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The Bechdel-Wallace test, shortened to the Bechdel test, began in 1985 with a comic strip featuring the test. The comic strip was inspired by a conversation with Alison Bechdel’s friend, Liz Wallace.
The test is as follows:
- The film must have two female characters talking to each other.
- They must talk to each other about something other than a man (in some usages of the test).
- The two female characters must be named.
The test served to highlight a basic flaw with women’s representation in film. In theory, it doesn’t sound so difficult for two women to talk about something other than a man when a movie spans two hours. Yet still, an abundance of movies fail the test.
Even though the Bechdel test is a good general measure for understanding women’s representation in film, some feminist films may fail the Bechdel test. The 2019 film Marriage Story is a stellar example of this.
Since the film focuses on two characters, Nicole and Charlie going through a divorce, each interaction will tie to the dynamic of the pair. Even within conversations of two men talking to each other, the focus is likely about Nicole.
Even with discussions between two female characters who are portrayed, their discussions revolve around gender inequality, thus about differences between the role of men and women in relationships. Even though this makes their conversation focused on men, this is not problematic as it serves to highlight the struggles of womanhood within marriages and relationships.
This trend of unproblematic fails of the Bechdel test may follow within other romantic comedies and even more so within gay romantic films.
Despite this flaw of the Bechdel test lacking a story’s context, we can still see trends in a lack of women’s representation. A 2020 study found certain genres pass the Bechdel test more than others. This would seem to suggest that certain types of movies depict gender in an unequal way. For instance, the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy fails the Bechdel test.
A group of writers at polling organization FiveThirtyEight covered this issue in their article covering the next Bechdel test the roles of women.
“If women aren’t in key creative roles — say, if they’re being drummed out of the industry by pervasive, top-to-bottom sexism — then it’s not surprising that the resulting work is skewed,” the writers said.
FiveThirtyEight’s previously mentioned article presents a short analysis of some fresh, alternative tests. Here are two interesting takeaways from these hypothetical predecessor tests.
- Out of the fifty analyzed films, none passed the Uphold test, which a film passes if half the on-set crew are women. (Gender is guessed by the names of said contributors).
- Out of the fifty analyzed films, 15 passed the Rees Davies test, which required each department to have at least two women. But this test may be less telling, given that a film crew of six hundred is naturally more likely to pass than a smaller group of two hundred.
Guy Harrison, a UT professor who teaches a class on media diversity in society, among others, weighed in on the issue with insight on issues of behind the scenes representation.
“I think the best, most effective way would be to get women in those top level positions,” Harrison said.
Harrison pointed out a vital flaw in women’s representation behind the film: the creators making the film. The Bechdel test measuring how actors interact on the big screen can be great, but it fails to address anything behind the scenes. Films can continuously pass the Bechdel test but still have a majority group of men in the writers room.
Harrison provided an example of change in women’s representation through the President of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy.
“Since then, I don't think it's an accident that since Kathleen Kennedy has become the lead executive for Lucasfilm, you've had the sequel trilogy which centered around Rey, a female character,” said Harrison.
Drawing back to the issue of women needing representation within the writer’s room, representation of other groups is even more difficult behind the scenes.
For example, it could be much easier to hire an actor of a minority group if there are many actors in that group but few writers. This problem would be especially prevalent within groups that are relatively small in terms of population, such as transgender and non-binary people.
But this can also apply to entire fields.
To provide diversity within a workplace, you need a diverse hiring pool. This problem will extend to how various groups choose their career focus.
Although wide fields such as STEM push for diversity with scholarships and groups dedicated to equality within the field, the push for inclusion is more difficult in more niche fields.
As we consider women’s representation in film, we should also aim to provide fair representation for all groups. Achieving this fair representation can use the Bechdel test as a stepping stone, but a more holistic, pragmatic approach will bring real change.