Fifty Shades of Grey is a Hollywood anomaly, and not only because it features a line about butt plugs. It isn't a typical Hollywood movie because it treats women like people instead of plot devices or mere sex symbols. Anastasia Steele, the protagonist of the movie, may be sexy (kind of) but that isn't her entire purpose or personality.
We can argue about whether Fifty Shades of Grey is or is not "good for women," but at least it manages to pass the most basic test of gender equality we have for film — the Bechdel Test.
What is the Bechdel Test?
The Bechdel Test is a litmus test used mostly to determine whether women are present in a movie as fully human characters for the male characters to objectify. The term originated in 1985 in Alison Bechdel's comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. Bechdel herself says the idea for the test came from a roommate.
To pass the test, a film has to answer yes to three questions:
- Are there more than two named female characters?
- Do the two female characters have a conversation at any point?
- Is that conversation about anything other than a male character?
While this seems like it should be a shockingly simple test to pass, very few films manage to do so. In a study of 1,794 movies from 1970 to 2013, Walter Hickey of FiveThirtyEight found that almost half failed it.
Of course, in real life, women have conversations about work, life, and a myriad of other topics that have nothing whatsoever to do with men. But in movies, those conversations are much rarer than they need to be.
Does Fifty Shades of Grey pass the Bechdel Test?
Fifty Shades of Grey is a movie about Ana, her life, and her relationship with a very rich man who likes to have kinky sex. As the movie focuses mostly on her relationship with Mr. Christian Grey, it would have been easy for the director and screenwriter (both women) to accidentally allow the movie to fail the test.
To be fair, Ana does talk about Christian a lot. She talks about him to her mother, and her best friend. Mostly, she talks about him to him. The majority of conversations in the movie are between Ana and Christian. But what makes Ana a believable character, and a fun one to watch, is that her personality isn't defined by her relationship with Christian. This movie easily passes the Bechdel Test. Here are a few examples I can remember:
- Ana talks to her roommate about her classes
- Ana talks to her mother about her college graduation
- Ana talks to her roommate about finishing college and going out to celebrate
- Ana talks to her roommate about making a sandwich
- Ana's roommate talks to her about her valedictorian speech.
- Ana talks to Christian's mom about dinner
- Ana talks to Christian's mom about what she's studying
These are small moments, and none of them take more than two minutes of screen time, which isn't surprising because Fifty Shades of Grey is a story about love and a messy relationship. But these tiny moments matter. They make Ana a real character, and they make Fifty Shades of Grey a little more believable despite its moments of absurdity.