Let’s be brutally honest here – since the dawn of time, women have always gotten handed the short end of the stick. It doesn’t matter what scenario, industry, or time in history it is, women have always been treated inferior to men.
Think of how not too long ago, men would laugh and scoff at the thought of a woman being a doctor, lawyer, accountant or police officer. In some places on our beloved planet earth, women still do not have the right to vote or leave the house alone. Women continue to be categorized as “weak”, “damsels in distress”, and “delicate” by men who are seen as “strong, “macho” and “powerful”.
It is harrowing to think about, but today in 2017 women are still being dismissed and looked over non-stop because of lingering misogynistic stereotypes. Women who are of colour, who belong to a non-western faith or who are queer often face even worse mistreatment.
As human beings in the 21st century, we live for the entertainment of any sort. Social media, movies, television, music, live events and more are what brings us together as a community and engages us daily. Even if it is often a little fun and silly, we are deeply influenced by everything we see and hear from early childhood. We often take our entertainment for granted, as it has a grand part in shaping us into who we are.
Most often, filmmakers and producers aren’t encouraged to take big risks or jump “out of the box”, such as featuring women in lead roles in films that aren’t sappy love stories. Remember that everything always comes down to money, and big executives often fear that putting something out of the norm might scare the consumer away. Film students are told from the get-go that their projects have much less of a chance of succeeding if they do something bold and unpredicted, even if it’s actually a good idea. (Anna Waletzko, “Why the Bechdel Test Fails Feminism.”)
Despite the general hesitation of leaving normality in Hollywood, some trailblazers have made big, bold decisions that actually worked, and helped change stigmatized ideas implemented into our society.
A good example of this is the hit 80’s fiction American television series “Cagney and Lacey”. Profiling the escapades of two police officers in New York City, the unusual factor of this series was that detectives Cagney and Lacey both happened to be women, working in a male-dominated industry. Cagney and Lacey was the first ever “buddy” television show about two women (as that would have been categorized as a huge “risk” at the time) and withheld a strong feminist message. The show documented not just their lives as badass detectives, but as average women who worked full time had families to take care of and struggled with sexism in the workplace, which is a very relatable concept for most women then and today.
Television sitcoms in the late 80’s to mid 90’s such as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the Cosby Show provided representation of successful African-American families on TV, and RuPaul’s Drag Race has succeeded for 8+ years in showcasing the colossal talents of queer people on televisions worldwide. Most recently in 2017, a modern adaption of Wonder Woman was released, being the first ever action/superhero film with the protagonist being a woman.
When watching a film or television show, do you ever notice a significant lack of involvement in the direction of women? It is a lot less apparent than the average person would think, but a colossal amount of popular movies have a tough time with having more than one female actress in the main cast. I challenge you to think of 5 major motion films you’ve seen recently that involve more than one main prevalent character in the main cast.
In 1985, an innovative comic artist by the name of Alison Bechdel published a strip called “The Rule” in her original comic “Dykes to Watch Out For”. In the comic strip was something far more deep and complex than just a few punchlines as you’d find in an average comic, it was the birth of The Bechdel Test.
To pass The Bechdel Test, a film must answer these three simple questions with a “yes”; in the film, are there at least two named women, do they talk to each other, and is it about something besides a man?
At first glance, it seems a little silly. I mean, c’mon, you would think that most movies have at least one female character and that she would have a name. But believe it or not, even in liberal Hollywood, women are still excluded at large in the film industry.
After hearing about Alison Bechdel’s marvelous algorithm, it really does stick in your head. You will find yourself questioning every movie (or television show) that you watch, and you will be stunned as to how much of our entertainment excludes women.
It doesn’t take a lot of attention to realize that action films are in majority exclusively marketed towards men. Following the age-old stereotype that men must be ruff-and-tuff and are only entertained by violence, weapons and overtly sexualized women, cult movie franchises such as The Fast and the Furious and Terminator have been catering to their testosterone-pumped male audience for decades. Despite the strong stigma towards the involvement and interest of women in the action genre, there are some noteworthy exceptions.
One of those exceptions happens to be Quentin Tarantino, one of Hollywood’s biggest names. Tarantino is broadly known for his cult classic movies that all contain a persistent pattern of gruesome, graphic, raw violence that somehow always ends up looking so aesthetically beautiful.
