By Savanah Mandeville

I’ll never forget the first time I saw “Deathproof”, the 2007 film by Quentin Tarantino.

I was completely blown away by it and it’ll probably forever be one of my all-time favorite movies.  (Side note, I’m aware QT has some problematic stuff in his movies, but hear me out). I think “Deathproof” was the first time I’d ever seen a movie where just about all of the characters were female, they were total badasses, and the guy characters were kind of in the background. I related so much to the characters in that movie – everything from their outfits to their conversations to what they were doing on a Saturday night – even the cheapo go-phone one of them uses was exactly the same as my phone.

At the end (spoiler alert … but if you haven’t seen it yet then that’s your bad) when they beat the shit out of the mysogynistic murderer, Stuntman Mike, I was on my feet cheering like a real life bro dude at a sportsball game.

I felt the exact same way when I saw Wonder Woman last year. I cried literally five times.

In both these instances, it really hit me hard just how much representation matters. Because when people like you are underrepresented in fiction, are frequently portrayed as two-dimensional or stereotypical, or are only ever seen in a supporting role, it sends a message that you don’t matter as much, you can’t do as much, and you don’t deserve to be in the spotlight. (This problem may have also contributed to the fact that one of my exes referred to “Black Swan” as a “chick flick.” Double triple eye roll.)

The Bechdel Test (aka the Bechdel-Wallace Test) is one way we can measure the representation of women in fiction. It was developed in 1985 by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel and first depicted in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”.

There are three rules of the Bechdel test:

  1. The movie has to have at least two [named] women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.
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First appearance of the Bechdel Test

You’d be surprised how many movies fail to clear this very low bar, even today. According to  The Duke Research Blog, about half of all films meet the criteria of the Bechdel test.

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A little history behind the test. Alison Bechdel credited the idea to her friend Liz Wallace and the following passage from the Virginia Woolf essay, “A Room of One’s Own.

“All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. … And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. … They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that …”

In other words, when all the fiction is written by men, the female characters exist as they appear to exist through the eyes of their male counterparts.

Film critic Laura Mulvey took this concept further in her 1975 essay entitled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in which she coined the term male gaze. In feminist theory, the male gaze is the act of depicting women and the world, in the visual arts and literature, from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents women as sexual objects. In film, Mulvey describes the male gaze as having three perspectives: (1) that of the man behind the camera, (2) that of the male characters within the film; and (3) that of the spectator gazing at the image.

Today, the Bechdel Test is widely known and commonly accepted as shorthand for whether or not a film is “woman friendly”. And things are getting better. Recently we’ve seen films like the Ghostbusters remake, Hidden Figures, Ocean’s 8, The Kitchen, Charlie’s Angels, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg – but there’s still work to do.

I was curious to see how five of the most popular movies of this year fare in the Bechdel Test.

I looked up the top 5 highest grossing movies of the year and here’s how they did:

Avengers: Endgame 

  • The movie has to have at least two [named] women in it,  YES
  • who talk to each other, YES
  • about something besides a man. YES

Captain Marvel

  • The movie has to have at least two [named] women in it, YES
  • who talk to each other, YES
  • about something besides a man. YES

Us

  • The movie has to have at least two [named] women in it, YES
  • who talk to each other, YES
  • about something besides a man. YES

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

  • The movie has to have at least two [named] women in it, YES
  • who talk to each other, YES
  • about something besides a man. YES (Barely)

Shazam!

  • The movie has to have at least two [named] women in it, YES
  • who talk to each other, YES
  • about something besides a man. YES

So good news! Our most popular films are showing decent representation of women. But I believe the Bechdel Test can go further.  We need to make sure we see women portrayed as dynamic, well-developed characters who drive the plot. And what about a cinematic litmus test for representation of other groups?

Screenwriter and actress Lena Waithe said a film passes for her if there’s a black woman in a position of power and in a healthy relationship. Only five films passed her test: Bad MomsHidden FiguresIndependence Day: ResurgenceBoo! A Madea Halloween, and Central Intelligence.

Ligiah Villalobos, a producer and head writer for Go, Diego, Go, has her own rule for Latina representation. The film has a Latina lead, the lead or another Latina character is shown as professional or college educated, speaks in unaccented English, and is not sexualized.

So the Bechdel Test is a good place to start, but even after 34 years we’ve still got a long way to go.

Do your favorite films pass the Bechdel Test? Do you have your own version of the Bechdel Test?

This website is a good place to find Bechdel scoring of thousands of films.

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