Forget Oscar—It’s Time for Bechdel

It’s Oscar time. Time for the best- and worst-dressed lists, the endless media coverage, the analysis, the predictions and the recognition of great storytellers and their cohorts. As viewers tune in to see whom the Academy votes in as Best Director, Best Actor and Actress and Best Picture in the largest Hollywood publicity stunt of the year (because, let’s be honest, we all just want to see who’s wearing what), we forget that what we are really seeing is one of the last and greatest Old Boys’ Clubs in the country awarding themselves for their own artistic genius. And the vast majority of them are white and male.

According to a survey by the Los Angeles Times, the academy is 94 percent white and 77 percent male. The division of labor in the film industry itself is 82 percent male and 18 percent female. In 2011, women directed only 5 percent of the top-grossing movies.

As shocking as it is that Steven Spielberg was nominated again for his historical flick “Lincoln,” it is even more shocking that not one woman is up for an Oscar for Best Director this year. Even Kathryn Bigelow, who was the first woman to win Best Director with “The Hurt Locker” and whose “Zero Dark Thirty” has received critical acclaim, was passed over in favor of the usual suspects.

While there is clear gender inequality behind the scenes, it might appear as if women are equally represented on screen. Among the Best Picture nominees, it is useful to put them to the test. The Bechdel Test, that is. Begun inadvertently by comic book writer Alison Bechdel in a 1985 comic strip called “The Rule,” the Bechdel test provides a means to judge female representation on screen. The rules are simple.

Courtesy of Alison Bechdel

Courtesy of Alison Bechdel

  1. There are two female characters (who have names)
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than men.

 

Straightforward, but harrowing when you begin to test films considered among the best ever made, such as “The Godfather,” “Fight Club” and “Pulp Fiction.” Even so, passing the Bechdel test does not make a film feminist or even positive toward women.  Still, it’s a place to start.

Among this year’s Best Picture nominees, only “Life of Pi” outright fails the Bechdel Test. After all, the only two characters are a boy and a tiger. Of the nine films, six pass all three criteria (though some remain up for debate, such as “Amour”). “Silver Linings Playbook” passes two, and “Django Unchained” dubiously passes only the first. However, it’s not hard to assert that every film should pass the Bechdel test. In the database of 3,717 movies (and growing) on bechdeltest.com, only a little over half of the films fulfill all three criteria.

Hollywood filmmakers aren’t bringing the complex experiences of half of the population to the silver screen, leaving out a wide range of stories that should be told. Maybe it’s because most writers, directors and producers are male. Maybe it’s because the industry likes to green light movies that will appeal to the “average person,” which, in our society, is a young, white, straight, affluent man who likes to watch things blow up and scantily clad girls.

Either way, there is a “shocking underrepresentation of women in our business,” as the ever-eloquent Meryl Streep puts it. This Sunday night, as we ogle the beautiful dresses and despair over the contrived opening sequence, we should remember to think twice about the gender inequalities that the Academy Awards reinforce and remember that, as consumers, we can make an impact on the types of movies that are made.

About Katharine Schwab

  • Andrew

    The thing about the Bechdel test is that it’s real strength lies in provoking conversation, not in providing a standard by which to judge movies.

    It’s true that passing the Bechdel test “does not make a film feminist or positive towards women,” but failing the test does not a sexist film make. There is certainly a pervasive culture of sexism and a DISGUSTING underrepresentation of females and female stories, but I will disagree that every film needs to pass it. The films listed (Fight Club and The Godfather in particular) are almost solely based on the definition of manhood. They are films about what it means to be a man, and in the case of Fight Club, what it means to be a man in modern society. That three of the most “Manly” films fail the test is not a cause for concern. Django unchained is a male-driven slave revenge fantasy.

    It’s when films like “The Social Network” or “Harry Potter 7.2″ fail the test that we should start worrying. These are films that have no thematic or narrative basis upon which to rest their treatment of women, and yet continue to propagate this cinematic mistreatment.

    I agree that there needs to be more films with adequate and accurate female representation, but that doesn’t mean male-centric films should cease to exist. The test is about opening people’s eyes to sexism, but it’s not meant to be used as a catch-all checklist for filmmakers.

    But, good article, and always an interesting (if unsettling) thing to think about!