Have you heard of the Bechdel test? It’s your new favourite way to choose films

Plus, how to make a stand with your next Netflix binge

Have you ever noticed that female characters in film tend to take a backseat? Their role in the plot is all too often solely as the love interest or family member of a male protagonist. Women on screen also tend to be highly sexualised — think of the James Bond films, Tomb Raider, or pretty much every rom-com ever made.

Well, what if you could screen films before you watch to make sure women aren’t represented in this way? That’s where the Bechdel Test comes in.

Alison Bechdel brought the idea of the test into life in her 1985 cartoon Dykes to Watch Out For, wherein a character explains the three rules they use when choosing which film to watch:

1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it

2. Who talk to each other

3. About something besides a man

These rules later became known as the Bechdel Test, as a way to test whether films were fairly representing women. Several cinemas in Sweden (where else!) even adopted the Bechdel Test as a rating in 2013, giving those which pass the test an A rating for approval.

As the test became more and more well known, Alison Bechdel noted that she was inspired by Virginia Woolf writing about contemporary fiction in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own:

“All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. … And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. … They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.”

— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

The Bechdel Test has had many criticisms thrown at it, mostly around it being too simplistic. But I don’t think Bechdel ever intended it to be a complex, all-encompassing test. In the cartoon strip above you can see the character refer to ‘basic requirements’.

It may not be the perfect test, but for me, the point is in that simplicity.

The simple fact is that women make up 51% of the global population, and have lives just as rich and complex as the other 49% of humans. And yet, on screen, we don’t see that represented. The Bechdel Test sets an incredibly low bar for how women should be seen on screen, and yet so many films still struggle to meet that bar. That’s the real issue here. If films can’t meet such a low standard, we don’t really need a more complex test, do we?

Dishearteningly, the situation doesn’t appear to be improving, either. A 2018 report by researchers at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a think tank studying diversity in the arts, found that in just 33.1% of speaking roles in 2018’s top selling films went to women. In 2007, the figure was 29.9%. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem like significant progress in five years.

And of course, it’s not just women who are unfairly represented on screen — you could easily use the Bechdel for other underrepresented segments of society too.

The same 2018 report found that of the speaking characters in the top-selling films of the year: 1.6% were characters with disabilities, 1.4% were LBGT+ characters, 16.9% were black characters, 5.3% were latino characters, and 8.2% were asian characters (meaning 63.7% were white).

It won’t come as a surprise that when these percentages were compared to the reality of our population, they came up very short — as you can see in the below table taken from the report.

How to use the Bechdel Test to make a stand when you watch Netflix

Like many, Netflix is now my main platform for watching films or TV. So, I was intrigued about how the films on the platform would fare under the Bechdel Test. I took the first ten films listed under their ‘award-winning films’ category, as of 14 November 2020 — here’s the result

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — pass
  • Hunger — fail
  • A Beautiful Mind — fail
  • (His House — not rated, Netflix original)
  • Seven Pounds — pass
  • Adaptation — pass
  • Room — pass
  • Selma — pass
  • Primal Fear — fail
  • (Three Identical Strangers — not rated)
  • Bridge of Spies — fail
  • Midnight Cowboy — fail

So, of ten films, that’s five passes and five fails. That’s five films who don’t even pass the most basic of feminist film tests, that either don’t have two named female characters at all, or those female characters are never pictured talking to each other about something other than a male character.

Pretty disappointing, I think.

I now plan to use the Bechdel Test to check the films on my Netflix list before I commit to watching them. And you can too.

Just head to the Bechdel Test website’s search function, and search the title of the film to find out if it passes or fails the test. Go forth, and make a stand with your next Netflix binge!

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