Quentin Tarantino is best known for directing and writing the Kill Bill film trilogy, which the first two pass The Bechdel Test by a long shot. With the main cast being comprised of mainly women, such as Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Daryl Hannah and Julie Dreyfus, Kill Bill is jam-packed with badass assassin ladies fighting to the death and searching revenge from one another. Although the plot (and title) is centered around a man, there is an overwhelming amount of named female characters, who talk to each other, about something besides good ol’ Bill.
A smaller yet largely growing subgenre of action movies is the superhero category. Iconic and beloved comic books coming from publishers such as Marvel and DC are being made into movies and television series at a rapid pace. As entertaining and childhood fulfilling these films can be, they significantly lack female presence.
Granted quite a few of these superhero movies do in fact pass The Bechdel Test, they usually barely meet the criteria. For example, 2 out of 3 of the ever so popularized Avengers films technically pass the test, but it’s nothing exciting. Often if there are two named female characters who actually speak about something besides a man, it’s a complete fluke.
It is quite interesting to look into films that do and don’t pass The Bechdel Test and to analyze the cast and crew behind it. A fascinating example is the movie adaption of American Psycho, a gruesome novel written by Bret Easton Ellis. American Psycho documents the life of Patrick Bateman, a 27-year-old rich, snobby investment banker working on Wall Street. Bateman is also a serial killer on the side and preferably preys on women. A quote from a New York Post article on the Broadway version of American Psycho describes the story as “a sly skewering of a woman-hating, alpha-male mindset that sadly didn’t die along with the 1980s” which hits the nail on the head perfectly.
On the surface, American Psycho seems to be very misogynistic. Patrick Bateman does not treat the women in his life with respect, and only views them as sex objects. Before the release of the movie, several feminist organizations and groups even rallied together in protest of the seemingly anti-women theme.
Unlike most stories, American Psycho has a protagonist which is extremely unlikable and almost not human. Patrick Bateman is in no way a Ted Bundy or Charles Manson, meaning he may be a murderous villain but has absolutely no charm or likability to his personality. Christian Bale, the actor who played Bateman in the movie, even mentioned in an interview that he pulled inspiration from Tom Cruise’s infamous interview on the David Letterman show, stating that he noticed “intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes”.
The outstanding factor which gives American Psycho its brilliance that many seem to not pick up is the perfect amount of satire and comedy implemented in what seems like a horror or thriller story. The entire film/book subconsciously pokes fun at the very realistic rich, yuppie Wall Street type that Bateman and his peers are portrayed as.
Guinevere Turner, who wrote the screenplay, stated in an interview that “…It’s a satire about how men compete with each other and how in this hyperreal universe we created, women are even less important than your tan or your suit or where you summer and to me, even though the women are all sort of tragic and killed, it’s about how men perceive them and treat them.”
Many people, including director Mary Harron and writer Guinevere Turner, see American Psycho as a feminist film. Bret Easton Ellis, the author, has mentioned several times that he even intended on his book to be a strong feminist statement.
Underneath it all, American Psycho shows us that the men in our society who appear as symbols of power and success are almost always holding up a facade. They are corrupt, immature, and terribly sad human beings. They abuse women and can get away with almost anything (even murder), which is exactly what American Psycho is all about. Despite tragically failing The Bechdel Test, American Psycho certainly does uphold many strong statements on feminism and misogyny.
Continuing on with the horror genre, a movie that does, in fact, exceed The Bechdel Test’s seemingly tough criteria happens to be The Silence of the Lambs. Released in 1991, this cult classic is based on a four-book fictional series written by Thomas Harris. The plot of The Silence of the Lambs, in particular, is based around an FBI agent, Clarice Starling, who profiles the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter in search of answers to a complex murder case.
In terms of The Bechdel Test, it is quite dubious as to if The Silence of the Lambs passes or not. On bechdeltest.com, a website dedicated to listing movies and indicating as to whether they pass the test or not, The Silence of the Lambs is said to pass. Comments in the open forum show how tricky the rules of the test can be, such as this one from Amanda, who wrote “I think it passes. Clarice and her roommate are quizzing each other about the number codes when they are running. The only thing that is iffy for me is the fact that I don’t remember hearing the roommate’s name mentioned in the film.” But then, someone later comments on the thread that Clarice’s roommate is named Ardelia.
It is apparent that most of the conversations had between women in The Silence of the Lambs (usually involving the protagonist, Clarice) do somehow involve a man. But in a film such as this one, does that really make it fail the Bechdel Test? Other fans on the forum brought up that the test might not be so credible on a film such as this one, as a user named Commissioner commented “…In this film, the female is an agent during an investigation. She’s going to have to talk about the suspect/killer to other agents, male or female. Should it fail the test for that? If she didn’t, it wouldn’t be realistic at all.” This is a very strong example of how like every system or algorithm, the Bechdel Test does have its flaws.
