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Documentaries about Successful Women: Ruined by Romance

Successful women, it seems, are finally getting their due in the world of cinema. One documentary after another is celebrating their lives. They include, for example, “RBG” (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), “Being Serena” (Serena Williams), “Jane Fonda in Five Acts,” “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” and “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.”

But even with all this progress, are women really being represented in ways that respect their lives and their accomplishments? Maybe you’ve heard of the Bechdel Test, a measure of whether women are represented fairly in films. To pass the test, a movie must include:

  1. At least 2 women, who have names, and
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man

The Bechdel Test has been used mostly to evaluate movies that are not documentaries. At The Lily, Libby Coleman made the case that we need similar criteria for appraising documentaries. Here’s what she suggests:

  1. Does the documentary focus on men for less than 8 percent of the film?
  2. Does it avoid using the woman’s quest to find a partner as the crux of the film’s drama or its resolution?

If the answer is yes to both, the film passes.

Coleman used those criteria to assess the recent slate of documentaries about women. What she found was deeply disappointing. Read her entire article to see what she has to say about many of those films. Here I’ll just share a few examples.

RBG.” The film about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fails because her husband, Marty, takes up more than 8 percent of the film. “Marty is portrayed as an almost perfect man. He is endlessly encouraging and loving. But beyond that, he is partially credited with her meteoric rise…He even cooks much better than she does.”

Anita.” In this documentary about Anita Hill, “the resolution hinges on Hill finding a supportive partner as much as it does on her present-day work. That means that it fails question two, because ‘Anita’ ends when the protagonist finds love…the message sent: Don’t worry about Hill, she now has a man.”

Similar issues mar other documentaries, such as “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” “Being Serena,” “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” and others.

Author Libby Coleman also analyzed documentaries about men and did not find the same thing. When men are protagonists, they are often portrayed as self-made. Women in their lives who may have made a big difference are rarely credited.

Analyses such as Coleman’s are presented as feminist critiques, underscoring sexism. Readers of this blog will recognize something else. The issue of placing a man, or the quest for a romantic partner, at the center of a movie about a woman, is about singlism and matrimania. The stigmatizing of single people and the over-the-top celebration of marriage and coupling also applies to men. If a romantic quest is positioned as the crux of man’s life, when he has so much else going on, that also counts as singlism and matrimania.

It is heartening to see the over-emphasis on romantic themes getting critical attention. I think that should have started a long time ago, but I’m happy to see it taking off now. Soon after Coleman’s article appeared, the New York Times published an article noting that movies that passed the Bechdel test earned more money than those that did not. If it is true that money talks, this time it is saying something wise.

Photo by Luiz Fernando Reis MMF

Documentaries about Successful Women: Ruined by Romance

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2018). Documentaries about Successful Women: Ruined by Romance. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Dec 2018
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