“I only go to a movie if it satisfies 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.”
In 1985, a new edition of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, called ‘The Rule’, first introduced the ‘Bechdel Test’ to the film industry. The writers portrayed the character as avoiding cinema with an extreme male bias, with the character in the script claiming that she hasn’t been able to watch a movie since the 1979 space horror film Alien.
In a society where patriarchy has been the dominating narrative, it’s no surprise that women’s representation in the film industry (or any industry, for that matter) is lacking. Looking at statistics from the past few years, women play only about 37% of roles on television (2015). In films, the percentage of speaking roles for women drops to 28% (2012). Women make up a mere 16% of directors, writers, producers, and editors (2013).
Many are unaware that gender stereotypes are not just linked to the costumes but are intrinsic to a character’s conversations, actions and traits. To understand how grave the situation is, the Test proves to be helpful. The Bechdel Test is a convenient way to gauge the active presence of female characters in films and just how well-rounded and complete those roles are.
On listening to what it takes for the movies to pass the test, one might think: “This seems easy, I bet most movies pass it.” And that’s what I expected. But on researching more on the topic, the number of popular movies that couldn’t pass this simple test turned out to be astonishing. At the 2014 Academy Awards, only three out of the eight nominees for Best Picture passed the Bechdel Test: Boyhood, Selma and The Theory of Everything. Corresponding to research by Duke University in 2017, over 40% of all the films in the US failed the test. The team used data from the bechdeltest.com website, a user-compiled database of over 7,000 movies where volunteers rate films based on the Bechdel criteria.
These results show the under-representation of women’s complex lives in the film industry. The Bechdel Test’s demands set a low bar for the filmmakers to meet and they start a conversation about gender inequality in film. The test has brought to light the importance of shifting the focus from men to the other things in a woman’s life: career goals, friendships, inner troubles, etc.
However, the test comes with its own set of problems. A film passing the test doesn’t mean the movie automatically becomes one that the feminists support. The Bechdel Test can be a misleading gauge of ‘feminism’ in movies. Films with a strong female lead don’t provide a supporting female character who holds enough importance to converse with the lead.
Many movies that pass the test, do so based on a ‘technicality’: in some inconsequential scene, the women have a small conversation about something other than men, therefore fulfilling the criteria. For example, Gravity featuring a female astronaut doesn’t pass the test. However, Legally Blonde does because Elle and her friend talk about their dogs in a scene or two.
Female characters have followed the same tropes. The movies make women damsels in distress or a ‘manic pixie dream girl.’ They also sexualise women, forcing them to wear tight-fitting clothes and heels throughout the movie. Adjectives about physical attributes like beautiful, gorgeous and pretty are used to describe the female characters.
Another common trope used is called ‘fridging’ wherein the female characters are injured, raped, killed, or depowered, sometimes to stimulate ‘protective’ traits in men, and often as a plot device intended to move a male character’s story arc forward. Women in Refrigerators, a website created in 1999 by a group of feminist comic-book fans lists examples of this trope. It refers to an incident in Green Lantern #54 (1994), in which, the title hero, Kyle Rayner, comes home to his apartment to find that his girlfriend had been killed and stuffed into a refrigerator.
This, however, is not the sole test. The ‘Mako Mori Test’ requires that: The film must feature at least one female character, who has her narrative arc that does not depend on supporting a man’s story. Likewise, the ‘DuVernay Test’ determines a film’s racial diversity. It checks if the minorities have realised lives rather than serving as scenery in the stories of the whites.
However, these tests prove to be like the Bechdel Test as they provide data about representation but cannot provide a coherent picture if the film is feminist enough. Some critics argue that the problem lies in the disagreement about what it means to be a ‘feminist film.’ Because of this, forming a one-size-fits-all test for judging feminism has been difficult.
Female representation worsens across intersectionality. Under the broader umbrella of female characters, there are even fewer black females, Latina females, Lesbians or Transgenders. Hollywood executives have knocked dark-skinned women to the side in favour of those with European features and pale complexions. ‘Colourism’ isn’t, however, unique to the black community. In the Bollywood film industry, too, the starring roles go to lighter-skinned actors. Many of them also endorse fairness creams and other similar products.
According to the 2018 USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study, out of the top 100 films in 2017, 43 films didn’t include any African-American female character. Sixty-five films were missing Asian or Asian-American female characters, and 64 didn’t include a Latina character. Ninety-four didn’t feature characters with disabilities and LGBTQ characters.
Representation is significant for all communities. However, more than representation, it’s accurate representation that is important. Accurate and well-rounded representation allows people to see a world outside of themselves, fostering critical thinking and empathy with those who are different. The stereotypes don’t allow for the representation to portray the full picture of the complexities of the surrounding people. Because of the aspirational value that pop culture holds, it becomes a cunning, persuasive and pervasive educator. As an educator, it has the power to shape views and opinions about how people look at themselves and others.
Representation in the film industry, however, isn’t just limited to on-screen representation but also extends to those who are working behind the camera. Figures published by The Guardian have revealed that only 22% of the crew involved in making 2,000 of the biggest grossing films over the past 20 years were women. Further, the report revealed a split in responsibilities: women made up a majority only in costume and wardrobe departments and casting. These departments have been perceived as feminine workplaces.
The issue deepens when you take into consideration the wage gap between the actors and actresses. Forbes’ analysis of American acting salaries in 2013 determined that the top-paid actors for that year made 2½ times as much money as the top-paid actresses. This means that Hollywood’s best-compensated actresses made just 40 cents for every dollar that the best-compensated men made. Women who have spoken about the issue explain the reason for not demanding higher pay as “they worry about seeming difficult or spoiled.”
In her 2018 Oscar speech, Frances McDormand suggested an ‘inclusion rider’, a clause in contracts meant to stipulate that 50% of a film crew had to be female. If A-list actors put this clause into practice, the film industry could portray the real world.
Film producers and showrunners have, however, started to take charge. In 2015, the film professionals started the “Bechdel Bill” campaign, who pledged that 80% of their films will pass the test. CW also incorporated the Bechdel Test in two of its shows: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin. Despite both shows not passing the test, the move was symbolic as the network constructed a space in which discourse could take place.
This discourse can challenge Hollywood to do more than settle for the status quo and to question the absences of many types of people from the movie-making process. These people could potentially enrich our entertainment in countless ways, both on the screen and behind the lens. A post #MeToo and #TimesUp world has the potential to hold Hollywood accountable and challenge the oppressive structure to demand a more inclusive industry that isn’t hegemonised by cis-white-men.
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