A woman’s touch goes a long way, you know.
In 1985, Alison Bechdel’s comic strip “Dykes To Watch Out For” introduced The Rule, a cultural remark that would evolve to become the modern-day Bechdel Test. The Rule began when the comic strip’s protagonists noticed a lack of female representation in the movies they were watching. To deem movies watchable or unwatchable, the two women designed a test applicable to any work of fiction. A given work must satisfy just three requirements to pass.
- It must feature two women.
- The women must talk to each other alone.
- Their conversation must be about something other than a man.
That’s it. Easy, right? Turns out, not so much.
According to the Bechdel Test website, of 6,686 films on file, only 58% pass the test—which might sound like a decent amount. After all, it’s more than half. But if you look at the breakdown of the remaining 42%, the numbers are staggering. Some 678 movies check two of the three Bechdel boxes, leaving their female characters with nothing to talk about except men. A healthy 1,458 flicks feature two women, but they never get around to talking to each other. And 685 full-length films have fewer than two female characters.
Think about that for a minute.
A standard ninety-minute movie can unleash acts One, Two and Three without ever introducing more than one woman. Given the population gender stats (50/50, surprise surprise), this isn’t storytelling technique — it’s entrenched misogyny.
What Do We Do?
So what to do about the glaring inequity? Make the Bechdel Test mandatory, of course. While such a maneuver is legally shaky (thanks to that pesky First Amendment), there are some avenues to convince the male-dominated Hollywood elite that their current No Girls Allowed policy is bogus.
Show Them The Money
According to a statistical test run by FiveThirtyEight — which accounts for nerdy stuff like inflation — the median budget of Bechdel-passing movies is $31.7 million dollars. Compare that to near-passes ($39.7 and $56.6 million) or true fails ($43.4 million) and now you’re talkin’ their language. ‘Them’ being, in this case, the faceless male oligarchy who green-lights Bechdel-failing swill like the sacrilegious “Hobbit” trilogy.
And it’s not just saving scrilla on the budgets, either. Bechdel-passers take in more money than their Bechdel-failing counterparts, too. The same FiveThirtyEight test concluded that passers earned $1.37 on every dollar spent, compared to $1.31 and $1.22 for near-passers and $1.00 for failures.
Do The Right Thing
Enough about the money. There’s also the basic truth that promoting female roles on screen (and we’re talking real female roles, not one-dimensional love-things for men to dote on) is the right thing to do. The notion that women have interior lives as rich and nuanced as men shouldn’t be difficult to get behind. (If you need convincing, take a look at Margot Tenenbaum or Lyanna Mormont.)
Questions and Concerns
All this isn’t to say that the Bechdel Test is a paragon of feminism. Huffington Post writer Anna Waletzko points out that, “‘Gravity,’ featuring a female astronaut, played by Sandra Bullock, doesn’t pass the test, but ‘Legally Blonde’ does, simply because Elle and her friend talk about their dogs in a scene or two.” Waletzko acknowledges that the test is a superficial measure of any given film. Characters discussing dogs or shopping or nail polish does not a feminist movie make, she argues. Which is true: A Bechdel-passer can, in theory, fail the cause.
But what Ms. Waletzko and I agree on is that the Bechdel Test is a first step — a helpful, yet ultimately imperfect metric — towards equal representation of men and women in fiction.
Enforcing The Rule
The trickiest thing about forcing movie-makers to play ball is enforcing the Bechdel Test. Enter the MPAA, an Order of the Phoenix-like organization designed to shield America’s youth from the evils of sex, violence and profanity.
The lightest rating is G (General Audiences), whose requirement is simply that the film contains “Nothing that would offend parents for viewing by children.” Pretending that half of the world’s population either doesn’t exist or is so numbingly dumb they don’t merit screen time sounds like something that might offend your typical parent.
Next in line is PG (Parental Guidance Suggested): “Parents urged to give ‘parental guidance.’ May contain some material parents might not like for their young children.” Again, the total suppression of female voices is a suspect filmmaking strategy, and one that might sit poorly with a modern mom and dad.
PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned) is a wonderful rating because it suggests that “Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers.” Exposing adolescent boys and girls to the idea that women exist only in relation to men is a dangerous game, and any parent worth his or her salt should be wary of letting the kids watch these movies.
In fact, it’s only the R (Restricted) rating that makes any sense for Bechdel-failers. When movies like “Finding Nemo” hit theaters, we’ll know that they deserve an R rating. After all, if Dory is the only female fish in the entire ocean, what kind of lesson is that sending our children?