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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** This video is available to be translated into other languages by volunteers like you. Please visit the subtitling page on Universal Subtitles and click TRANSLATE to get started.

Transcript

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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28 Responses to “The Oscars and the Bechdel Test”

  1. I would be interested in seeing a version of the bechdel test, applied to gender-queer individuals, I can’t think of a single movie off-hand that would pass with the criteria:
    2 or more gender-queer characters
    that talk to each other
    about something other than cis-gendered people.

    Or something along those lines.

    Veronica Reply:

    Good point, but I wouldn’t expect the majority of movies to pass that test as the majority of viewers are not queer or trans as opposed to women and non-white people as pointed out in this video. But it would be good to at least have a few.

    Jenni Reply:

    Yeah I don’t expect a majority, but it’s rather sad that I can’t think of a single example of a movie that passes. Even movies that do involve gender queers or LGBTQ folk, don’t seem to ever have more than one openly gender-queer person, let alone have them interacting with other gender queers in any way on-screen. They are far from a majority, but they have virtually no representation in the media.

    Beth Reply:

    Love! Valour! Compassion! is the only thing that would probably pass that came to my mind, but it has been forever since I’ve seen it.

  2. I get the reverse Bechdel test comment a lot and I involuntarily face palm every time. Last time I checked men are not being underrepresented in film. Siigh.

    Do you plan on doing any videos about Stephen Moffat? His shows like Sherlock and Dr. Who, that, while enjoyable and compelling, has issues in portraying women and people of color. I ask because I think I recall you posting about Moffat’s somewhat recent comments on your twitter.

    Great video, as usual. I’m a fan of your vids and hope you keep making them because I think your commentary is important. I’ll be sure to donate, albeit a small amount. Every bit counts, right? :)

  3. Another very good video. You really do excellent work. I came across this site when I saw the first LEGO video you made, and I reposted them on my own blog with my post on the topic.

    Keep up the good work! :)

  4. Really, really, really enjoyed this video. As a female filmmaker I’m a tad embarrassed I didn’t know about the bechdel test. But I do now!!! :)

    Thankfully my web series I created passed the bechdel test in its first season but now with this awareness I think I can do better as we begin developing season two.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful vid.

  5. I don’t see why the reverse Bechdel Test is such an issue.

    Ok, so let’s apply a reverse Bechdel test, most Hollywood movies pass, test ends. Point made.

  6. When I have discussions about Bechdel, I actually do like to talk about the reverse test to prove why Bechdel-proper is so compelling. A lot of people initially see Bechdel as reductive or as an attempt to shoehorn women into movies where they “don’t belong”, so I like to bring up the reverse test and challenge them to think of movies that fail it. Boiling it down to the simple terms of:

    Are there two men in this movie with names
    who talk to each other
    about something other than a woman?

    really highlights the absurdity of the need for the existence of Bechdel-proper. In my experience, when people look at the requirements of reverse Bechdel and it dawns on them that practically every single movie passes it — compared to the majority of movies failing Bechdel-proper — I find that they understand and accept my argument a lot more quickly.

  7. Agree completely and wanted to add a couple of things:

    1. wonder why you miss Albert Nobbs – it’s a movie that satisfies not only the Bechdel test but also the queer/gender-queer test! Whoopie! It may be boring to some but it moved me to tears with a wonderful script and stellar acting. It is nominated for Oscar performances, not best picture – true – but still it’s in the Oscars running

    2. Wonder if you would do an extension of this argument not only to content representation, but the reality of who works on these movies….I face palm myself to a bloody mess every year when large teams of guys come out to receive technical awards for art direction, sound design, visual effects, editing, you name it. This whole industry is so utterly unfriendly to women from every possible perspective…

    love your vids, i’ll try to throw a few more universal translations when i have a minute!

  8. The Bechdel Test always works as a great reality check on the state of female representation on the mainstream. It’d be great if we lived in a world where Margaret and Marcy Martha May Marlene got nominations, but we don’t.

    Midnight in Paris is a weird case. I honestly hadn’t thought about it’s treatment of gender until you brought it up, but now that I think about it, I realize that it’s really problematic. With Woody Allen, you pretty much have to expect his issues with women to bleed in, but that’s more of an issue now than it used to be.

    When he was the star of his films, the autobiographical element tempered it, since he’s simply expressing who he is, and you sort of have to take it or leave it. But since he now as a line of protagonists who are basically stand-ins for himself, he’s displaced his issues into someone who isn’t him, and it’s awkward. Midnight in Paris is all about nostalgia, and the main character is wistful over for a time that wasn’t nearly as great as he thinks it was. However, no part of acknowledging the bad parts of the 1920’s comes in the form of calling out the misogyny of the male authors.

    It’s bad, because there’s so much good stuff in Midnight in Paris that I want to forgive it its sexism, but that would be wrong. It’s ironic that the film acts as a criticism of false nostalgia, since it exhibits some pretty outdated gender types (harpy girlfriend!).

    By the way, massive props for putting a good word out for Attack the Block.

  9. [...] Feminist Frequency has decided to nail them for this year’s offerings: [...]

  10. [...] Video. Read more here. [...]

  11. [...] Frequency — a series of videos discussing female tropes and characters in pop culture — is back with a critical look at the 2012 Oscar nominees. A few years ago, media scholar Anita applied the Bechdel test to Hollywood films, with depressing [...]

