Most people probably think that men and women are equally represented in film roles. After all, most movies have a male lead and a female lead, and there are Best Actor and Best Actress categories in every awards show. Plus, you know, women make up roughly half (actually slightly over half) of the world’s population, so it seems natural that they would have roughly half of the film roles. As the Bechdel Test, an interesting/sad little thought exercise I recently discovered, shows us, this is hardly the case.
Originally popularized in Allison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, the Bechdel Test is made up of three simple questions, designed to evaluate the presence of substantial female characters in a movie. The test has been tweaked by many, but here’s the most common version at the present.
When watching a film, ask yourself these three questions:
1. Are there two or more female characters with names?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. If they do talk to each other, do they talk about something other than a man?
Although this seems like a fairly low bar, a stunning number of popular films fail the test. Perhaps it’s not surprising that male-targeted action movies like The Dark Knight, The Bourne Identity, Transformers, Terminator: Salvation, Men in Black, all three Lord of the Rings, Mission Impossible, Braveheart, Gladiator, and many, many more don’t pass.
But neither do many broadly-aimed comedies, such as Austin Powers, The Wedding Singer, or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Or many family friendly films, including Wall-E, Home Alone, The Princess Bride, and Shrek. Even classic chick flick When Harry Met Sally fails to meet this low standard for substantive female presence.
Of course, this test doesn’t determine whether a movie is worth watching or even whether or not it presents positive images of women. What it does is makes us think about how accustomed we are to the uneven representation of men and women in our films. Trying the Bechdel Test for men is almost laughable; it’s practically impossible to think of a film without multiple substantial male characters. But the lack of women is something few notice.