The summer blockbuster movie season is upon us and with it comes a barrage of films featuring women and girls in limited, sexualized and trivial roles. Just how abysmal is the representation of women and girls in film and television? Let me introduce you to a little something we feminists call the Bechdel test.
Bechdel is a concept that originates from a 1985 comic strip by Alison Bechdel, a queer American cartoonist. In this strip, a character mentions that she doesn’t watch films that don’t meet a basic criteria: they must have at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man (bonus points if these characters actually have names). The joke of the strip is, of course, that the character doesn’t get to watch many movies.
At first blush, this might seem like an absurd feminist litmus test for entertainment. But take a few moments to actually apply the test to a selection of your favourite movies; some of the Harry Potter films don’t pass, none of the original Star Wars films do, the Princess Bride doesn’t, and neither does When Harry Met Sally or Shrek.
The kicker is that the Bechdel test doesn’t even assess whether female characters are well developed, if they get a significant amount of screen time, or if they drive the plot, but only whether there are female characters (even minor characters) who interact (even for a few seconds) in a way that doesn’t revolve around men. That’s all.
It’s because the Bechdel test is so straightforward, so unsophisticated and sets the bar so low that it’s an illuminating tool. When you realize how few movies pass this simple test, it becomes clear the evaluation isn’t about criticizing individual movies with a rote scale, but about drawing attention to the consistently poor representation of women and girls in film.
It’s interesting (read: troubling) that so many mainstream films have such limited representation of women and girls. Imagine, for a minute, how audiences and critics would discuss a film that only had a single male character, or had two male characters who only spoke to each other about a woman. A film with such limited space for male characters would quickly be pigeon-holed as a chick-flick, as a movie with appeal that only extended to female audiences. Yet movies with hardly any representation of women and girls aren’t considered special-interest or qualified as being for a primarily male audience; they’re considered typical.
My argument isn’t, of course, that we need to be equal-opportunity in terms of labelling movies as bro-shows and chick-flicks, but that we need to question the fact that women and girls are so underrepresented in film while men and boys are so ubiquitous. We need to ask why films that focus on men and boys are considered to have general appeal, while those that focus on women and girls are thought to only appeal to female audiences. Why are men’s stories considered universal, while women and girls’ stories are thought to only be relevant to other women and girls?
These questions are worth discussing because representation is important. It’s important that we see reflections of ourselves in the media and art we consume, even when that media is summer blockbuster movies.
A few years ago, Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz spoke to a group of college students about representation. Diaz spoke of the fact that vampires are commonly depicted as not having reflections in mirrors, going on to say that “What I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
To see representations of people similar to you in films is affirming — be it people who share your gender, your race, your sexual orientation, your body type, your politics or whatever else. I’ve experienced the rush that comes with recognizing some part of your identity on screen (specifically, in university when I discovered Showcase’s queer-focused, all female-cast drama The L Word). I didn’t realize how starved I was for that reflection until I finally had a glimpse of it.
That’s why, for my own sanity, I’ll be making a point to watch films that pass the Bechdel test this summer — even if it means that I won’t have much to chose from.
Originally published in the Times and Transcript.