The Bechdel test may be flawed, but it exists to highlight the gender problem at the heart of filmmaking.
Invented way back in the cocaine-snorting 1980s, today the Bechdel test seems to be growing in popularity. Last year, the test was even incorporated into Sweden’s film rating system. But Alison Bechdel’s simple idea still causes controversy. A measuring stick for gender-bias in movies, to pass the Bechdel test a film need only do three things:
1. Have two named female characters.
2. Have them speak to each other.
3. Have the topic of their conversation be something other than a man.
Contrived in a time when female protagonists were rare, one could be forgiven for assuming that most movies produced today would pass the test. Sadly not. A smattering of recent blockbusters that fail include Avatar, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Oblivion, The Hangover Part III, Now You See Me, After Earth and Gravity.
At some point you have to stop asking simply how many films fail the Bechdel test, and start asking why so many films fail
Yes, Gravity. A glaring flaw of the the test is that it ignores how developed female characters actually are, and how competent and strong they are, or influential, or necessary to the plot. This can lead to some weird results, like the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy failing, despite including several strong female characters without whom Middle Earth would probably have been doomed. Or Run Lola Run, in which protagonist Lola never actually interacts with another woman.
While a valiant effort, then, the Bechdel test is not a perfect measure of ‘how sexist’ a film is. There are clearly other narrative elements to be considered. But, and here’s where things get interesting, there is far more to the test than meets the eye. With just a little insight, the Bechdel test becomes a torch shining a light on the entire film industry. After all, at some point you have to stop asking simply how many films fail the test, and start asking why so many films fail. The answer, as always, is just as complex as the question.
With any industry as lucrative as cinema, profit is an obvious motive for creating gender-biased products. It’s a familiar assumption, and frustratingly uninformed: movies are produced with a male perspective in mind because more men go to the cinema.
According to the BFI, last year only 13% of UK film scripts were written by women. This is a long running problem
There are huge flaws in this argument. Firstly, men do not make up the majority of audiences. According to the MPAA (see MPAA 2013 Theatrical Market Statistics), audiences are split almost 50/50 between men and women. In fact, since 2009 there have been fractionally more women going to the cinema than men. Secondly, anybody making this argument is assuming that men are incapable of identifying with female protagonists – which, although I can’t speak for everyone, I can say from personal experience is not true.
All of this means that it isn’t audiences who favour the male gaze. It’s the film industry. Trawl the internet long enough, and you’ll find that in the past ten years, only five films directed by women have been nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. Let me repeat that, to really let it sink in. Five female directors in a decade, to even be nominated. And this is forgetting that one of those five films was Little Miss Sunshine, which was co-directed by a man.
This fact hints at a much broader problem with women in the film industry. There aren’t any. According to the BFI, last year only 13% of UK film scripts were written by women (see the BFI Statistical Yearbook). This is a long running problem, and it is the male domination of the film industry which is leading to so many films failing the Bechdel test.
More on the Bechdel test: Is the test fundamentally misguided?
Consider – and apologies for this small tangent – Jane Austen. Literary genius. She invented Mr Darcy. She was that good. Yet Jane Austen never, ever wrote scenes in which two men had a conversation alone together. Why? Because she could not possibly know what two men were like alone. Her gender prevented her from having that experience, and so rather than write something that felt inauthentic, she made damn sure that she always wrote scenes with at least one woman present.
Around 90% of scriptwriters are men, and they’re scared of cocking it up. This was probably their dream career, remember
Today we might dismiss her fears. Society no longer segregates the sexes so strictly. But for writers the same basic issue remains: it is difficult to write scenes involving only people of a different sexuality, different class, or different cultural background, because you just don’t know how they behave when you’re not there. What’s worse, get it wrong and you could face accusations of stereotyping or discrimination. In the face of this, the men who write the vast majority of our movie scripts have come to the same conclusion Jane Austen did in the 1800s: nope.
So there you have it. Around 90% of scriptwriters are men, and they’re scared of cocking it up. This was probably their dream career, remember, and they’re not taking any risks. Add to that that most directors are men (again, around 90%), and suddenly we have men making movies written by men, about men. I don’t for a second think that this is some kind of patriarchal conspiracy. The reason so many films fail the Bechdel test is that, essentially, the whole industry is terrified. And it’s that same fear which is making much contemporary cinema so stale and repetitive.
It’s difficult enough to become successful in film production without taking risks. But if it’s hard for men, who make up such a majority, how tough must it be for women? Perhaps if we could solve that problem, we’d see more authentic female voices on our screens. Until then, I have a sinking feeling we’re stuck at the sausage-fest.
More on film: Is lack of female characters making film less universal?
Featured image: Warner Bros
Inset images: Warner Bros; Fox Searchlight Pictures