Grading Films on Representation of Women: The Bechdel Test

"Cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel at a book signing at the ICA Shop in London, 2006."
"Cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel at a book signing at the ICA Shop in London, 2006." | Source

This test determines whether a film actually treats the main women characters and any women mentioned in the film or show as people instead of as accessories or other objects.

The test is named after Alison Bechdel, who created comics in 1985 with a character who used these rules to evaluate films. The rules for the test were (and still are) simple and few:

  1. The film has to have at least 2 women in it.
  2. These women must talk to each other.
  3. These women must talk to each other about something Other Than Men.

And contemporarily, people add that the "at least 2 women" criteria must include names for these women. Isn't it an odd thought that writers, producers, and movie directors would have forgotten to name women that have actual lines or other important parts of a movie?

That's what I would have thought!

Please vote!

Does your favorite movie Of All Time:

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Gender Bias

Want to put gender bias into perspective? Here's how you're going to do it:

  1. Watch your favorite movie Of All Time.
  2. Are there 2 named women?
  3. Do they talk to each other?
  4. About something Other Than Men?

I'm curious as to what you'll find, so please make sure to vote on the right!

It seems so simple! And yet, you'll most likely be looking at the writers, directors, and producers of your favorite film differently. And you'll most definitely have a different outlook on movies in general from now on (or, at least that is what I am hoping!)

Wax statue of Harry Potter in Malahide, Ireland.
Wax statue of Harry Potter in Malahide, Ireland. | Source

My Favorite Movie

Let's talk about my favorite movie series: Harry Potter. Now, I understand there is more material in the books. Let's get past that. For right now, we are going to focus solely on the films.

Yes, we have more than one (named) female character. Just to name a few that have been there from the very beginning:

  1. Hermione Granger
  2. Petunia Dursley
  3. Mrs. Weasley
  4. Ginny Weasley
  5. Professor McGonagall

But in the first film, do any of these women speak to one another??? I was hard pressed to think of any situations, let me tell you. I became so frustrated that I actually re-watched the first film just to see!

Mrs. Weasley does in fact speak to Ginny, to tell her to "Come along" basically at the boarding of the train on Platform 9 3/4. Mrs. Weasley first tells Harry how to push through the wall, and then she shows him by going with her daughter.

"Ha!" I thought. An interaction between two women! But honestly, a tiny 30 second scene between mother and daughter? Does that count?

Grasping At Straws

"The Fat Lady," I thought! "That woman in the picture who hangs over the entrance to the Gryffindor Corridor! She has to have spoken with Hermione!"

So I paid attention, but sadly she does not. Harry speaks to her. She speaks to Harry, and to Neville. She does not speak to Hermione, nor Hermione to her. And to tell the truth, I had already felt like I was grasping at straws when I had to pretend that "The Fat Lady" was a Named Character.

"Madame Hooch?" She speaks to ALL the first years, right? And Susan Bones and some other girls are shown. Alas, she only speaks to Neville directly, to yell at him for flying first without her direction.

A sign from Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter.
A sign from Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter. | Source

IMDB As A Last Resort

Okay, I was a little desperate. I searched every single character on the IMDB list.

Katie Bell and Angelina Johnson! They're both women! And they're both on the quidditch team! Which means they share screen time, right? I was excited, I fast forwarded to those parts, and watched.

Nope, if they talk at all, it's not to one another.

HP Test Conclusion

And that was it. That was the end of the character list. I had had my answer. The first movie in my favorite movie series Of All Time passed the first rule; it has plenty of female characters with names. The film barely passes the second rule, and this is only because Ginny and Molly are mother and daughter, and because Professor McGonagall is a professor who spoke to every student to call out their names for the Sorting Hat.

But I was hesitant to say that the film passed the 3rd criterion. Yes, Molly talks to Ginny about boarding Platform 9 3/4, not about men. But she was talking about it only so that she could show Harry.

And yes, Professor McGonagall yells roll call at the beginning of the feast, but the students' names are all she says. Does she even congratulate them? Tell them where to sit? I don't think she has an actual conversation with any of them at all.

So with weary, albeit twitchy, eyes, I had to admit that one of my favorite movies did not in fact pass this test.

Perhaps I'll have to go through the first book in the future to see how many instances were not included in the movie.

Your Turn

I want you to think about all the instances in your favorite movies where women had the chance to have a name but didn't, when they had the chance to speak to one another but didn't at all, and when they had the chance to speak about things Other Than Men but didn't.

Don't you think it's odd that they don't mention something from their own lives, or pasts, or goals, or hopes and dreams, or what happened that morning, or the awful driver they had to follow into work, or anything else?

