The #MeToo movement has taken the world by storm and conversations about women’s relationship with the entertainment industry have become commonplace.
Such conversations beg the question: how can we qualify the active presence of women in film? Do the 90th Academy Awards’ Best Picture nominees include women in a meaningful way?
The Bechdel test is one of the most well-known benchmarks applied to measure or identify women’s presence and representation in film.
It originated in 1985 in cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a strip titled “The Rule,” two women discuss seeing a movie, and one woman explains that she only sees a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:
1) The movie has to have at least two women in it
2) who talk to each other
3) about something besides a man.
The other woman acknowledges that the idea is rather strict, but good. They don’t find any movies that meet their requirements, so they end up going home together.
According to Bechdel, she originally meant the test as “a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper.” However, in the 2010s, it shifted into the realm of mainstream criticism and has been described as “the standard by which feminist critics judge television, movies, books, and other media.”
Of the nine films nominated for Best Picture this year, seven of them pass the Bechdel test:
“The Post”: Yes
“Lady Bird”: Yes
“Get Out”: Yes
“Darkest Hour”: No
“The Shape of Water”: Yes
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”: Yes
“Phantom Thread”: Yes
“Call Me by Your Name”: Yes
How often do movies in general pass the Bechdel test? The test’s official user-edited database has registered 7,606 films at the moment, and 57.7 percent of those movies pass the test. Why don’t more movies pass?
“It has a lot to do with the history of storytelling in Western culture and how stories from the very beginning were about men. They were about men’s interests because it was men who were writing the stories,” said Professor Debbie Danielpour, a film and fiction writing professor in the College of Communication.
“The assumption was that in order to satisfy a male viewer, you could relate to a woman in the story being a love interest. You couldn’t relate to her being the head of the tribe, you know? And when you got into filmmaking in Hollywood—that was an all-male executive branch,” she said.
Hollywood—and the Academy in general—have faced backlash in recent years for their lack of diversity, including the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
However, a lack of diversity is not limited to race. In the 250 top-grossing films of 2017, women comprised 18 percent of all directors, executive producers, writers, editors, and cinematographers.
Nevertheless, the Bechdel test may not achieve better female representation in Hollywood if most directors and writers don’t take the test into account when they write scripts.
“When my students start doing concept development, for example, and they’re creating the premise of the story, I don’t tell them ‘think of the Bechdel test,’” said Danielpour.
“It all depends on what they’re writing about. And once they populate the cast—if it looks to me that they’re making female characters too passive, particularly for that story, I’ll ask them, ‘do you notice what you’re doing here? Do you mean to represent the women in this passive role?’ For some people, it might be more of a guide,” she said.
Although Hollywood struggles deeply with successful female representation in its films, television is a different story. “I find that TV is where it’s at now, because of streaming. There’s so much on television. There’s a lot of opportunities for women,” said Dr. Barbara Gottfried, a professor for BU’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program.
“There are a lot of shows written by women. ‘Girls’, ‘Broad City’, ‘Inside Amy Schumer’…it’s moving a lot faster than Hollywood is. There’s more creative freedom and less constraints,” Gottfried said.
Streaming continues to strain the business of the movie industry, but now and in the future, it could bring women into the the movie industry.
“Hollywood isn’t as flexible. It takes a long time and a lot of money to make a movie, whereas you could make a good streaming show for much less. And there’s a lot out there,” she said.
Featured image courtesy showbiz411.com