The Bechdel Test was created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which ran from 1983 to 2008 (the comic strip called it “the Rule”). It poses three questions to evaluate female representation in a book, movie, TV show, or any other medium that tells a story with gendered characters.
The questions are:
1. Are there more than one named female characters?
2. Do these characters speak to each other?
3. Do they speak to each other about anything other than a man?
These simple questions measure the value of female characters in popular media at an extremely basic level. It’s a starting point to test which stories depict girls and women as complex characters with thoughts and emotions, and as humans who have purpose beyond pleasing men.
The majority of Hollywood films, including many that are considered absolute classics of cinema, utterly fail.
Take the last three films to win Best Picture, for instance: Last year’s winner “Spotlight,” fails the test (Rachel McAdams is the lone heroine). “Birdman,” from 2015, passes with a D grade at best (a conversation between Naomi Watts’ and Andrea Riseborough’s characters is based on how Michael Keaton’s character treats them) and “12 Years A Slave,” from 2014, only passes if you count Sarah Paulson’s character abusing Lupita Nyong’o’s character.
So what is the outlook for 2017? Here’s a list of the Best Picture nominees and their Bechdel Test grades.
Written by Eric Heisserer and Ted Chiang. Directed by Dennis Villenueve.
Amy Adams stars as linguistics professor Louise Banks. Jadyn Malone, Abigail Pniowsky, and Julia Scarlett Dan play her daughter, Hannah, at different ages. They speak to each other about Hannah’s name and she plays a huge role in the movie’s twist.
Bonus points for featuring a female scientist running the show.
Written by August Wilson. Directed by Denzel Washington.
Viola Davis stars as Rose Maxson. Saniyya Sidney plays Raynell. The two have a conversation (and eventually an argument) about Raynell’s dress shoes.
It’s not much, but it’s enough. Pass on all three criteria.
'Hacksaw Ridge': Fail
Written by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight. Directed by Mel Gibson.
“Hacksaw Ridge” passes part one: Rachel Griffiths plays Bertha Doss and Teresa Palmer plays Dorothy Schutte. But since the two don’t speak or interact with each other the film falls short of parts two and three.
Most World War II dramas focus on the struggle of men in combat. “Hacksaw Ridge” is no different. The movie is reputed for its battle scenes, but it’s not going to win any awards for gender equality.
'Hell or High Water': Fail
Written by Tayler Sheridan. Directed by David Mackenzie.
“Hell or High Water” is the same as “Hacksaw Ridge.” Dale Dickey plays the character Elsie and Katy Mixon plays Jenny Ann. Kristin Berg and Amber Midthunder play nameless bank tellers.
Two named female characters technically pass the first question, but the characters are more in the background. The film is unquestionably a male-driven story between Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers/bank robbers against the cops (who are all men).
One-out-of-three (and the one is iffy).
'Hidden Figures': Pass
Written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi. Directed by Theodore Melfi.
Taraji P. Henson stars as Katherine G. Johnson, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer stars as Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monáe stars as Mary Jackson. Kirsten Dunst also plays Vivian Mitchell (that’s four!).
And they work for NASA. And they talk to each other about things like mathematics, engineering, and race relations throughout the entire movie.
Check, check, and check.
'La La Land': Pass
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle.
“La La Land” easily passes the two female characters with names requirement. Emma Stone, in the leading role of Mia, speaks with her roommates Tracy (Callie Hernandez), Alexis (Jessica Rothe), and Caitlin (Sonoya Mizuno) about numerous topics besides men, like parties and potential acting roles. She also has a conversation with casting director Amy Bradnt, played by Valarie Rae Miller, about a role.
The film’s already won 153 awards and is nominated for 14 Oscars. Here’s one more accolade: it passes the Bechdel Test.
Written by Saroo Brierley and Luke Davies. Directed by Garth Davis.
There are plenty of female characters in this film: Priyanka Bose as Kamla, Rooney Mara as Lucy, Nicole Kidman as Sue, and Tannishtha Chatterjee as Noor, Rohini Kargayia as Shekila, and Deepti Naval as Mrs. Sood.
Early on in the movie, Kamla tells Shekila she has to go to work, though Shekila doesn’t respond. Later, Lucy explains to her female professor why she wants to study hotel management. Like “Fences,” it’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s technically enough.
'Manchester by the Sea': Fail
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
The film has plenty of prominent actresses playing named female characters (Michelle Williams as Randi Chandler, Gretchen Mol as Elise Chandler) but the only conversation between two women in the film occurs between Anna Baryshnikov as Sandy and Heather Burns as Jill. The interaction is centered on Casey Affleck’s character Lee Chandler.
Two-out-of-three ain’t bad, but this isn’t a Meatloaf song. “Manchester by the Sea” falls short.
Written by Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Barry Jenkins.
Janelle Monáe plays Teresa, Juan’s (Oscar nominee Mahershala Ali) girlfriend and Naomie Harris plays Paula, the main character Chiron’s (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) mother.
“Moonlight” won Best Drama at the Golden Globes and is nominated for eight Oscars. But its female characters’ very existence is based around their respective relationships with Chiron.
Of the nine best picture nominees, four fail to feature multiple female characters with names that speak to each other about anything other than a man, and two barely pass.
The Bechdel Test isn’t a measure for feminism by any stretch of the imagination; a passing grade doesn’t inherently mean the film promotes gender equality. At the same time, failing doesn’t mean the film is hateful and should be boycotted.
The purpose of the Bechdel Test is to reveal how poorly Hollywood often treats women by highlighting the disparity between gender representations. It’s a first step in championing strong female characters as a norm for popular media, and not a trademark for writers and directors like Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Avengers”) and James Cameron (“Aliens,” “Terminator 2,” “Titanic”).
A report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film concluded that in 2016, women comprised just 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers.
Of all the Best Picture nominees, none feature a female director and only “Hidden Figures” has a female writer. Though many of these movies are about women or feature women in more prominent roles, they are still told from a man’s perspective.
Kathryn Bigelow is the first, and only, woman to win Best Director for “The Hurt Locker” in 2008. Ironically enough, the film fails the Bechdel Test.