If you’ve never heard of the Bechdel Test, it is a short simple evaluation of any work of fiction to test the gender bias and general lack of well rounded female characters.
Are there at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man?
Great. It passed.
Saying something doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test has become shorthand for a story with flat (as opposed to well-rounded) female characters whose entire viewpoint is based on their relationship to, or conversation about, a male character in the story.
Just in time for the 2015 Oscars, I decided to do a quick review of the Best Picture Nominees and see if any passed the Bechdel Test. The lack of diversity in this years nominees across the categories has already been widely discussed. So too has the fact that every Best Picture nominee’s main character is a man or boy. Now, a main character being male doesn’t automatically preclude a film from developing well-thought-out and interesting female characters. Selma and Boyhood managed it.
Boyhood has quite a few scenes between mother and daughter as well as female friends which make for interesting and complex characters. In many ways, the conversations and questions raised by the daughter, Sam, make her character more participatory and connected to the narrative than the boy of the Boyhood title.
Selma only has two scenes that count but they are both powerful. The first is the little girls of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing talking about getting ready that morning and doing their hair like Coretta Scott King. Its not the type of scene that the Bechdel Test was initial referring to but it is a powerful scene giving a glimpse of the affect Scott King had on young black women of the time. The second scene is extremely important because it shows Scott King speaking with Amelia Boynton about her participation in the Civil Rights Movement and her trepidation at taking a meeting with Malcolm X. The contributions by women during the Civil Rights Movement are so often forgotten or dismissed that even this small scene goes a long way. Now if only the Diane Nash character had had a real speaking role but I digress.
Technically, Birdman does have a scene where the two actresses talk but they are consoling each other about the terrible men in their lives and then they inexplicable kiss so in no way am I counting that moment.
The Bechdel Test, like any overly simplified guideline, has its faults. In 2015 I don’t think it is enough for two women to just not talk about men in order for there to be a sense of equality. I would suggest the Bechdel Test be expanded to not just one conversation between women but at least three scenes. Similarly, the Mako Mori Test, is a great example of how the portrayal of a woman surrounded by only male characters can still fight against gender bias.
For an interesting look at the correlation between film box office and complex female characters, check out this list compiled by FiveThirtyEight.
For even more ways to test the xenophobia in pop culture, read about the Vito Russo Test which tests the portrayals of LGBT characters in film.
What do you think about the lack of women as central characters in the 2015 Best Picture nominees? Have you seen any great movies lately that do pass the Bechdel Test? Post a comment below and lets keep the conversation going.
Original gold border photo collage design by Elizabeth Zhang on hercampus.com