In her 1985 comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” Alison Bechdel created a litmus test for female characters and their positive representations in movies. There are three simple rules that a movie must follow to pass “The Bechdel Test”: there is a minimum of two named female characters in the film, these two women must speak to one another and they must speak to one another about something that is not a man.
While it may come as no surprise to you that movies such as “Fight Club” and “The Godfather” do not pass these three rules, it is alarming to note that “Toy Story,” “Up!” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two” also fail to meet these criteria. The test does not intend to say whether a movie is feminist in nature nor whether it is even a good movie: it simply ventures to show the female presence, or the lack thereof, in film.
The first standard in the test refers to two female characters being present in the movie. Their presence can be limited to them simply being there and referred to by a proper, given name. This criterion is important because at a given moment in reality, there are more than two women present. Assuming that most movies made nowadays can even meet this condition would be erroneous. Recent movies such as “Dear John” and “Bruno” do not portray two named women.
The second standard implies that these two (or more) named female characters are significant enough that they get a dialogue between one another. They must exist as stand alone characters who are not simply serving a male protagonist or accessible as a person solely in his social world. Movies who fail to achieve this status include “The Hangover,” “(500) Days of Summer” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”
The final standard insists that two named female characters talk about something other than a man. This is important because women do not simply sit around and talk about men all of the time. Giving two women dialogue outside of talking about men and sexual relations places them outside of the sphere of a sexual object, limited to finding ways to be being pleasing to men. The radical idea of portraying women outside of the terms of the male gaze is where many movies fail “The Bechdel Test.”
It is important to note that the struggle for women to be seen outside of relationships with men is at the crux of feminist theory. The far-reaching idea that women are not merely objects in male society has been asserted since Mary Wollstonecraft published “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in 1792. In this pamphlet, Wollstonecraft calls for women to be educated so that they can be companions to their husbands and not simply items to be traded through the institution of marriage. Hallmarked as one of the earliest feminist works, it is clear that from the beginning women needed to be seen as independent, fully functioning human beings.
Bringing up Wollstonecraft’s 1792 text here is not an attempt to shove early feminist theory at you and claim that women are still confined to corsets and motherhood, but to illuminate how Hollywood undermines the great leaps and bounds feminism has achieved. As a generation, it is hard for us to remember a time when a woman was not allowed to be a full-fledged doctor or lawyer or when women went to college merely to get their MRS (going to college exclusively to get married and become a Mrs.) degrees. So why has the movie-making industry, one of our primary sources of popular culture, erased women and their stories from the main stream? Why are so many movies failing when it comes to having women talk to each other about something other than a sexual or romantic relationship with a man?
The film industry is motivated by one factor: money. Based on recently released films, female protagonists and female-driven stories are not cost effective. The president of Warner Bros., Jeff Robinov, went so far as to say that the company will “no longer be doing movies with women in the lead” after Jodi Foster’s “The Brave One” and Nicole Kidman’s “The Invasion” failed to bring in as much revenue as expected. It is important to note here that both movies passed “The Bechdel Test.”
When examining movies that have a strong female protagonist, such as “The Brave One,” it is easy for movie executives to blame the female element for the failure of the film. In regards to the film’s failure, it isn’t noted that men Neil Jordan and Roderick Taylor both directed and wrote the piece, respectively. The female protagonist narrative is getting attacked simply because it’s the easiest aspect to scapegoat when certain members of Hollywood are searching for a reason to eradicate women’s presence in film in the name of profit margins.
It is hard to argue with the fact that most movies churned out by Hollywood do not meet three simple criteria for female characters. These criteria give any female character a name, a role in society and an existence beyond her interactions with men.
Allie Connell is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.