How can you tell when women have significant roles in movies?

There are lots of movies with great relationships between men.  There are a number of movies with interesting roles for women.  But how many movies out there feature multiple major female characters who interact with each other?  That’s the question the Bechdel Test for Women in Film tries to answer.  I stumbled across this amazingly simple tool for analyzing films in one of those “You might also like” boxes at the bottom of the Mediaite page.

Here’s the scoop, quoted from Rachel Sklar’s Mediaite article (which references a post from Boing, Boing):

The Bechdel test—named for the cartoonist Alison Bechdel who wrote a long-running comic strip called Dykes To Watch Out For and the critically acclaimed graphic novel Fun Home—is a test to assess whether women have a meaningful presence in a movie. It consists of three questions.

1. Are there two or more women in it that have names?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

Once you start thinking about it, you’ll be surprised by how many films don’t pass this test. In fact, there are entire genres (action-adventure, for example) that seem to fail the Bechdel test, by and large. This page has a year-by-year list of movies, along with their Bechdel status.

Not surpisingly, male-centric movies such as Fight Club, or Lawrence of Arabia, or Das Boot don’t pass the test.  But as Rachel Sklar points out, other notable non-passing movies include:

  • Shrek
  • Clerks
  • Big Lebowski
  • Home Alone
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • The Truman Show
  • Lord of the Rings
  • Tomb Raider
  • and even…. Princess Bride

This test doesn’t judge the quality of the movie or whether it is misogynistic, only that it doesn’t portray the interaction of two women with names dealing with something other than a man.

It seems to me that this would make a great media literacy assignment.  Any college freshman is capable of performing the test.  It’s easy to understand the point it makes.  You could easily turn it on its head.  (How would it work with men?) It gives your students the opportunity to do some research on their own on a very accessible critical theory topic.  I’m planning on doing this assignment this spring.

In the mean time, here’s a video explaining how it all works:

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3 Responses to How can you tell when women have significant roles in movies?

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