, for example, would still fail under this rubric.

Martha Lauzen’s approach is a good one. 

Perhaps a prospective test determining gender equality could ask the following questions:

1.) Is the primary female character depicted in the film as a leader?

2.) Is she noticeably younger than the male characters in the film that she is associated with (and if so, what’s the gap?). 

3,) Finally, is the character defined in terms of marital status (and if so, what about her male peers?) 

These standards seem a lot more meaningful than simply cataloging who talks. The big question, however is: do we use Bechdel to discourage the viewing of old films of historical value and import? 

Or simply, going forward, do we consider its data to bring awareness to a perpetually unequal industry?

I'd prefer the latter approach.

Don't forget to ask me your questions at


  1. Anonymous11:24 AM


    42nd St. passes the test?

  2. I would also note that Sucker Punch passes the test. Yep. It's definitely not a perfect standard.