Discussion about the representation of women in books and films isn’t exactly new, but it has become more prevalent in the last few years thanks to prominent actresses like Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman and others speaking about the double standard in Hollywood. The wage gap, for example, is an issue that’s getting a lot more attention, in and out of Hollywood.
Although it wasn’t until the 2010s that The Bechdel Test found its way into mainstream film criticism, it first appeared in cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic, Dykes to Watch Out For. In it, two women discuss a film and one of the characters says she has a rule where she only goes to see a movie if it satisfies three main requirements:
1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
2. who talk to each other,
3. about something besides a man.
Sounds pretty simple, right? Not exactly. According to a 2014 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, of 120 films made worldwide from 2010 to 2013, only 31% of named characters were female. The test has been described as “a commentary on how media representations enforce harmful gender norms” by depicting women’s relationships with men far more than any other kind of relationship. It also highlights how the media portrays a woman’s experience relevant only in the context of how she relates to men.
One of the reasons for the lack of well-rounded female characters in the movies is the low number of prominent female screenwriters and directors. That is slowly changing, but still, very few films have necessary, meaningful female characters. While the Bechdel Test is flawed and a passing score doesn’t guarantee a film is a feminist one, it’s still an interesting way to look at how women are represented in film. If you’re in the mood to watch a few movies that pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours, here are a few recent to get you started:
The Girl on the Train
Main character Rachel, played by Emily Blunt, is a recently divorced, unemployed alcoholic who becomes fixated on a seemingly perfect couple she sees from the train every morning. When the wife goes missing, Rachel becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened to her. The movie has three main female characters and a couple secondary characters who interact with each other, including to have conversations about Rachel’s obvious drinking problem, crimes that may have occurred and various career issues.
Nominated for three Oscars, Hidden Figures focuses on the real-life accomplishments of three African-American women who did critical work at NASA. Taraji P. Henson stars as Katherine G. Johnson, a mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury and other space missions. Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer also star, and there are plenty of conversations between the three regarding segregation and their work.
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Mad Max franchise is known for its title character, but in this fourth instalment, the focus shifts to the female characters, including Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. In a stolen tanker, Furiosa helps a group of young women (all wives of Joe, their tyrannical leader) escape, starting an epic road war. The women have to work together to keep each other safe and escape a horrible fate. Max, played by Tom Hardy, is outnumbered by strong women in this one and he has no problem letting Furiosa take the lead.
The first half of Room takes place entirely in a tiny shack where 5-year-old Jack has lived since the day he was born. His mother, Joy (played by Brie Larson) was kidnapped and held captive for 7 years until she and Jack finally find a way to escape. While Joy is the only female character in the first half of the film, she is later reunited with her parents and they talk about how her trauma has affected their relationship. Joy’s role as a mother and as a woman who has been through a horrible ordeal are the main focuses of the film.
The Hunger Games franchise
The Hunger Games franchise may include a prominent love triangle, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have plenty of strong, female characters too. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is a leader from the very beginning. She takes care of her mother and sister and even sacrifices herself to save her sister. She makes a connection with plenty of female characters across the four films and discusses big issues like war and how to save the world a lot more than she talks about which guy—Peeta or Gale— she’d rather end up with.
Although Nightcrawler focuses on Lou, (played by Jake Gylenhaal) a male freelance photographer who chases crime scenes, there are prominent female characters in the film. Rene Russo plays Nina, a morning news show director that buys Lou’s photos. She and another female news producer are conflicted about the legality of using the work on air. A female police detective investigating Lou who argues with Nina over using crime scene footage also plays a pivotal role.
Does your favourite movie pass the Bechdel Test? Tell us about it in the comments!