And the Oscar Goes To…A Film That Fails The Bechdel Test

Mild spoilers ahead. This year, one movie has dominated the awards season — and that's Oppenheimer. The film, which was directed by Christopher Nolan, swept the 2024 Academy Awards, taking home the awards for Best Supporting Actor for Robert Downey Jr, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Actor for Cillian Murphy, Best Director for Christopher Nolan, and finally, Best Picture.
While Emily Blunt also copped a nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category (and was ultimately beaten out by the phenomenal Da'Vine Joy Randolph), it's hardly surprising, given she's one of only two main female characters (alongside Florence Pugh) showcased in the film, and with an incredibly minor role at that. This is because Oppenheimer fails the Bechdel Test.
The Bechdel test is one of the easiest ways to figure out if a movie actually gives two shits about women (though it's not the only test of representation in films), and uses a simple measure to test how women are portrayed. It requires: 1) for two women to be featured, 2) for these women to talk to each other, and 3) for them to discuss something other than a man. If you think it's a basic test, that's because it is.
Yet, the biggest film of the year still fails it.
While Oppenheimer does have two main female characters — Kitty, Oppenheimer's wife (played by Blunt) and Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer's mistress (played by Pugh) — at no point do these women ever speak to each other about something other than a man. In fact, the only 'conversation' between women in the film was one asking another to take sheets off the clothesline, which can hardly be constituted as a proper conversation at all.
Additionally, the real-life Jean Tatlock is reduced to a one-dimensional sex object, with her only real purpose seemingly her participation in extended sex scenes and her eventual suicide — the latter of which seems to be a common theme in Nolan's female characters.

Nolan might be one of the best filmmakers today, but if he refuses to include women in his stories, should he be?

Let me be clear — I think Oppenheimer is a groundbreaking film. It poignantly showcases the atrocities of war. It's a film that mostly revolves around talking and still manages to feel action-packed and suspenseful. Hell, it might even be one of Nolan's best works.
But it also showcases one of Nolan's fatal flaws in filmmaking — the representation of women. A 2018 study found that just under half of the Best Picture winners at the Oscars have passed the Bechdel test and unfortunately, it seems like this is still true today.
Christopher Nolan's films have a long history of struggling with female representation — and I say this as a lifelong fan. I've watched every single Christopher Nolan film (and embarrassing, probably at least five times apiece) — and there still isn't one memorable female character that I would be able to call out, aside from maybe Murph from Interstellar. Even then, her character arc is centred around a man, with her actions (and the overall story) fuelled by her simultaneous love and hate of her father. In Nolan's films, women can't just be women; they must be linked to a man.
Looking more broadly, it's clear that Nolan relies on outdated tropes when it comes to female characters. It's as though he's written a love letter to the 'Women in Refrigerators' trope, which sees female characters killed off for the sole purpose of motivating a male protagonist. We see this in Memento, The Prestige, Inception, The Dark Knight, Tenet, and now Oppenheimer. It seems that if there is a woman in a Christopher Nolan film, she must a) be one-dimensional, b) be dead, and c) preferably be a dead wife (or in Oppenheimer's case, a dead mistress).

I'm not even asking for groundbreaking; I just want to see two women talk.

Yes, Nolan might be one of the best filmmakers today, but if he refuses to include women in his stories, should he be?
While I can't say that I really want Christopher Nolan to start tackling women's stories explicitly (I'd prefer, you know, women to do that), it would be refreshing to see him expand beyond women as plotlines that serve to fuel men's stories. Instead of Kitty only existing to put the washing out or to be a soundboard for Oppenheimer's ideas, what if we actually explored the complex internal landscape of who these women are and what makes them tick beyond their proximity to the titular male character?
I can hear shouts of protest already. But this film captures a particular moment in time! No women were involved in this shit! So you want Oppenheimer to be a woman?! And yes, while some of the lack of female presence in the film is justified (after all, women weren't the ones starting wars, creating bombs, or murdering thousands of people), the role of female characters in the film does more to hinder women's representation in movies, rather than making a grand statement about men 'becoming death'.
In 2024, is giving a film with a cast made almost entirely of men the award for Best Picture just reiterating that women's stories don't matter? Especially when the industry is claiming it's trying to be more diverse, how are we failing so much when it comes to rather simplistic representations of women on screen? I'm not even asking for groundbreaking; I just want to see two women talk. Film offers us an opportunity to imagine a new world, and while we already know that white men dominated the era, it doesn't mean that the same needs to extend to their modern-day film counterparts.
At the end of the day, whether Oppenheimer was a good movie or not is beside the point. The point is that a filmmaker who has historically done a disservice to his female characters was dubbed the best in 2024. And even more, a film that doesn't show two women speaking to each other was dubbed the greatest film of the year.
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