Women make up 51% of the US population but only 34% of the speaking characters on screen. When women are represented on screen in film, there is a problematic trend of their characters being solely relegated to supporting men. In measuring the representation of women in film, one method that critics use is the Bechdel Test, but on its own, it is an insufficient metric.
The Bechdel-Wallace Test originally started as a joke in the 1985 comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” by Alison Bechdel, an American cartoonist and author, but has gained significance as the industry standard by which film critics measure the representation of women characters. The test itself is simple, composed of three questions:
- Are there two or more female characters on screen?
- Do these two female characters talk?
- Do these female characters talk about something other than a man?
But the test became less of a joke when people realized its real value in application to the standards of the film industry.
Despite the Bechdel Test’s low standards by contemporary thought for a film to be deemed representative of women, most films actually do not seem to even measure up to one or two of the standards, much less all three that are needed to pass. People should re-examine what qualifies as female representation in film when even the films that are slated to be great for women’s empowerment can’t pass this basic test. The Bechdel Test needs to be replaced and several tests overall should be used if a critic wants to write that a film has a great representation of women.
The standards, that two women characters talk and specifically not about men, are the bare minimum in displaying narratives that contain women characters who are not just plot devices for men characters. The test does not even ask for the women to have their own opinions, not be minimized to their hair or clothes or be an object of affection, for example, proving that it does not go beyond measuring whether women characters simply exist in a film.
It is not difficult for a film to have two characters who identify as women. Even in a male-led film, there is usually a mom and a love interest— with the exception of some films like Greyhound (2020) which featured just one woman character. But after meeting that criterion, most films fail.
It seems to be the second criterion that earns several films a failing grade: having women characters who actually talk to each other. Examples of such films include Interstellar (2014), as not one time do Murph or Brand talk to each other, The Stunt Double (2020), where the actress and make-up artist never really talk, and Another Round (2020) all only make it to question 2 on the test.
The last criterion generally presents as a challenge for films that do fulfill the first two criteria. Examples include Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), as the women characters only really discuss the men around them, Mank, which features several women characters who never talk to each other about anyone or anything other than Mank, and Marriage Story (2019), as most women characters other than Nicole are not named and every conversation is about Charlie or their son, Henry.
Currently, film critics use the Bechdel Test in their ratings and there are several sites dedicated to measuring the representation of women in film based on it. In Sweden, independent movie theaters even share the Bechdel Test with their audiences before each film so viewers are aware of its representation by this metric.
These efforts are respectable because it means that people, and the film industry in response, are trying to bring light to women’s representation. But examining the Bechdel Test reveals how basic its caliber is which indicates that only the bare minimum will be done when it is the only standard.
The level of representation in a film is not so cut and dry that three criteria can determine gender equality. Typically, the majority of films that pass the Bechdel Test have female leads, and they are oftentimes coined ‘chick flicks’ by critics and audiences. In many of these films, however, when men are not the topic of discussion, writers sub in topics like clothes, shopping and friend (or enemy) drama which does not provide complex, non-stereotypical female representation.
Films like Clueless (1995), where every other conversation is about makeovers or setting people up, and Mean Girls (2004), as Cady tries to take Regina down along with her friends, would traditionally pass the test but they do not give many of their characters much development or depth in order to be truly representative.
Movies that center women that only talk about topics that are considered stereotypically female are not good for female representation. Movies that cast the experience of women as a monolith of boys and makeup are not meant to represent women, only monetize them, and it is pure coincidence if they pass the Bechdel Test. When a movie coincidentally passes the test, it can be misread as representative and promoting women’s equality which only worsens the problem.
Films that complicate the question of representation include those with strong women leads, which are often strategically billed as empowering, that do not pass the Bechdel Test and are still poor representation for women; the test also cannot just serve as a negative proof of representation. Some of these so-called ‘female empowerment movies’ include Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), as the two women leads have names but never talk to each other, and Salt (2010), in which Evelyn is the only woman character even given a name. Such films downplay the importance of relationships between women, especially positive ones.
The Bechdel test is slated as a way to measure ‘female representation’ in film, but it ultimately addresses surface-level writing issues and neglects content that is important to the depiction of women in film. Additionally, the test never addresses the representation of women who belong to other marginalized groups, such as women who are not white, heterosexual or cisgender.
The insufficiencies of the Bechdel Test in actually measuring female representation based on appearance instead of the content of the cinema people are watching creates even more blurring lines that lead to less representation overall. When representation is just measured as visual presence, then this ‘representation’ actually becomes tokenism and that is just as toxic as a lack of visual presence because then the presence is meant to fill a quota, not actually give a voice to a marginalized demographic.
When writers and directors think they only have to meet the criteria of the test to be representational, they do not realize they are only cracking the surface of realistic and unproblematic depictions of women. The Bechdel test leaves out so many types of representation: featuring at least as many women characters who are as integral to the plot as men, showcasing friendships between women characters and giving a voice to women characters that are not all cisgender, heterosexual and white.
The Bechdel Test does not work as a standard as it leaves so much to be desired, even within its simple parameters that only display one-size-fits-all representation. One possible solution is re-evaluating it to not be a pass or fail test but rather a test that includes a grade and addresses the content (including conversations, portrayals and interactions with other characters) so the depictions can be measured for inclusive representation.
The Bechdel Test is a basic measure of representation that critics should build on in their evaluations of films. The representation in film can not be measured by one single test, especially not one that excludes so many of the factors that make representation effective like non-stereotypical content, a diverse range of characters and diverse narratives. These factors are more subjective and free-flowing.
Some tests that exist to make up for the fallacies of the Bechdel Test in content are: the Peirce test, the Villarreal test, and the Landeau test or in non-white representation like the Ko test, the Villalobos test, and the Waithe test or even behind the camera like the Rees Davies test. Tests like these fill in gaps like content — when watching a movie with representation in mind, multiple factors and tests have to be included to actually measure in content, display, portrayal and production.
One reason that proper representation of characters who are not just male, white, heterosexual and cisgender is so important is because it is necessary for young children to see individuals like themselves that they can relate to for their self-esteem but also so they do not limit themselves based on society’s expectations of them. They deserve better standards than the Bechdel Test currently sets for the film industry.
Written by intern Joanne Ibironke