Feminism and Hollywood have always had a faint relationship, but this has never gained as much public attention as recently. Despite various major celebrities such as Emma Watson, Lena Dunham and Patricia Arquette repeatedly speaking out about the gender wage gap between male and female actors and gender typecasting, it’s striking to see how a vast majority of films still fails to represent the experience of women and how most parts are still written by men.
The Bechdel test is a short test that can be applied to films to see if women are represented and if their roles encompass more than only existing in relation to their male counterparts. The test was introduced as a joke by Alison Bechdel in her 1985 comic Dykes to Watch Out For and is based on three simple principles:
– A film should have at least two named female characters
– who talk to each other
– about something other than a man
It’s surprising to see the amount of films that actually fail these three criteria, including classics such as Lord of the Rings, Batman: The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2 and 3, and Tomb Raider. Data publishing site Silk has recently shown that the Bechdel “pass rate” for films was only 55.4% in 2014, a drop of 12% compared to the previous year – and a low score in general if you ask me.
The test can certainly be criticised for failing to say anything about how well-explored the female narratives are within a film or whether they convey a feminist message or not. However, it’s certainly one of the most useful tools to measure the representation of women in film and that’s a good way to start.
Below you’ll find 3 kick-ass movies with female leads that do pass the test and focus on female psyches, friendships and rivalries like few other films do. Let us know in the comments below which films you think should be added to the list.
For a more in-depth explanation of the Bechdel test, check this video from feministfrequency.com:
Darren Aronofsky – Black Swan (2010)
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer who competes for the lead role in “Swan Lake”. She is slowly pushed to a breaking point as the story intensifies under pressure of her controlling mother, her manipulative choreographer and rival dancer Lily.
How the film passes the test: More than one female character? Check! Who converse with one another? Yes. Who can talk about something other than men? Should only be normal. Nina is often seen discussing her career with her mother and her fellow dancers. In fact, it is hard to point out a conversation between any of the male characters about something other than women. Black Swan explores Nina’s growing anxiety as a result of trying to live up to the expectations that others have of her – expectations that are not only imposed upon her by the male character, but also by her mother and by her own person. The film brilliantly explores Nina’s shocking breakdown as she delves deeper into her inner dark side and all the tensions that come with it.
Quentin Tarantino – Death Proof (2007)
A psychopathic stuntman called Mike (Kurt Russell) develops a habit of stalking groups of young women before killing them in staged car accidents. Unfortunately for him, he has mingled with the wrong group of ladies who now seek to take revenge.
How the film passes the test: Tarantino is always a difficult one to analyze when it comes to his female characters. Yes, the film passes the Bechdel test and yes, the women are fierce, complex and seemingly empowered, talking about ‘real’ things like lap dancing, films and getting high. The film focuses on female sisterhood as a way of defeating Mike’s misogyny and hyper-masculinity, climaxing when the credits roll in. However, although the film is a nice adrenaline-piece of girl power, the male gaze is still overly present here. Tarantino’s women are hyper-sexualised with shots that linger on particular body parts for just a tad too long. Tropes like this suggest the film is meant to appeal to the desires and fears of the male viewer rather than truthfully speaking about the female experience and the issue of objectification. Death Proof is a brilliant move away from the traditional action film (that often lacks any female representation), but passing the Bechdel test alone doesn’t necessarily mean it’s quite there yet. However, it’s a relief to finally see an action film that voices some of the concerns and hardships women have and go through.
Noah Baumbach – Frances Ha (2012)
Frances Ha provides honest, intimate glimpses in the life of 27-year old dancer Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig) as she moves between various places and apartments in search of herself, her dreams and friendship.
How the film passes the test: Frances Ha is perhaps one of the most realistic yet light-hearted portrayals of female friendship in a long time (that isn’t Bridesmaids). Frances’ dialogues with her friend Sophie are sharp, funny and relatable and one of the best moments in the film is when the women talk about their dreams (Frances’ idea is that Sophie, a successful publisher, will eventually publish her book that will turn her into a star). This is finally a film that focuses on female friendship rather than romance. In fact, Frances seems quite indifferent to men. When her housemates in Chinatown repeatedly ask her who she slept with last week, she ignores their question and continues talking about her friend Sophie. Frances isn’t perfect, she is slightly selfish and naive, but that makes her all the more real. Frances Ha has achieved what many other films have overlooked and passes the Bechdel test with flying colours.