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Why The Bechdel Test Matters For Female Representation

It's no secret that women in media have faced scrutiny but have female characters faced the same?

There is no sugarcoating it; women in media and well in life, in general, are not as respected as their male counterparts. Although women make up half of moviegoers, they don't appear to be the target audience. Women in film are constantly critiqued, but female characters' characterization isn't questioned enough.

The Bechdel test was created by Allison Bechdel in a 1985 comic to critique women in films. To pass a movie or show must follow three simple rules.

  1. Have two women in it

  2. Who speak to each other

  3. About something other than a man

Over time the test has evolved to include two pivotal rules

  1. The women must be named characters

  2. The conversation must last at least sixty seconds

With such simple rules, you would think that passing would not be too tricky. However, it's more commonplace for movies to fail than pass.

Despite its simplicity, the Bechdel test exposes not just the lack of female representation but how subpar the existing representation actually is. Even when female characters are on screen, their storylines are not well developed. They are usually side characters meant to push the plot forward for the male lead, so if they do happen to talk to another woman, it's generally in his regard.

Countless studies have been done to research gender in movies, but they all resoundingly come to the same conclusions.

Men make up most of the speaking and leading roles in movies and television.

This is not surprising, considering that most directors, writers, and producers are also men.

When men exclusively pull the strings behind the scenes, the women's voice is silenced. The result is not a believable or authentic representation of womanhood; instead, it's how men see and define women. Without a clear understanding of womanhood, men write female stereotypes. Unfortunately, this means stereotypes like catty friends, sassy black women, spicy Latina, and many variations of helpless women with an attitude who can only think about a man.

Even in its faults, the Bechdel test forces conversations about women on screen that even critics don't have frequently enough. With its original three rules, the Bechdel test is far too vague, with the main critique being what constitutes a conversation. For instance, if a woman goes to a coffee shop and the cashier is a woman, is that short exchange about purchasing a coffee enough to receive a passing score? Then there is the addendum that both women be named characters. If the cashier is wearing a name tag, but the name is never said aloud, and you never see her again, does it still pass?

Another critique is that the vagueness of the rules doesn't account for other types of stereotypical conversations.

American Hustle (2013), starring Bradley Cooper, was written and directed by men. This movie passes the Bechdel test because of a thirty-second conversation about nail polish.

One of the most beloved yet stereotypical movies of all time is Mean Girls, yet it passes the Bechdel Test. Multiple backhanded conversations about clothes, weight, jewelry, body types, and vanity result in the passing score.

Just because a movie passes the Bechdel test doesn't mean it is the exception to female stereotypes. All it means is that the writers were creative enough to go past the first stereotype they could think of. However, some excellent examples of movies pass the Bechdel test in a way that steers away from the stereotypical. For instance, Frozen, Hidden Figures, and The Hunger Games all pass with flying colors. Unsurprisingly, women were involved in the writing and directing of these stories.

The Bechdel test makes it glaringly evident that changing the narrative of women in film is directly related to authentic representation behind the scenes. It may be flawed, but the Bechdel test reminds us that women need to be in the room where it happens.

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