When it comes to the big screen, female archetypes can leak into our subconscious and perpetuate unrealistic, limiting perceptions of women. For decades, the Bechdel Test has helped us spot these damaging archetypes and think, in aggregate, about how the media represents women in film.
In 1985, American illustrator Alison Bechdel spearheaded the Bechdel Test in her comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, soon catalyzing how we measure female representation in fiction all the way to today. The test has three parameters: does the work contain at least two women, do these women talk to each other, and is this conversation about something other than a man?
The test is simple and sets the lowest bar for meaningful female representation. According to the Bechdel Test Movie List database, which has evaluated over 8,000 movies, just over half (57.6 per cent) pass all three requirements while some (10.1 per cent) pass none at all. The Bechdel Test doesn’t quantify the women present on the screen, but their emotional depth and the range of their concerns. Its existence helps to identify tired depictions and promote more nuanced and resonating women. Ones with the same acuity as their male counterparts, engaging in complex ideas, wrestling with moral dilemmas, exploring family relationships, and rebounding from difficult situations.
One film that taunts a delightful mix of acceptance and cynicism towards this phenomenon is 2019’s Isn’t It Romantic. It’s a rom-com that hilariously calls out the genre’s tropes—from clumsy, “gosh darn adorable” women falling into a brute’s arms (Liam Hemsworth), to female colleagues being toxic enemies to propel their storyline, the latter a blatant headshake at The Devil Wears Prada. Meanwhile, the highly acclaimed Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003), Avatar (2009), The Avengers (2013), and The Imitation Game (2014) all fail the test. Female representation remains a serious and ongoing problem even within mainstream cinema.
But the Bechdel Test isn’t a feminist Litmus test, nor a definitive analysis of whether a film is good or bad. Rather, it’s a way to recognize patterns that the industry upholds, which isn’t synonymous with sexism or feminism. For instance, some films that fail the test still overcome gender stereotypes and portray nuanced female characters, like 2013’s Gravity. Conversely, some works of art pass on technicalities but still perpetuate tired tropes, like Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 hit “Baby Got Back” and 2013’s American Hustle, where A-list actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams conversed with each other about, of all things, nail polish.
Despite its shortcomings, the Bechdel Test remains vital to critical thinking about the media we consume, illuminating some of our subconscious biases and promoting discourse on female representation. It can also lay the foundation of honourable role models that young girls have to emulate.
The Bechdel Test has also inspired similar tests to emerge, some of which concern film depictions pertaining to race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Tests like the Mako Mori Test, derived from the 2013 blockbusterPacific Rim, question whether a film includes a female character with her own narrative arc. Meanwhile, the Racial Bechdel Test assesses whether two characters of colour hold a conversation about something other than a white person.
Alongside these newer tests, more people are evaluating the roles behind the camera. One 2014 study, conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, revealed that among 120 films made worldwide from 2010 to 2013, only seven per cent had a woman in the director’s chair. Flash forward to 2019 where, among the world’s 500 highest-grossing films, 14 per cent featured female directors. Many factors contribute to this rise, perhaps none greater than the #MeToo movement reigniting discussion of the Bechdel Test and its importance to film criticism and consumption.
Bechdel credits her test in part to Virginia Woolf’s infamous essay, A Room of One’s Own. In it, Woolf writes: “all these relationships between women are too simple… They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men.” Despite being penned 90 years ago, Woolf’s criticisms still hold true.
The Bechdel Test isn’t perfect, so in the future, we must iron out the edges and create a more comprehensive approach to combat misrepresentation. As Bechdel once said, we must represent women as “subjects and not objects.” By giving creative power to women, we inspire more complex and compelling female subjects. Even 35 years later, the Bechdel Test is a promising reactant to blaze the trail for meaningful representation in film.