Andrew Eaton Lewis: Bechdel test and women in films

STUCK in bed with flu last week, I found myself rewatching 2001: A Space Odyssey, and being bothered by something I’d never thought much about before. Humankind sends a spaceship on a history-making mission to investigate the first sign of alien intelligence, and it chooses a crew consisting entirely of men. Well, of course it did: the film was released in 1968. Even in the more progressive world of 1997’s Contact,

Katniss Everdeen, Jennifer Lawrence, in The Hunger Games. Picture: submitted

smooth-talking chancer Tom Skerritt got picked for much the same mission over the more qualified Jodie Foster.

Still, given how many other aspects of 2001 still look decades ahead of their time, the casual sexism is as jarring as the garish 1960s armchairs on which (in one of those casting decisions that only looks weird to viewers of a certain age) Rigsby from Rising Damp is pretending to be Russian.

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Or, at least, it would be jarring if much had changed since. Last week I learned of the existence of the Bechdel test: a simple formula for determining how well women are represented in movies. Invented by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985, it’s in the news now because it’s been adopted as a classification system by some independent cinemas in Sweden.

The Bechdel test asks three questions. Are there two or more female characters with names? Do they talk to each other? And do they talk about anything other than men? The point is, this is a laughably low bar to set, and yet many famous films fail the test: all the Star Wars movies (except, gallingly, The Phantom Menace), all but one Harry Potter, all the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Back To The Future etc.

Some fails are surprising. When Harry Met Sally, written by Nora Ephron, fails because while Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal blether about everything, Ryan and Carrie Fisher only talk about men. Some films with strong female leads – Alien 3, Run Lola Run, Tomb Raider – fail because the characters are surrounded by men.

This, though, misses the point – as does much of the discussion at, which tends to get bogged down in technicalities such as whether World War Z passes or not, since a key conversation is between two small children. Bechdel is clearly not the be all and end all. The macho Die Hard passes, for example.

But it does illustrate an uncomfortable truth. At there’s a link to a fascinating article by Jennifer Kesler, who says that as a screenwriting student at UCLA, she was actively discouraged by her supposedly liberal tutors from writing anything Bechdel-approved because she would “lose the audience”.

The argument is that, while women will happily go to films about men, men aren’t interested in films about women. This idea is stubbornly resilient. Even after a Bechdel-friendly film such as Bridesmaids is a huge hit, subsequent cash-ins (The Heat, Girl Most Likely) are still vastly outnumbered by more laddish comedies. Even the iconic female action heroes that Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton played in the Alien and Terminator films have had limited impact (maybe, Hollywood figured, it was the male cyborgs and soldiers audiences really liked). So, it seems, have the efforts of more enlightened Hollywood men such as James Cameron and Joss Whedon (whose storming speech at an Equality Now event last week is online and worth watching). Both men routinely find themselves asked why they write strong roles for women, when the question should really be: “Why doesn’t everyone else?” One study quoted last week showed that, in the top 100 US films in 2011, only 11 per cent of protagonists were women – in nine films out of ten, women are confined to minor supporting roles.

Can the Bechdel test change this? Not if it’s only used by a few Swedish arthouses. And not, as happened last week, if people miss the point and whine about “political correctness” or pick faults with the test.

But it’s a step. Next weekend, Scandinavian cable channel Viasat Film will devote a whole day to Bechdel-approved films such as The Hunger Games – a film that exists, in large part, because Twilight demonstrated that a story centred around a teenage girl could be not just a global hit but a franchise. Hollywood, institutionally sexist as it is, always follows the money. n