Materialistic. Desperate. Psychotic. Weak. Catty. Stupid. The images of women in film are all the same—pernicious and unoriginal in equal measure. However, this essential component of American media went largely un-critiqued until 1985. It was then that Alison Bechdel, acclaimed author of the graphic novel Fun Home, first introduced what has come to be known as the Bechdel Test.
Accredited to the ideas of Virginia Woolf and Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace, the Bechdel Test is a three-level way of evaluating the portrayal of female characters in film. In order to pass, each movie must, 1) have at least two named female characters who 2) talk to each other 3) about something other than a man.
Although these requirements may seem very simple, bechdeltest.com, a site for crowdsourcing Bechdel Test results, reports that about 40 percent of 4,000 films surveyed don’t pass the test. In addition to its necessary and surprising immediate findings—namely the number of films that fail it—the Bechdel Test has paved the way for discussion and research regarding sexism in film.
According to The Journal of Adolescent Health, movies contain an average of two male characters per female character. Of these, females are significantly more likely than males to be involved in sex. Furthermore, The Chicago Tribune finds that while females represent, on average, 30 percent of movie and TV show characters overall, they make up an even smaller proportion of named characters—about 31 percent. The comparative number of speaking female characters is lower still, standing at approximately 30 percent. These percentages, which in an ideal world would all be 50 percent, are hardly the most striking. A study by University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism further found that less than a quarter—about 23 percent—of films have a female protagonist. Off-screen, even more subtle to viewers, only seven percent of directors are women.
It’s also important to note that producers and directors who create films that pass the Bechdel Test are in no way making a sacrifice. A study conducted in 2014 by FiveThirtyEight—a statistical analysis blog—determined that, despite the budget of such movies being 35 percent lower than their Bechdel Test-failing counterparts, their average return on investment is 37 percent higher. This means that depicting women as people with real-life complexity in films is not only good for how women are perceived by the rest of society, but for the people who make them as well.
Although the test has quickly gained popularity as a simple way to determine the depth of the portrayal of female characters in a film, it does have serious limitations. Many sexist movies pass the test while their feminist counterparts fail because they don’t meet all three of the requirements. For example, The Huffington Post finds that while Gravity—which features Sandra Bullock as a female astronaut—fails, the romantic comedy Legally Blonde passes because the main character discusses makeup a few times. Ultimately the test is hindered by its lack of nuance, making it difficult for it to encompass the subtleties of film and feminism.
On the other hand, it has been remarkably successful in promoting discourse about the media’s depiction of female figures and has served as a springboard for further investigation of sexism in cinematography. It is also one of the only tests we have that comes close to quantifying gender bias in Hollywood. Overall, FiveThirtyEight reminds us that “the Bechdel test … doesn’t certify that a movie is ‘good’ when it comes to integrating women, … but it’s the best test on gender equity in film we have—and, … the only test we have data on.”
The Bechdel test remains relevant today because the problem it highlights is a serious one. Movies are more than an innocuous means of entertainment—they influence our perception of ourselves and our roles in society. When women consistently play fewer characters than men, and those characters are less fully developed, that is what the people see. When female characters are consistently defined by their relationships to men, that is what the people see. That is the expectation that women feel they should strive to reach.
The media plays an important, and often underestimated, role in society. The dishearteningly common portrayal of women as being dependent on their boyfriends and husbands has harmful implications for female viewers. A study by CNN found that while television boosts the self-esteem of white boys, it lowers that of girls and people of color. The Bechdel Test will remain relevant until this is no longer the case, and until films stop failing it so frequently—or, really, at all.
Ultimately, the Bechdel Test uncovers a deeply rooted pattern of gender bias within the movie business that can only be eradicated with sweeping reform. We need to dispel the myth that movies featuring women perform worse financially, because the opposite is true. We need to overcome the prejudices and stereotypes that shape the narratives we tell about women. We need to start telling the stories of women with nuance and candor. The movie industry has so much power to influence our society—and it ought to start using that power more wisely.