Don't you find it odd that women are only ever deemed important in films when they're directing our attention back to the men?

I find it odd. More, I find it abhorrent!

Now, I want you to repeat to yourself over and over:

"There are more women than this in Real Life. There are more women than this in Real Life."

Why aren't women depicted realistically in films?

Great Bechdel Test Resources

While searching for more origin and example information on the Bechdel Test, I came across one of the most helpful websites. Bechdel Test Dot Com is a Movie List database for only grading films on these 3 criteria! It boasts of about 4884 movie titles (as of 2/20/14). Go search for your favorite movie and read the reviews!

Bechdel Test Dot Com

Movie Title
Bechdel Test Rating
Notes
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
1 out of 3
The only significant female character in the film is an elf invented for the movie. She's a pretty major character, but she only speaks to her male love interests and father figure. There are only a few other female characters in the film: a gossipy fishwife and a couple of little girls. None of them talk to each other.
A Good Day To Die Hard
1 out of 3
Two named female characters in the film: John McClaine's daughter and the Maguffin character's vampy adult daughter. They never meet or speak to each other.
Dark Skies
2 out of 3
The movie has four major female roles, three of which are named. Lacy is the main character and talks to several characters, but when it comes to the other named women (Shelly and Karen), all she talks about are her husband and sons. The only really important dialog that doesn't involve a man is with Tiffany Jeneen's character, credited only as "Protection One Operator", and otherwise unnamed, even though the character actually hands her business card over to Daniel at some point, and is important for one of the movie's main plot points.
Frozen
3 out of 3
The primary characters are sisters, who are very close growing up but become emotionally estranged. The film opens with them talking and spending time alone together as children, and a major conversation between them as adults is key to the movie. It's fundamentally a film about the connection between two women over the course of their lives.
These are just a couple of movies that I looked up on the website.

Did You Look Any Movies Up?

I'm interested to see what you found out about one of your favorite movies. Did you look it up on the Bechdel Test Movie List website? Did you rewatch it to see for yourself? Please tell me what you've found below!

© 2014 Jennifer Kessner

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7 comments

FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

Fascinating topic. Now, you've got me really thinking. I had never heard of this, but it's a good way to evaluate how females are portrayed in film. Voted up and more, plus sharing.


raymondphilippe profile image

raymondphilippe 2 years ago from The Netherlands

Never gave this much thought. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing this info.


Meisjunk profile image

Meisjunk 2 years ago from Pennsylvania Author

@ FlourishAnyway: I'm glad I've got you thinking about it! And I really hope you take a look at your favorite movie. It's a huge eye opener. Think about how much more difficult it must be for women to get parts at all in the film industry, when they aren't even cast, let alone with a role with a name! If you do check out your favorite movie, please let me know!

@raymondphilippe: I only heard about the Bechdel Test for the first time last year and hadn't thought about it either. And to be honest, I read about it, stored in the information in my head, and never went there again (well, until I saw Priest, which has a total of 2 women in it, only one named. One is a helpless thing who Must Be Saved and then isn't seen again after the first 15 minutes of the movie until the last 15 minutes. The other woman is a nameless poor and assumedly homeless woman who has 10 seconds air space.) THAT was frustrating. It was what made me want to start looking into more movies.

Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Let me know if you watch your favorite movie, and how it goes!


VVanNess profile image

VVanNess 2 years ago from Prescott Valley

That was interesting. I never thought to consider the movies that way. I usually get so wrapped up in the story, I don't pay attention to too much more. lol Nice article.


Meisjunk profile image

Meisjunk 2 years ago from Pennsylvania Author

Unfortunately, that it what seems happens with women. Our misrepresentation goes unnoticed! Thank you so much for reading. I hope this keeps you thinking. =) And if you do test your favorite movie, let me know!


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 2 years ago from Northern California

I think about this when I watch movies but hadn't seen or heard of all of these criteria before. My mom makes fun of some Lifetime shows for a lot of these reasons, and I'm not a big fan of chick flicks for a lot of those reasons as well. A lot of this may show how many male writers, etc. there are in the industry, and how many people fall into that line of thinking because we in society are used to it.


Meisjunk profile image

Meisjunk 2 years ago from Pennsylvania Author

I agree about the writers, etc., in the industry. We assume those behind our movies are men, as our default. And that it's "just the way it is" because it is men.

And yet Joss Whedon is able to write well-rounded female characters who have female characters in their lives. Buffy the vampire slayer just one of them.

And then we have Tina Fey. xD Who wrote Mean Girls as a way of defying all of that.

It's very cool that you and your mom do this on your own! Keep thinking about it. Teach your daughters and sons to come the same, and to do differently as well as see differently. =) We'll get there; I know it.

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