The Bechdel Test: Then and Now

 
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What is the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test first appeared in a 1985 publication of Alison Bechdel’s comic, Dykes to Watch Out For. The comic strip features two women discussing female roles in film and provides a short list of requirements that a movie must meet in order to pass. What originated as a somewhat lighthearted comic strip actually speaks to a pervasive issue in the film industry, as the plots of many films are still driven by men, while women remain often typecast as cinematic aids to male roles. The Bechdel Test serves as a litmus test for women in film—from their physical presence onscreen to the quality and depth of their characters. Here are the three requirements:

  • The movie must feature at least two women... (with names!)

  • ...who talk to each other...

  • ...about something other than a man.


Sounds fairly simple, right? The test is not designed to determine whether a movie is feminist or even good, but rather to gauge the representation of women in film.


If you know anything about the movement for gender equality, then you will not be surprised to learn that many films do not pass the Bechdel Test. For example, let’s take a trip back to 1985, the year that Alison Bechdel’s comic strip was published. Ronald Reagan is President, The Cosby Show is the #1 rated television show in America, and Harvey Weinstein is in the midst of getting away with sexual assault. Among the movies from this year that do not pass the Bechdel Test are Rocky IV, Back to the Future, After Hours, and Fright Night. Meanwhile, The Breakfast Club, The Goonies, and St. Elmo’s Fire all pass.


It's important to note that many films may only partially pass the Bechdel Test, by meeting some of the requirements but failing to meet others. According to the official Bechdel Test website, a user-generated platform that rates and grades thousands of movies based on these criteria, about 57% of the films in their database meet all three requirements, 10% meet two of them, 22% meet one, and 10% do not meet any of them. Based on the site’s database of 73 films from 1985, about 46% of them do not fully pass the test.


But that was three decades ago. So, how exactly is the movie industry doing now? Let’s return to 2018. Donald Trump is President, Bill Cosby is in jail, and Harvey Weinstein’s career is virtually over. In today’s era of reckoning against sexual assault with the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, the year 2018 appears promising for women in Hollywood and the American workplace.


The Time’s Up movement was largely started by a number of powerful women in Hollywood who are fighting against sexual harassment in the workplace. One of the leading contributors is Reese Witherspoon, who has also started her own company called Hello Sunshine, which focuses on creating more female-driven films and television shows. In its first year of production, the company released two films: Wild and Gone Girl—both of which pass the Bechdel Test.


Here is a short list of films from 2018 that pass the Bechdel Test:

  • Ant-Man and the Wasp

  • Avengers: Infinity War

  • Black Panther

  • Incredibles 2

  • Crazy Rich Asians

  • Eighth Grade

  • Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again

  • Ocean’s 8

So Where Does that Leave Us?

The Bechdel Test is merely a baseline list of criteria for women in film. A movie could still pass the test and contain sexist rhetoric or conversations that do not help move the plot forward.



The test is also a broad evaluation of all female movie characters. If you want to examine an even larger pass/fail ratio, take a look at the 2009 updated Bechdel Test that focuses on women of color in film. The lack of representation in the film industry extends beyond the actresses. Just last month, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative conducted a study to highlight the scarcity of film critics of color and how a lack of diversity behind the camera impacts the film industry overall. By evaluating about 60,000 reviews from Rotten Tomatoes on the 100 highest grossing movies for 2015, 2016, and 2017, the news site Color Lines specifies some noteworthy shortcomings: white male critics outnumber women of color by a ratio of 17.7 to 1; women of color tend to give better reviews of movies starring other women of color than white male critics do. Needless to say, despite the great strides that Hollywood has made in the last thirty years, there is still a long way to go.