A while ago I found myself discussing the Bechdel test with some friends. The Oscars didn’t fare so well. The test, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a way of evaluating the role of women in movies. A movie passes if it fulfills three requirements:
- It has at least two women in it
- Who talk to each other
- About something besides a man.
This isn’t a measure of whether the movie is good, or even necessarily whether it’s women-friendly*. It’s merely a thought experiment, meant to illuminate the discrepancies between how men and women are portrayed in movies. It’s marked how few movies pass. This fact is even more striking because virtually every movie would pass the reverse test (having at least two men who talk to each other about something besides a woman). The test reveals that Hollywood still has a strong, pointless, and illogical male bias. Here’s a list of movies and whether or not they pass.
We set about brainstorming the reasons why so few movies pass the Bechdel Test. There are basically two factors at play: Hollywood’s perception of women and Hollywood’s perception of its audiences. The former is the less charitable: the idea that Hollywood is only dimly aware of the existence of women and doesn’t know what they do except fall in love and talk about boys and stuff. I’ll go ahead and be charitable by assuming this isn’t the explanation. Well, maybe it is a little bit. But not much.
Another possible reason is simple inertia: Once upon a time, when Hollywood (and the rest of the world) was simply, straightforwardly sexist, they developed a screenwriting formula that focused on white male characters with one token chick thrown in as a love interest, and this became the standard for what movies are like. Since so much of what Hollywood produces is derivative and formulaic, tokenism persists. They see no reason to mess with a formula that works at the box office. Movies that break this formula are often successful, but they would have to consistently be runaway successes that overwhelmingly proved that audiences wanted something different in order to justify a complete overhaul of their standard procedure of filling every cast with white men.
This brings us to the primary reason: Hollywood’s perception of its audiences. The end goal here is to get butts in the seats, as it were, so filmmakers have a strong vested interest in producing things that people will like. The problem is that interest is not necessarily matched with accurate perception. You’d think this would be self-correcting. If they make a movie that nobody likes, nobody will see it, and they will know not to make another movie like that; if they make an unusual movie that everyone likes, everyone will see it, and they’ll know to make more movies in the same vein. Unfortunately, there are too many other factors in play for this to work. First, there’s inertia again. If Hollywood never makes a movie that passes the Bechdel test, there’s no way to know if audiences would like it or not. Second, there are the abundance of mitigating factors. A Bechdel-passing movie that deviates from the standard formula is a bit of a gamble, so it’s likely to have a lower budget, fewer big-name stars, and less advertising–the very factors that make people go see movies. Of course a formulaic, highly advertised, big-budget, star-studded movie with one cardboard female character is going to outperform a small low-budget movie with a cast of unknowns and a lot of strong female characters–but if the latter flops, it’s taken as a failed experiment and the idea of making movies that pass the Bechdel test goes back on the shelf. So Hollywood really has no reliable data about what people want.
Consequently, the role of women in movies is based on filmmakers’ hazy guesses about what people want to see. We had a couple of ideas here. One of my friends, who may not have an accurate perception of women himself, thought they were pandering to women. “Women like the gossip column stuff,” he said, arguing that movies rarely pass the third test because all women want to see is people talking about men and romance. “You’re one of the rare exceptions,” he assured me. I think this is nonsense. In the first place, it only explains the third test: the first and especially the second tests fly in the face of this theory, since if women want to see gossip, that requires people to talk to each other. In the second place, the movies that fail the Bechdel test most frequently are summer action films and other movies not traditionally geared towards women. Thus, any woman in the audience has already proved herself to be interested in something other than gossip, and the filmmakers have no reason to think that they need to make the female characters talk about boys so the female audience members can relate to them. Of course there being no reason for them to think so doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t think so.
I think that Hollywood is instead pandering to men. I agree with ex-screenwriter Jennifer Kesler at The Hathor Legacy that the problem is that Hollywood assumes male audiences only want to watch movies about men. A female character can hang around if she’s hot and only interacts with the lead guy, but if two women start talking, the male audience will immediately get bored and tune out. This is of course nonsense. Still, it’s the perception of men that Hollywood seems to have ingested and upon which it bases all its movies.
Alison Bechdel wrote about the Bechdel Test in the 1985 and, after 25 years, little has changed. How can we expect change? If Hollywood continues to base movies on its own fictional impressions of what its audience wants, white men will continue to be the sole focus of the movie industry until the heat-death of the universe.
Where are those Hollywood liberals when we need them?
*An example is the new Star Trek movie. It passes, because Uhura talks to her roommate briefly about lab work. But the girls are undressing and Kirk is hiding under the bed. A man checking out hot naked chicks is still the focus of the scene. People have also pointed out that Charlie’s Angels passes, even though it’s just a conglomeration of stereotypes. So passing the test doesn’t necessarily mean the movie portrays women well.