Yes, Clarice had quite a few conversations with other women about men, but it was her job to do so. It doesn’t seem right to label The Silence of the Lambs as an “anti-women” or “non-feminist” film, as the protagonist is portrayed as a strong, brave, independent woman working in a male-dominated workplace.
We would assume that movies like The Silence of the Lambs which contain a strong female protagonist would pass the Bechdel Test. Mostly because our standards as consumers when it comes to women are pretty low, and we just automatically assume that if a film’s main character is female, then that automatically makes it “pro-women” and “feminist”, right? Well, that theory has now been proven wrong.
Continuing with the category of movies with “strong female leads”, Labyrinth comes to mind. Labyrinth is a cult classic film put in the genre of “fantasy/action” released in 1986 and produced by the ever iconic Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. The movie follows the story of a young girl named Sarah who must embark on a quest through a mind-boggling maze in a fantasyland in order to save her baby brother from the goblin king.
Labyrinth happens to be a movie that does have a very strong-willed, independent, female protagonist. While only being a young girl, Sarah is the epitome of brave. She goes through all sorts of trials and tribulations while trying to save her baby brother and is a great character for young girls to look up to. But despite having a strong heroine, the film severely lacks any sort of female representation.
As most Jim Henson projects are, the majority of the cast (if not usually all) is his trademark Muppet characters, which evidently aren’t people. In Labyrinth, many people had noticed that that out of the hundreds of little puppet characters featured, none appeared to be female. None. With all the random little extra muppet creatures, they did not think to make a single one female. Sure, maybe one was, but they certainly did not include anything of the sort. An anonymous writer on the Bechdel Test website forum puts it pretty well by commenting, “They didn’t think to give Sarah a single female companion, with a name? Even all of the unnamed creatures and talking doorknobs, hands, false alarms, etc were male. WTF?”
After nit-picking through several movies to see if they withstand the true test of feminism, there have been quite a few conclusions and inquiries drawn. The main and most pertinent one being is The Bechdel Test really credible? Does it really measure a film’s degree of “feminism” properly?
The issue with The Bechdel Test is that it really isn’t a one size fits all kind of test. Almost all of the films discussed previously had some sort of issue, making the outcome of it passing or not quite dubious. For example, The Silence of The Lambs has a strong female lead, but she mostly talks about men. She is an FBI agent, so does it make the film less “female-inclusive” if she’s just doing her job? American Psycho is deemed misogynist due to its alpha-male protagonist and overall lack of respect towards women, but the underlying message of the movie is making fun of men and meant to be radically feminist.
Yes, The Bechdel Test is a good test of measure for certain movies, but there are too many exceptions to make it a truly working system. That’s not to say that it doesn’t “work”, or it isn’t valuable in any way, but all systems have their flaws. And with a subject as personal and political as women, the best way to identify if a film is seemingly “feminist” enough might be using your common sense and best judgment.
At the time, Alison Bechdel surely was not intending on a joke in one of her comic strips to be used as a serious testing process for movies. The Bechdel Test was not a specific algorithm created by professionals or specialists in order to prove something, it was made by a very socially aware artist to make her audience laugh.
There is incredible pertinence and importance in the Bechdel Test, especially in this day and age where women in the film industry are a very current topic. It is an eye-opening and innovative concept which we should pay more attention to, as the involvement of women in film is quite pitiful. The Bechdel Test should be used exactly as it was meant to be; a thought-provoking conversation starter in effort to bring more awareness and attention towards a very pressing subject.
Waletzko, Anna. “Why the Bechdel Test Fails Feminism.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 27 Apr. 2015, www.huffingtonpost.com/anna-waletzko/why-the-bechdel-test-fails-feminism_b_7139510.html.
“Cagney & Lacey (TV Series 1981–1988).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0083395/.
Stewart, Sara. “Women are chopped up, but ‘American Psycho’ skewers men even more.” New York Post, New York Post, 22 Apr. 2016, nypost.com/2016/04/22/ladies-its-ok-to-like-the-misogynist-american-psycho/.
Williams, Zoe. “Why Wonder Woman is a masterpiece of subversive feminism.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 June 2017, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jun/05/why-wonder-woman-is-a-masterpiece-of-subversive-feminism.
Bechdel Test Movie List. (n.d.). Retrieved January 30, 2018, from