Have you heard of the Bechdel Test? by@linh

Have you heard of the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test asks 3 simple questions about a work of fiction, be it movie, cartoon, anything else: Does it have at least 2 women in it? Does these two women talk to each other other than a man? Is the first place to do with how much of a non-fiction (surprisingly) has to go with a man rather than a woman? And here comes the next part of the story: What is a little-known factoid called the BechDel Test? Out of 200+ responses, all of which were **from a female**, over 79% of people did not know what it was.
Linh Dao Smooke HackerNoon profile picture

Linh Dao Smooke

Hacker Noon Mama-in-Chief. But also like a real mom (to Norah).

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Feature Image: This is a small sample of my personal Instagram, which skews very heavily female.

In honor of International Women’s Day (2 days late, but oh well) and Women History Month, I wanna tell you a story about that time I drag my pregnant self to a 4 hour screening of the latest Batman movie and how that reminds me of a little-known factoid called the Bechdel Test.

My Unpopular Opinion regarding a beloved Franchise

At our company HackerNoon, we connect a lot via Slogging, aka, having convos ranging from the impact of social media, what happened when 2 policemen decided to chase pokemon rather than doing their job, to beautiful images of space discoveries.

So yesterday, my colleague Limarc happened to ask us to discuss the question of “Which Batman was the best Batman?” (published thread to come soon) - to which, here is my answer.

⚠️ Trigger warning: my review might will ruffle some feathers lol

I might or might not have been a little biased there.

I might or might not have been a little biased there.

Of course in the same thread with many diehard Batman fans, this opinion was very much an unpopular one. Most people seemed to love the movie, praising its “noir aesthetics” and “grounded representation” and Pattison’s portrayal of Batman “human” and “fallible”. Oops. 😬

Now, granted, you should take all my biases into account when reading my review:

  • I’m almost 30 weeks pregnant and sitting through 3+ hours in any chair is extremely uncomfortable
  • It didn’t help that my tiny fetus kept protesting via kicks (some of them do pack a punch!) every time a violent scene came about. Which, for this movie genre, is about every other scene lol
  • I knew little to nothing about Batman the superhero comic book or the franchise. I think he has a partner named Robin (btw where’s Robin in this one?), and he’s apparently rich and that’s important for some reason? (I later learned his family wealth drove a lot of the plot, which, cool.)

But, my strong gut dislike of the movie, no matter how pregnancy-induced it was, reminded me of the time I learned about a very little known factoid called The Bechdel Test. And here comes the next part of the story.

What is the Bechdel Test?

I did a little Instagram poll. Out of 200+ responses, all of which were from a female, over 79% of people did not know what it was. Not bad actually. I thought the test was more obscure than that.

Anyway, for those of you who don’t know, here’s the tl;dr:

The Bechdel Test, developed by American Cartoonist Alison Bechdel, asks 3 simple questions about a work of fiction, be it movie, cartoon, anything else:

1. Does it have at least 2 women in it (whose names we know)?,

2. Do these two women talk to each other (for longer than 60 seconds)?, and

3. Is the convo about something rather than a man?

That’s it. You’d think it’s quite simple right. I mean, women are half of this Earth population, and fiction (for the most part) has basis in reality, right? So, shouldn’t it be a no-brainer than movies should be able to pass this test with flying colors?

Well, the reality is, sadly, no - in short. The reason why Bechdel developed this test in the first place has gotta to do with how surprisingly (or non-surprisingly - depending on how much of a pessimist you are) common it is for a movie to fail this test.

In fact, let’s take a look at this chart using databases from over 7k+ movies throughout the past few decades. I assume these are all North American/Western movies.

Source: https://bechdeltest.com/

Source: https://bechdeltest.com/

You look at this chart and you might say to me one of two things.

Linh - look - the % of movies that pass the test is rising. Hooray!

To which, my answer is: but should we really rejoice? This dataset is updated until early 2015. According to data from that decade, 64% of movies pass the test. That means, out of the sample size, however they choose it, 36%, or over a third, of these randomly selected movies, did not pass the test.

Let me repeat that again: As recently as 2015, a third of movies consumed by general Western audience (let’s call them Hollywood for short) does not manage to have 2 named women who talk to each other for longer than 60 seconds (‼️) about something rather than a man!


Or you might say:

Jeeze Linh, of course a movie like the Batman, or any male superhero franchise in general, is not meant to pass the Bechdel Test duh, as it’s intended for a very specific audience.

To which I say: no Karen. I’m not even talking about the Batman, or the Fast and Furious-es of the world anymore.

I’m talking: General Audience Movies.

