Ladies, remember your last girls’ “movie night”? Remember each and every female character on screen and what they talked about with their fellow girls? It may not be obvious at first glance, but chances are that a lot of what your favorite characters discussed that fictional day was just a regurgitation of a male writer writing for men, not you.
Have you ever noticed that women in movies tend to talk about men a lot? I’m wondering why women are portrayed as simply orbiting the male lead. I mean, I know all female characters have something awesome to bring to the table when they meet their friends for lunch on screen. The possibilities are endless; a new career move? Finally fluent in French? I know this because as women, we all have something to bring to the table, on and off the silver screen. And I don’t think I’m holding the film industry to too high of a standard to expect a reflection of real women.
It’s understandable that we see ourselves in relation to the “male standard” demonstrated in many of the films we watch. Taking the “standard” to heart will have any woman comparing herself to other women too. It breeds competition when we spend so much time looking at, observing and evaluating ourselves for the sake of men.
John Berger, author and art critic, explains, “Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus, she turns herself into an object.”
Turns out, this heightened awareness of oneself can come exactly from what we choose to watch on the big screen.
The male gaze is the idea that when we watch a film, we are usually watching it from a male’s perspective because the film has been constructed by, for, and about men.
Film has influenced American culture so immensely, many women experience looking at themselves through the male gaze and holding themselves to the “male standard” on a daily basis. Imagine reading, then watching yourself reading. Imagine getting dressed, then watching yourself getting dressed. It would be exhausting!
I became curious about this incredibly pesky peeping Tom in a woman’s mind causing her to reflect on herself with an overtly critical eye. If this determines how we see ourselves, how is it determining the relationships between us and other women?
This is where Allison Bechdel comes in. Born in 1960, this badass American artist is responsible for the well-known Dykes to Watch Out for comic series. From Dykes to Watch Out For came the famous comic strip, The Rule, in 1985 (shown below.)
In it, a female character proudly attests that she refuses to watch a film unless it satisfies three requirements: “one, it has to have at least two women in it who two, talk to each other about three, something besides a man.” What started out as a joke, has now become a widely accepted means of identifying female presence in film. When applied, the results definitely surprise us. Even though the requirements seem so simple, our favorite films might not measure up at all. Actually, it turns out that Hollywood, as a whole, barely measures up to the bare minimum standard set by the Bechdel Test.
Films that pass the Bechdel Test include Ghost World, Little Miss Sunshine, Black Swan, Kill Bill Vo. 1, Pulp Fiction, Spirited Away, and Requiem for a Dream, Mulholland Drive and American Beauty.
I was certainly excited to see one or two of my favorite films on this list. But, after closer inspection I realized many of these films are completely male centric.
For instance, Ghost World centers on one female character who begins to idolize her new male friend, and another who ends their friendship based on this idolization. Kill Bill follows a female protagonist whose entire storyline is about murdering her ex-lover, a man who tried to have her killed and stole her unborn child straight from her womb. It’s even in the title. Pulp Fiction, American Beauty and Requiem for a Dream’s main characters are all men and Little Miss Sunshine’s arguably most dynamic character was a man. At least, the Academy Awards thought so and gave the grandfather an award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in 2007. See a pattern?
If these are the stories that actually pass the Bechdel Test, I could only imagine which films failed to even meet Bechdel’s requirements.
Films that fail the Bechdel Test include The Social Network, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, Run Lola Run and get this… all of the pre-prequel Star Wars films and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The Social Network has been criticized for illustrating women as completely flat characters only used to either be “ignored or banged.” In an interview with Stephen Colbert, the film’s writer commented saying women in The Social Network were actually “prizes.” Much better!
Run Lola Run has an incredibly dynamic female lead who can change her entire destiny but only speaks to men. Where were her fellow heroines?
The original Star Wars trilogy and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy only seem to make this list because it is completely mind boggling that even in the realm of complete fantasy, women don’t talk to each other (or talk much at all). This begs the question; if there were more female characters who interacted more often, would the writers just force them to discuss men all day long?
All of the Harry Potter films pass the Bechdel Test (and are on the top 10 highest grossing films to do so) but the franchise dropped the ball on their last and final installment. We did get Molly Weasley powerfully declare, “not my daughter, you bitch!” but she was never answered by another character.
These examples show us that the test doesn’t really exist to call out individual movies, but “Hollywood as an institution” as Feminist Frequencies would tell us on Youtube. In 2014, it was found that only four Oscar nominees passed the Bechdel Test. The films included: American Hustle, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, and Nebraska. Many of these films included either a much sexualized cast of females, or barely any females at all. It objectively shows us the score and frankly, we’re coming up short.
Feminist Frequencies calls this trend not only a box office faux-pa (Bechdel movies make more money) but rather a systematic problem. And frankly put too: “It’s not just a few people here or there who don’t like women or don’t want women stories told but that rather the entire industry is built upon creating films and movies that cater to and are about men.”
The root of the problem comes down to an uneven playing field in the entertainment industry. The privilege of being male in the blockbuster business is being in the position to story tell and story tell truthfully. Women are not in the same position to tell their stories as men are in Hollywood. Considering only 4.7 percent of major motion pictures were directed by women in the last seven years, this isn’t surprising.
“Oh but that just means women aren’t talented enough to make movies,” you hear the patriarchy cry. No, it means only four point seven percent of us have been allowed into the big male world that is Hollywood. If you take a look at the figures for independent cinema, women hold a very low percentage of the seats. That’s no coincidence.
The Bechdel Test truly gets us thinking and reevaluating the films we watch. A film with many female characters might not have them speaking meaningfully to one another or even interacting with one another at all. A film that has a powerful and kick- ass female protagonist might have her only talking to men (as is the case with Run Lola Run). In the case where women might actually talk to each other, it’s usually to discuss a man or quickly further the plot along in some way.
I propose that women take back our representation in film by demanding authentic, complex and dynamic female characters. This means supporting, recommending, and talking about films that illustrate female characters that reflect real women. The process of seeing films transform from simply “scraping by” the Bechdel Test to being so obviously “Bechdel approved” will be a long one, but with continued interest and investment from our community, change will occur.