A few years ago — roughly 70 years too late — people realized that Hollywood had a problem. Whenever there was a woman character in a movie, and writers had bothered to give her a name, chances are she rarely talked to another woman. Even if she did, they rarely discussed anything besides a man. Casablanca, Kramer vs. Kramer, An Affair to Remember — they’ve all got women, right? With names (check). And yet, the women don’t speak to each other about anything besides a man, if they speak to one another at all.
Enter the Bechdel Test (sometimes called the Bechdel-Wallace Test), which has been in headlines for years now. The test as we know it today originated in Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip called “The Rule,” which was part of her Dykes to Watch Out For series. Bechdel actually credits her friend Liz Wallace for the idea; further back then that, the notion of measuring female character traits and relationships was first put forth by Virginia Woolf in 1929’s A Room of One’s Own. “All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple,” Woolf noted. Bechdel was inspired by both Woolf and Wallace when she created her strip, in which two characters go to the movies, and one lists her “rules” for what she’ll see.
— It has to have at least two [named] women in it.
— They have to talk to each other.
— They have to talk to each other about something besides a man.
As with most things, once you see it, you can’t unsee it. There are films that fail so blatantly it’s sad. The Social Network, Lord of the Rings, and The Avengers are major offenders from the past 10 years. Once the test started circulating widely, however, this was quickly noticed — and those films were called out. Journalists, statisticians, researchers, and more rushed to find films that did and did not pass the test. At the 2014 Academy Awards, for instance, only three out of eight Best Picture nominees did.
One of the most interesting uses of the test to gather data was done by FiveThirtyEight. The statistics-minded site analyzed 1,615 films released from 1990 to 2013 and found that the median budget of films that passed the Bechdel Test was lower than the median budget of all the films in the sample. One encouraging finding: passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t affect a film’s return on investment at all. In fact, films that passed the Bechdel Test in the sample tended to turn a higher profit than those that didn’t.
The public outcry (and proof positive that having women characters doesn’t dilute a film’s box-office clout) can be noticed in some blockbusters. “I’ve watched a couple of bigger-budget Hollywood movies where there’s this extra scene between two females talking about something interesting, and you’re like, they might have just put that in to pass that test. But it was an interesting scene, and I actually enjoyed it, so I’m fine with it,” Sienna Beckman, the co-founder of Emergence Films (a production company dedicated to championing women creatives) said on a recent phone call.
As the Bechdel Test’s notoriety increased, however, so, too, did critiques of its measurements. It couldn’t be the ultimate arbiter of a film’s feminist credentials, people argued, because even saying that a film has more than two female characters excludes a highly feminist film like Gravity, where Sandra Bullock is — for the most part — lost in space all by herself. Also, movies like Legally Blonde barely squeak by because two women characters have a conversation about a dog. That’s not the most advanced of topics in a movie about a woman who defies all odds to get into Harvard Law School.
The Bechdel Test also doesn’t take into account the presence of characters of color in a film, nor does it look at the number of women working behind the scenes. As Hollywood became more woke, the Bechdel Test faded into the background a bit. “There was a lot of talk of [the Bechdel Test] five years ago, but I feel we’ve moved past that now,” Sophie Vickers, a producer at Rooks Nest Entertainment (The Witch, Obvious Child), said on a call. “If you look at films like Elle or Nocturnal Animals or Raw, these are movies in the past few years that not only have extremely strong female characters, but also female characters that can be villains. Female characters that can be flawed, and that can be much more complicated. In terms of the portrayal of women in film, I think we’ve moved pretty far away from talking about the Bechdel Test.”
And so new tests arose. To address the issue of representation, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis in 2016 developed the DuVernay Test. Named for director Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time), Dargis put forth the criteria for passing the test as films in which “African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories.” The test dovetailed with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign that emerged after the Academy Award acting nominees were overwhelmingly white for the second year in a row in 2016. Films that pass the DuVernay Test include Dear White People, Belle, The Color Purple, and Sister Act 2.
Since the Bechdel Test and the DuVernay Test can’t possibly capture every facet of a film’s feminist credentials or how it does when it comes to representation and intersectionality, FiveThirtyEight challenged prominent creatives to propose “The New Bechdel Test” in 2017. Lena Waithe, the first Black woman to ever win an Emmy for outstanding comedy writing, proposed a test that a movie would pass if there’s a Black woman in the work who is in a position of power and is in a healthy relationship. Forty-five films among the 50 top-grossing movies released in 2016 failed the Waithe Test. That means only five passed.
In the Peirce Test, conceived by Kimberly Peirce (director of Boys Don’t Cry, Stop Loss, and the 2013 remake of Carrie), a movie passes if “there’s a female protagonist or antagonist with her own story, the female lead has dimension and exists authentically with needs and desires that she pursues through dramatic action, and the audience can empathize with or understand the female lead’s desires and actions.”
There were also tests proposed that look at the presence of women on camera as well as behind the scenes. In the Koeze-Dottle test, journalists Rachael Dottle and Ella Koeze had one simple criteria: a movie passes if the supporting cast is more than 50% women. Director Rachel Feldman’s list is more complex. In order to pass, a film is awarded points: two points for a female director, one point for a female composer or director of photography, one point for three female producers or three female department heads, one point for a crew that’s 50% women, two points if there’s a female protagonist who determines story outcomes, two points if no female characters were victimized, stereotyped or sexualized, and one point if a sex scene shows foreplay before consummation, or if the female characters initiate or reciprocate sexual advances.
Even if the Bechdel Test is no longer leading the conversation regarding representation and feminism in movies, it matters because it posed the very first challenge. It gave rise to the notion of putting films to the test at all. Once uniform criteria for these tests are in place, we can begin to measure which films are passing them – and who’s failing. And once creatives and studio executives have that data, they can pinpoint obvious holes in both story and crew. If they don’t heed the warnings, an outcry is sure to follow. That’s why we need to continue to put Hollywood to the test, be it via Bechdel, DuVernay, Waithe, or any future measures.