Enters: Movies that Fail the Bechdel Test that (might) Surprise You

You can find many lists online. Quora has a running thread. But here’s a non exhaustive list of recent blockbusters or movies I know and love, that did not pass the test. Again, to remind you, these well-funded and wonderfully-received movies did not manage to have 2 named female characters who talk for longer than 60 seconds about something rather than a man:

  • 40 year old virgin (2005)
  • Ratatouille (2007)
  • Wall-e (2008)
  • Marley and me (2008)
  • Avatar (2009)
  • I love you, man (2009)
  • The Social Network (2010)
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
  • La La Land (2016). Ouch - this one hurts.
  • And the list goes on…

Not only that, this is not even a test that’s meant to show how progressive or feministic a movie is. No, its bare minimum feature is used to measure whether or not there’s any worthwhile FEMALE representation. And I don’t think it’s too much to ask. Yes, even of superhero, super male-centric movies.

Now, back to the Batman because apparently I love to stir the pot.

Sure I can let slide the overall darkness - it was a cinematographic choice. The length - it actually indicates richness of plot and character development. I can even ignore the overplayed trouble hero arch and the unidimensionally villainous villain. After all, that’s what fans love - and who am I to judge while I’m over here drooling over Harry Potter 6 - equally dark (in lighting), equally overplayed troubled hero and villainous villain trope, and also written by a very problematic author.

What I can’t ignore in my gut, is the batman, of ALL movies, was how I spent 4 hours of March 8 (International Women’s Day), watching. It just happens to be the most popular one that’s out in our small local theater.

A movie with 1 named female character who talks for longer than 60 seconds, who is only important insofar as she is romantically involved with the main character, and who is (surprise, surprise) overly sexualized, slender, conventionally beautiful. Literally, the only scene where we saw, but not heard, her talk to another woman, was via the binocular view of Batman, and we saw her underwear too as she changed her outfit. #creepy.

So yeah, none of that was surprising to me in a movie catered to a wide audience (sex sells). It’s just way overplayed. And I’m way over it.

So what now, Linh? What’s your moral high ground here?

I honestly don’t know. And yes, I know it sounds blame-y and preachy and uncomfortable whenever I mentioned to anyone that “your fave might be problematic” even a little bit via this Bechdel test (which, btw, is a very hard to say word in person). Also, if I stopped watching all the movies that don’t represent women adequately and stopped reading all the books that are written by a bad author or stopped eating all the junk food in the world, I would: a. run out of movies and books to consume, b. starve, and c. be a dead boring person like Doug Forcett from the Good Place (which, btw, is an excellent show, you definitely should watch). Actually, Michael Schur, who created the Good Place, and whose book I’m reading right now (aptly called: How to be perfect), created the character Doug Forcett sarcastically, to make fun of people who are too (morally) perfect. People who are too perfect, are boring. They only live for what moral philosopher called “moral desert”, and not really living.

But, like, there’s gotta be a line somewhere, right?

What I do want you to get out of this little rant, is perhaps to just be mindful of the test. It might not stop you from watching/enjoying the content/movie/book in question, but it will make your perspective of the piece of work more balanced. For reference, I’m still a diehard Harry Potter fan, despite cringing every time I think of JK Rowling. You win some, you lose some.

Here’s the Bechdel test again, for ease of reference.

Here’s the Bechdel test again, for ease of reference.

My hope is the upward trend (of movies that pass the test) will continue to be up. With pressure from audience and push from US for more diverse representation in Hollywood and elsewhere, we will see the % of movies that fail the test shrink further and further. That I’m optimistic about. Honestly, producers and directors: it’s not all that hard to make sure you have 2 named women who talk to each other about literally anything in your piece of work. If you have ever met any woman, you would know this.

And who knows, maybe we can dream bigger, maybe one day, all movies would pass the test by default (because it’s not much to ask), and we actually will be enriched with movies that don’t just give women representation some chump change and call it a day, movies that actually tell important stories from a woman, and by a woman. (and maybe the US will finally have a female president and perhaps we create less wars in the world for once? But I dream. And digress).

In the meantime, I’m gonna again unapologetically swoon over the Encanto soundtracks. Which, is a great movie to watch on Woman’s Day and Women’s History Month, and any day and any month really. We need more movies with women of all colors, backgrounds, shapes and sizes, who are multidimensional with personalities and ambitions. Support move movies like that, so creators will continue telling more stories like that!

Encanto is an amazing movie everybody should watch!

Encanto is an amazing movie everybody should watch!

Thank you for reading until here, and see you next time! 👋

This story was first published on my blog here.

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