I should start this article with a personal note – I don’t like what I’ve found. I always try to approach data impartially and not look for certain results. Inevitably, this sometimes leads to results which challenge my beliefs or my opinions. I am a firm believer that the representation of women on screen is often woefully poor and needs addressing.
Last week the guys at FiveThirtyEight published a great analysis of the box office performance of films which pass the Bechdel Test. My first thought was ‘damn’ as I have also been working on a similar study. They have been extremely thorough and it’s well worth reading their article. In order to avoid repeating their work I have shifted my research to look at how good the films that pass the Bechdel test are.
First, a quick primer for those who don’t know what the Bechdel Test is. It was suggested in 1985 by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. A film passes the Bechdel Test if it features…
- …at least two named female characters…
- …who talk to each other…
- …about something other than a man.
Using data from IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and bechdeltest.com I studied 4,983 films made in the past 120 years. In summary…
- Films which fail the Bechdel Test get higher ratings from both audiences and film critics.
- Films which fail all three criteria of the Bechdel Test (i.e. fewer than two named female characters) get the highest ratings
By all four measures, films that fail the Bechdel Test score higher than those that pass.
Reasons for failing the Bechdel Test
When we break down the results we see that the highest rated films are those which feature fewer than two named female characters.
Why is this?
Honestly, I don’t know. Here are a few personal theories…
- The most established filmmakers are male and therefore more likely to make male-orientated stories. (If you take a look at the top rated films of the past two decades you’ll see that a vast majority of those films fail the Bechdel Test).
- Overall, the roles given to women are so poor that audiences and critics would prefer there to be no women, than cliched or superficial characters.
- Through years of watching the same kinds of films we subliminally expect women to have subservient roles and don’t like it when they, you know, have a name and talk.
If you have any suggestions please leave a comment below and I’ll add them to the list above.
- The Bechdel Test is not a scientifically significant test. It doesn’t really prove anything about how ‘sexist’ a film is. However, it is such an unbelievably low bar for films to cross that the fact many films don’t pass it is shocking. In an ideal world we would have a better measure for how women are represented in films.
- There are some films for which the Bechdel Test doesn’t really apply. In my detailed analysis I faced tricky questions when looking at animations, films featuring cross-dressing (such as films by Tyler Perry) and semi-documentary film (such as Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa).
- For the most part, I did not assess which films pass the Bechdel Test myself so I am relying on data reported by others. This always makes me nervous as I cannot tell what bias or filters will be carried over into my work.
- Some of the ratings on bechdeltest.com are disputed by other users.
- I chose to exclude films which had fewer than 50 user ratings on IMDb.
- I have mentioned a few times that audience and critics ratings measure how ‘good’ a film is. This is a tricky topic as it’s clearly impossible to objectively measure art. However, I would contend that the next best methods (I.e. awards and box office) are more open to manipulation than ratings.
Detailed analysis for 2011-2013
This topic has an inherent bias, in that we only know if a film passes the Bechdel Test if someone has taken the time to view it and report the result. In order for my results to have any scientific basis I would need to be looking at an impartial subset of films, not just those which have been reviewed on bechdeltest.com. The 5,000-odd films on bechdeltest.com have been selected purely on the basis that the reviewer wanted to watch them. In order to address this possible bias I looked in more detail at the top 100 films from 2011, 2012 and 2013 (300 films in total). The results were broadly the same, albeit less pronounced. This leads me to suggest that the trend is still applicable to recent films.
I have looked at gender within the film business a few times. You might enjoy these previous articles…
Thanks for this post. You bring up some good points with good evidence. I think your findings explain a lot. But I don’t get why the Bechdel Test is even considered some kind of standard.
1. You even cite here that the Bechdel Test doesn’t prove anything.
2. Your findings answer the question they suggest: Why aren’t films that pass the test more successful? Because people don’t like them as much.
3. So then why don’t people like them? Maybe they suck. A good film and script are hard to come by.
Maybe people are conditioned to watch male driven stories and female driven stories seem strange or uncomfortable. We all live in the Matrix. We do what we are told and what we are conditioned to do. The Bechdel Test suggests deviation.
If writers know from the start that male driven stories are more marketable, why would they write female driven stories? If producers and distributors primarily look for a strong male lead and pay no attention to female leads (let alone supporting characters), why is it a surprise most films don’t pass the test?
If the industry is bent on making money as its primary focus, and female characters have no bearing on marketability (at least in their little MBA conditioned brains), it’s only common sense and logic to expect such a test is meaningless. We’re making Captain America 2 and 3 here.
