Thursday, August 28, 2014

Half of 2014's movies fail this basic test of sexism

The Other Woman passes the Bechdel Test, but barely screencap

2014 is half over, and there's no time like the present to look at how well Hollywood is behaving.

One area of Hollywood's behavior that is easy to evaluate is the portrayal of women in movies.  Thus far, movies aren't making much progress in the way they portray women. At least according to The Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test is a litmus test to assess the presence of women in movies. The term originated in 1985 from Alison Bechdel's famous comic Dykes to Watch Out For. The Bechdel Test is meant to determine whether women were portrayed in movies as people and not simply pawns of male characters.

To pass the test, all a film has to do is answer yes to three questions:

  • 1. Are there more than two named female characters?
  • 2. Do the two female characters have a conversation at any point?
  • 3. Is that conversation about anything other than a male character?

That's it. All a film has to do is feature two women having a conversation on screen that is about anything other than a man and it passes the test. While this seems like a shockingly simple test to pass, very few do. In a study of 1,794 movies from 1970 to 2013, Walter Hickey of fivethirtyeight found that just over half of them passed the test.  This year isn't looking much better.

Screen_shot_2014-07-01_at_10.45.40_am

Of the 80 movies released this year, only 42 have passed the Bechdel Test. This means that thus far, 2014 is set to continue the historical precedence that only half of our movies feature a real conversation between women.

5 movies, including Ride Along and Under the Skin, fail the test dramatically. Both movies have only one named female character, making it impossible for them to pass the test. If the group of failures is combined with those that did not pass phase 1 (which requires the two female characters to have a conversation), women do not talk to each other in one quarter of the movies produced this year.

It's important to note that though 80 movies have been released this year and evaluated on Bechdeltest.com, many of these movies are not widely seen. The site includes everything from Barbie: The Pearl Princess (passed) to I, Frankenstein (passed only phase 1). One way to narrow this mass of movies is to look at only those movies that have had the highest viewership. To do this, we can look at the Top 10 Box Office grossing movies of the year thus far.

Screen_shot_2014-07-01_at_12.34.34_pm

The Bechdel Test numbers for the top 10 highest grossing movies of 2014 are worse off than those that include all of the movies of the year. In the passing category, the Top 10 movies list features Divergent, Neighbors, Maleficient, and The Lego Movie. It's worth noting, though, that The Lego Movie, which grossed second in box office sales at $257,000,260, was one of the most contentious movies on the Bechdel test forums, because of debates over whether Legos could be considered gendered, and whether or not the female Legos actually talked to each other.

The number of passing movies in the top 10 remains close to 50 percent, but the number of movies that perform poorly on the Bechdel Test is much higher in this narrower evaluation. There are just as many movies that only pass phase 1 as there are movies that pass the test. The top 10 is highly weighed down in terms of the Bechdel Test by action films. According to the Bechdel Test forums, movies like Captain America, X-Men, and Amazing Spider-Man 2, don't have more than 10 lines combined of women talking to each other.

Why it Matters

Gender disparity in Hollywood has been a problem for a long time. Even in 2012, women only accounted for 4.1 percent of directors, 12.2 percent of writers, and 20 percent of producers, according to a study by Stacy L. Smith. For years, members of Hollywood claimed that they chose not to make female-focused movies because they did not perform well at the box office, but the study done by fivethirtyeight found that movies that passed the Bechdel Test performed just as well at the box office as their failing counterparts.

The test seems simple enough to pass. Women have conversations in real life about food, and work, and a myriad of other topics that have nothing whatsoever to do with men. But in movies, those conversations aren't quite as common. Think about last year's American Hustle, an Academy Award nominated film about a con-artist. Despite featuring two female characters—Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams—with full personalities and major roles in the plot, American Hustle barely passed the test. Only one scene allows the movie to pass, when Jennifer Lawrence's character talks to a politician's wife about nail polish. And so many other movies don't.

The Bechdel Test is the most basic rule that we could ask a film to pass. Just include some women that do more that talk about men. The Bechdel Test does not measure whether or not a film portrays gender equality or represents women in a positive light. The Bechdel Test only measures whether or not women are given enough personhood to have a conversation about something other than men on the screen. For example, movies like The Other Woman, starring Cameron Diaz and Kate Upton, pass The Bechdel test even though the entire plot of the movie revolves around three women seeking revenge on a three-timing man. The movie passes because of a conversation about a Diaz's dog.

A good example of the difficulty with The Bechdel Test is the recently released Edge of Tomorrow. In the Tom Cruise, action movie, Emily Blunt plays a "full metal bitch" who is not only an incredible warrior, but the brains behind the whole operation. Though she is the love interest, her role is nuanced, and her personality is developed over the course of the movie as well as Cruise's is. The movie fails the test, however, because Blunt—as the only prominent female warrior—only talks to men.

While the test is not flawless, the fact that barely more than half of American films pass the test is reason enough to keep it in place. More movies are passing the Bechdel Test today than they were in 1970, but it's still not enough. Hollywood needs to fix it's problems with gender inequality both on and off the screen. Passing the Bechdel Test seems like the least it can do.

For a full list of this year's movies and their Bechdel Test status, click here.
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