At least two female characters. That talk to each other. About something other than a man. It’s not that much to ask — is it?
That’s the premise of the Bechdel test. A useful measure of the representation of women in media, it is credited to the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, in whose 1985 comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" it first appeared. “I have this rule, see… I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man,” says Mo, a lesbian heroine of the comic.
After gaining popularity for its simplicity, the critique was applied to what was the very male-dominated film industry of the 1980s and has been used as a litmus test of gender equality in the film industry ever since.
Some would say that both films and gender equality have come a long way since the 80s. In the past 40 years, the first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, was appointed to the US Supreme Court; Sally Ride became the first American woman in space; the Guerilla Girls took the cause to the Met; Junko Tabei climbed the Seven Summits; the Take Back the Night Foundation came to life; Rwanda became the first country with a majority-female legislature; the ban against Saudi Arabian women driving was lifted; #MeToo happened, Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize; and the first-ever woman won the Oscar for Best Director.
Even before COVID-19 hit, while strides were certainly being made, gender inequality was rife. But the pandemic set gender equality back by “a generation.” Across almost every metric, women have fared worse during the pandemic — women have lost jobs at a higher rate, faced greater barriers to accessing assistance, and have faced increased gender-based violence (GBV). Now, an estimated $400 million is needed to address girls’ poverty and reach millions of young women in immediate need. Join us in urging world leaders to invest in empowering girls now here.
The world of film reflects this inequality back at us, with many films still failing to meet the Bechdel standard (just under half of all films according to the user-edited database).
At first glance, romantic comedy is not a genre that seems like it would fit the Bechdel bill. But a number of romcoms do meet the criteria. From closeted lesbians to aspiring playwrights and mothers to besties, three-dimensional female characters do exist and have meaningful exchanges with their equally distinct and believable female peers.
Here are 11 romantic comedies from around the world that pass the Bechdel test.
1. ‘Happiest Season’ (US, 2020)
Kicking things off is Happiest Season, a film from the massively undersung sub-genre of lesbian romcom (there are painfully few of them).
Written and directed by Clea DuVall, it stars Kristen Stewart (Abby) and Mackenzie Davis (Harper) as the leading lady-lovers. Harper takes Abby home to meet her conservative family at Christmas but reveals to Abby on their way there that she hasn’t yet come out to her relatives. Harper asks Abby to pretend to be her straight “brave orphan friend,” to which Abby reluctantly agrees.
The achingly relatable closeted girlfiend experience is scored by queer pop Christmas tunes from the likes of Sia and sister act Tegan and Sara.
2. ‘Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging’ (UK, 2008)
Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging follows Georgia and her friends, Jas, Ellen, and Rosie as they navigate teenage life on England’s southeast coast. Yes, “boy problems” are discussed. But the film is also a field guide to the peculiar inner workings of a tween girl's mind.
3. ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ (US, 2018)
With the dazzling backdrop of Singapore’s 1%, Crazy Rich Asians dives into what family and tradition really mean, and how (no spoilers) love conquers all.
The movie, which topped the box office in its first weekend, has been celebrated for its three-dimensional characters, offering meaty roles to Asian and Asian-American actors who remain underrepresented in Hollywood. In fact, they made up just 4.5% of leads or co-leads among the top 10 grossing US films from 2010 to 2019.
4. ‘Happiness Is a Four-Letter Word’ (South Africa, 2016)
Based on the novel of the same name by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, Happiness Is a Four-Letter Word is a heart-warming romantic drama that tells the story of three female friends — a glamorous trophy housewife, a lawyer, and an art gallery owner — trying to find happiness in South Africa.
With its glorious thematic treatment of sisterhood and friendship, the film was a box office hit in its home country and Netflix has even announced a sequel is on the horizon.
5. ‘How to Be Single’ (US, 2016)
Based on the best-selling novel about modern dating and relationships by Liz Tuccillo, How to Be Single gives a 101 on how to have fun as a single woman living in the big apple.
At the start, Alice (Dakota Johnson), staring into the abyss of a lifetime of monogamy, suggests to her longtime boyfriend Josh that they should see what it’s like to date other people. She then moves to New York to work as a paralegal and meets Robin (Rebel Wilson), who is confident and promiscuous in equal measure. Robin takes Alice under wing to teach her how to be single and hilarity ensues.
6. ‘Amélie’ (France, 2001)
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s magical romantic comedy shot French actor, Audrey Tautou, into the stratosphere with its unique plotline and distinctive visual world which influenced over a decade’s worth of directors.
Amélie is the definition of quirky and anything but a hollow character. She grew up with a “suicidal fish” that leapt out of its bowl. She allows her father to live his dreams of world travel vicariously by stealing his garden gnome and sending back Polaroids of the ornament at various tourist landmarks. She gets a key to the nasty grocer’s flat and switches his toothpaste with foot cream. And, of course, she falls in love with an equally eccentric character.
Although Amélie passes the Bechdel test by a hair, owing to a few brief dialogues with other named women, we can’t help but wonder how the film could have been improved if Amélie had had a close female friend.
7. ‘The Half of It’ (US, 2020)
Ellie Chu is a timid, straight-A Chinese-American student who has a side hustle writing other students’ school papers — a gig that lands her writing a love letter for the highschool jock, Paul (Daniel Diemer) to his secret crush, Aster (Alexxis Lemire). An epistolary romance ensues between Aster and Ellie through the vessel of the romantically inept, Paul.
This makes it a contemporary, queer take on the French play, Cyrano de Bergerac.
The film knowingly nods to the traditional emptiness of female characters when Ellie asks Paul what he likes about Aster. “She’s pretty and she’s smart,” he answers.
Indeed, Aster is the most underwritten character of the film and so although the film passes the Bechdel, it does so only by the skin of its teeth.
8. ‘Sounds Like Love’ (Spain, 2021)
Fashion assistant Maca has just about picked up the pieces of her life after a car crash of a breakup, when the man who ripped her heart to shreds reappears (isn’t that always the way?).
Directed by Juana Macías, Sounds Like Love is a Fleabag-esque Spanish romcom in which Maca’s character is explored through her frequent asides to the camera. The fact that she also has two fabulous best friends whose eccentricities and dry wit are some of the best parts of the film, makes sure this one passes the test.
9. ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’ (India, 2015)
Angry Indian Goddesses follows a group of seven women: Frieda, a photographer, invites her college friends over to her family home in Goa. The eclectic group of mates all have different personalities, jobs, and interests — hurrah!
This Bollywood banger takes a deep look at what fighting against gender inequality looks like in their respective worlds from the macho male-dominated film industry to the misogyny of the boardroom.
10. ‘The Incredible Jessica James’ (US, 2017)
With female empowerment at its heart, The Incredible Jessica James features conversations about vibrators, sexuality, the patriarchal paradigm, and more, between aspiring playwright and newly single Jessica James and her best friend Tasha.
Starting at the end of a relationship rather than its inception, the Sundance hit refreshingly avoids the mundanity of your average romcom. Spoiler: The movie also ends with Jessica choosing her friends over a man as she heads to London for new opportunities.
11. ‘Fifty’ (Nigeria, 2015)
Fifty is a Bechdel triumph not only because it delves into the lives, work, and romance of four strong women but also because those women are approaching their 50s — a time of women’s lives that almost never gets a look in in film.
Living in Lagos, Tolu, Maria, Kate, and Elizabeth each live layered lives. Tolu is a reality TV star with a marriage in tatters; Maria is having an affair with a married man which leads to an unwanted pregnancy; Kate suffers from a life-threatening illness; and Elizabeth is an obstetrician with a penchant for toyboys.
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