But I think there is a broader question: Why are there so few good films, and so many bad films? The answer to this question is broadly the answer to most questions: money.
I think we need female driven stories. We need originality and in our society, female driven stories are almost always original, because there are so few of them. But who will bother to write them? Who will bother to produce them? Who will want to invest in them? Not the studios. Not distributors. Who will want to even watch them, beyond the few thousand Sundance followers?
Perhaps the bigger question is, how can we make female driven stories marketable? How can we make good films marketable?
I always view the Bechdel Test and its variations as a starting point. It’s good for realizing how utterly lacking in diversity a lot of media is, but it’s certainly not comprehensive and just because something fails the Bechdel Test doesn’t mean it’s devoid of quality female characters. Gravity, for example, fails the test, but Ryan Stone is definitely a strong female character who has much more to her story than what’s typically given to women in films. I don’t think this makes the Bechdel Test useless, but it can’t be the only vetting process, especially since it doesn’t focus at all on the quality of the story.
I also think there’s some shock value in saying something widely popular and critically acclaimed fails at something. It gets people’s attention at the very least.
What I do believe can happen in the long run is that more people will become privy to this and demand different stories, which will impact what’s produced. It’s still a long way off, but with the massive success of movies like Brave and Frozen, I think we might be at the start of seeing a new trend. Of course, that hinges on the breakthroughs in those films translating to live action movies and jumping over the “animation is for children” bias.
Yes, the shock value is it’s one merit. But I think people are saturated and indifferent with media rants over lack of diversity in general. When we post this stuff it is addressing the symptom, not the root causes. Just as an actor should never play for a result and should come from the character, so should writers of this subject matter, come from the root causes.
What are they? I’m not sure. But probably the fact that traditionally we have the convention of this being a white man’s world, except maybe if you live deep inside China or an African nation or the like. So I think it’s somewhat futile to point out these facts as in the Bechdel Test or the recent WRAP post on the fact that most all the summer blockbuster directors are white males.
Instead we need to address how to nip this at the root. One way might be to change the conversation to be about why diverse groups do not make more headway than they do. Is it because they feel defeated from the start, which would certainly make sense. I read that very few women even bother to submit to The Nicholl. Why? We need to address these sorts of things and not the statistical results.
I experience a lot of cognitive dissonance at the assertion that out of 5000 films, there are a great number with fewer than two named female characters. I can think of the odd movie that is this way–like a prison film, or military film–say the whole film is on a sub, but not dozens or hundreds. Especially in more recent decades when even the sorts of films that wouldn’t have had women in them, we now put women in them, even if it doesn’t make sense or is historically inaccurate.
Were there other qualifying criteria about how central the role was, or whether it was a good role? I sometimes feel like I watch movies on another planet from the one that journalists and feminists live. I see more and more female aimed films, female led films, female action movies, ensemble casts where the female characters are central and are part of what propels the story. I see more and more meaty roles opening up for women. I see female superhero movies and characters flourishing. But to read this article, the movies are barren of any women, and there is a sluggish caveman audience out there thrashing about if a woman walks on screen.
Has it ever occured to anyone, when bandying about the fact that so many films fail the bechdel test–decades and decades and it just won’t fade away–that the most universal story or theme there is that virtually all audiences relate to is love? There was a golden age director, whose name I’ve forgotten, when asked why he never made a romance picture, he answered, why would i do that, all movies have a romance in them. Perhaps there are a great many movies that are great, have numerous female characters in them, except they commit a cardinal feminist sin and portray women interested in men, women who have love lives, women who have partners and give their shame away to the audience by speaking of it out loud. How many films are there out there that don’t include two men talking about a woman?
Films are evolving regarding inclusion and representation and have been for many many years. It seems to have provoked the effect of people being more bent out of joint than ever, not just at where it is lacking, quantitatively, but it is very rare to read any reviews of film coming from reviewers who were immersed in gender studies at university ever be ok with a female character. Everything is problematic and falls short of some weird unidentified ideal of how women should be portrayed in stories. It is remarkably consistent, the reflex to start with the thesis that something is sexist, patriarchal, misogynistic, etc. and work up a narrative from there on what is wrong with it. It’s really creepy. It looks so fundamentalist to me, fiercely, propagandistic and impervious to facts or reality. These attitudes of wanting to police what can be said and not said, shown and not shown, how stories should be–it’s authoritarian, and it is demanding that the movie industry should primarily be a propaganda tool for social engineering.