Sara Schonfeld | Failing the Bechdel Test
The presence of women on the big screen has not progressed much in more than 60 years
February 25, 2014, 6:26 pm · Updated February 26, 2014, 10:37 am·
This weekend I went to see the new superhero blockbuster, “Robocop.” The film was everything I expected: a predictable two-hour extravaganza of violence and technology, with a slight hint of Gary Oldman (that is to say, a knock-off “The Dark Knight Rises”).
About 20 minutes into the film, I jokingly muttered to myself, “Oh, look, a female character.”
In the 1980s, a comic inspired the Bechdel test. It may have started out as a joke, but this test is at least a standard for analyzing gender inequality in films.
I’m not sure if my neighbors in the movie theater appreciated my sarcastic feminist witticisms interjected amongst the robotic carnage. But that didn’t stop me from muttering to myself through the movie.
According to the Bechdel test, a film may be considered to “pass” if it satisfies three requirements.
Number 1: The film must have two named women.
Robocop passes this requirement by having the wife and then the female bad guy, the right-hand woman of the main bad guy. I was distracted by their hair and am really bad with names.
Congratulations. This movie cost literally millions to make, so I’m glad they could afford four female characters.
Number 2: The two women must speak to each other.
Nope. None of the women even share screen time . There’s the wife, the evil side-kick, the police chief and the Gary Oldman side-kick.
They belong to the men in the narrative, and therefore have no reason to ever converse with anyone but their men.
Sadly, Robocop fails at this step. Had it passed, I’m sure it wouldn’t pass the third
Number 3: This conversation must cover something other than men.
Think of the last romcom you saw: Did the female characters ever have a conversation about the weather? About politics? Did any of the two female characters discuss work or puppies or the ideal baking temperature for chocolate-chip muffins?
Usually, no. These women sit around discussing the male lead. Now, as someone who just watched “Valentine’s Day,” I can’t really claim superiority.
This test may seem overly-simplified, but Amy Bleakley, a research scientist at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, notes that it has its uses.
“I think it’s a start,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a perfect test [but] at least it helps get this into the conversation and start the conversation” about the representation of women in films.
Sweden has even started including the Bechdel test in ratings of its films.
Bleakley also worked on a study that analyzed 855 films from the past six decades. The findings? Female on-screen presence has not significantly changed since 1950. Does this mean we’re still living in the 1950s when it comes to the silver screen?
The study showed that for every female character, there are generally two male characters.
As Bleakley noted, women’s role in society has changed immensely in half of a century - but for some reason, the film industry just hasn’t caught up to reflect these new realities, she said.
It gets worse: One of the major changes the study picked up in differences among presentation of women on screen is that they have become more sexualized. When these women are on screen, they are twice as likely to be in scenes that are sexual in nature.
Recently, Marvel’s Kevin Feige hinted that “The Avengers 2” could lay the groundwork for a solo Black Widow movie starring Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanov. This comes right after Warner Bros hinted that we could expect a Wonder Woman movie sometime soon.
Representation is important, and I refuse to believe that all women in the world only take supporting roles. Is it too much to ask for some cinematic women who kick ass?
Sara Schonfeld is a College senior from Philadelphia studying English. Email her at email@example.com or follow her @SaraSchon.