Girls on Film: The Bechdel Test and the Oscars

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

It's two days after the Oscars, but I still have movies on my mind. 

2013 has been deemed a great year for the ladies of film as writers of some of the most celebrated movies were praised for including strong female roles. 

As a feminist, I'm sad to say that I saw hardly any of the movies nominated Sunday night including Gravity and Philomena which centered on female protagonists. Life has been quite chaotic over the past year and didn't leave much time for trips to the theater. 

As a feminist I'm also sad to say that despite claims of this being a banner year for women of cinema, most of the movies nominated for Best Picture actually failed the Bechdel Test. 

The Bechdel Test, named for its creator, cartoonist Alison Bechdel, is a very simple test of gender equity in film. To pass the test the a movie only needs to meet three basic requirements: Does the film have at least two named women? Do they talk to each other? Do they talk about something other than a man? 

Sounds easy right? Wrong. 

Here's how this year's nominees for Best Picture measured up according to the database: 

Gravity — FAIL
Captain Phillips — FAIL
American Hustle — PASS
The Wolf of Wall Street — FAIL
12 Years a Slave — PASS
Philomena — PASS
Dallas Buyers Club — PASS
Her — FAIL
Nebraska — PASS

If you skim the commentary on the ratings you'll find folks challenging the verdict for several films. American Hustle shouldn't pass, some commenters say, because "the portrayal of women was very sexualized and degrading" and the conversation that two women have about something other than a man is about nail polish and perfume. Meanwhile, others argue that Gravity should pass because the primary protagonist is "a nuanced, interesting, sympathetic woman." 

So does this mean that the test is flawed and perhaps even useless?

Not necessarily. The purpose of the Bechdel Test isn't to judge the quality of individual movies. The point is to highlight a systemic problem within Hollywood as a whole. The fact that most movies fail a gender equity test that sets the bar so ridiculously low is, well, ridiculous. 

But I am optimistic.

I do believe that the strong female roles of 2013 show that things are changing, even if that progress is steady and slow.  

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