  12. [...] Frequency — a series of videos discussing female tropes and characters in pop culture — is back with a critical look at the 2012 Oscar nominees. A few years ago, media scholar Anita applied the Bechdel test to Hollywood films, with depressing [...]

  13. I loved this video, as always clearly stated, and well thought out, with compassionate answers to arguments.

    I did have one question on something you said in this video. At 9:30 you say “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.”

    My impression has been that the studio executives main goal is to make money, hence writing/producing films that they know will sell making the stories they tell a reflection of society as a whole rather than the opinion of a few executives.

    I have sort of assumed that the reason most stories center around men and their stories is because that is what society (unjustly) wants to see, what are your thoughts on that?

    Love your videos, you’re always my go-to person on feminism for friends and family.

    cofax Reply:

    I have sort of assumed that the reason most stories center around men and their stories is because that is what society (unjustly) wants to see, what are your thoughts on that?

    Actually, let’s be clear: it’s because that is what they think society wants to see.

    Tyler Perry is making money hand over fist, producing movies for a middlebrow black audience, and yet no major production studio is willing to follow his lead. Gee, I wonder why?

    George Lucas (!!) couldn’t get studio backing for Red Tails and had to produce it himself.

    There have been multiple “breakthrough” female leads in movies & tv, from Ripley to Buffy Summers, and yet Hollywood still can’t commit to making action flicks with women stars, because the men in power assume that the average American audience is incapable of identifying with a female lead.

    This happens even when the Hollywood types really want to focus on women and characters of color, because the industry is so fundamentally conservative, that they keep going back to the default, which is white male leads. They’re all terrified of losing money, so instead they produce something like The Last Airbender, which could have been a showcase for Asian-American actors, and instead they cast all the major protagonists with white kids. ::facepalm::

    Basically: it’s an assumption that the audience cannot and will not break out of its comfort zone, and an unwillingness to take any chances. Unless, that is, they can cast Will Smith or Denzel Washington in the lead.

  14. Excellent video – thanks! I think the point is very well made, that the real value of the test can be seen when it’s applied to the whole system, rather than individual movies. The same sort of thinking applies to institutional sexism, racism, etc in hiring; it’s hard to tell whether an individual hire of a white heterosexual cisgendered male from a diverse applicant-pool is because of prejudice, or because the best candidate, on this occasion, turned out to be a white heterosexual cisgendered male; but you can tell whether the institution as a whole has a problem by looking at its hiring practices as a whole.

    I like your addition of the 60-second rule. It is good that the test should be clear-cut in as many cases as possible; this gives aggregate statistical data on the Bechdel status of movies greater consistency, and hence, credibility.

    There is one point I on which I do have to disagree though. While you are absolutely right that Hollywood has no problem with telling men’s stories, and so the reverse Bechdel test has no *intrinsic* value, there is a good reason to use it nonetheless; that is, as a statistical baseline. It gives a basis for comparison between how Hollywood treats groups it regularly tells the stories of, compared to groups it neglects. If you can say that (for instance) one 20% of Hollywood films pass the enhanced Bechdel test, that’s powerful, but if you can also say, compared to 99.9% for the reverse, that’s even more powerful still.

  15. [...] met het gesproken woord? De Engelse tekst staat hier volledig uitgeschreven. Zoals gewoonlijk komt Anita Sarkeesian, het genie achter dit feministische [...]

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  17. [...] the Bechdel test? Rates where movies fall on a scale of being horrible for women to less horrible. Excellent explanation about the results of this year’s Oscar [...]

  18. I definitely agree that if a film only “sort of” passes the conversation criteria, then it really doesn’t pass at all.

  19. Ok, guy raising hand in admission of watching a chick flick. Waiting to Exhale is a fantastic film that really seems to portray a cross section of African American women on real life issues. It’s quite rare to see such a broad range emotions and rich complexities in a pop-audience film. Yes, they talk about men and sources of these emotions are initiated via boy-girl dynamics, but the real center of conversations seem to be about a woman’s sense of pain, loss, anger, lust and love.

    You know, as I’ve raised my two girls as a single parent since they were 2 and 3, I’ve noticed not only the dominance of the masculine hero quest theme, but a surprising number of significant female characters die at the beginning of the masculine quest. Finding Nemo? Mom get’s eaten when he’s still a vulnerable little egg. Up? Ellie, Carl’s elan vital, dies (quite poetically) in the opening scenes. In a metaphorical sense, “mother” earth is lifeless at the beginning of WALL-E. (As you can see, we’ve been purveyors of kids films the last several years.)

    It might be interesting to see a list of Dead Women films, of the sort I’ve described above. I’ll bet you know a bunch of ‘em.

    Anita Reply:

    I made a video about that trope, it’s called Women in Refrigerators – http://www.feministfrequency.com/2011/04/tropes-vs-women-2-women-in-refrigerators

  20. [...] http://www.feministfrequency.com/2012/02/the-2012-oscars-and-the-bechdel-test/ [...]

  21. [...] of films released in the US in 2011 featured “between zero and one” female character.Only 3 out of 9 films nominated for Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards passed the Bechdel Test. 39% of Americans [...]

  22. It occurs to me that one of the most female-centric genres of all time probably doesn’t pass: the Jane Austen movies! Really, is there a single moment in a Jane Austrn movie where the numerous female characters are NOT talking about men or marital prospects in general?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big Austen fan, but it’s worth noting that a story can be ostensibly focused on women but actually be focused on women who focus on men.

  23. [...] by male gamemakers–an apt metaphor for what occurs when female-authored books end up in the male-dominated Hollywood [...]