Why the Bechdel Test Matters

Why the Bechdel Test Matters

Representation in film is more than just a trend; it’s the new normal. With the advent of titles like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and Wonder Woman, groups previously underrepresented in film –specifically women– are finally getting an opportunity to shine. And shine they have; movies featuring diverse and female-led casts are quickly proving to be the key to box office success. According to analysis by CAA and shift7 of the top-grossing movies from 2014 to 2017, films with female leads earned more than those with male leads in all categories. That’s why, as a screenwriter, there has never been a more important time to create fully-formed and complex female characters. One way to do that is to incorporate the principles of the Bechdel Test into your work.

The Bechdel Test is a metric used to measure representation of women in film. Named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the test was created in response to the dearth of films that portrayed women as anything other than wives or girlfriends of the male lead, let alone put women in nominal roles. The Bechdel Test advocates that female characters not be reduced only to serving as props for male-driven storylines. According to NPR’s Neda Ulaby, it’s “not [just] the number of women we see on screen, but the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns.”

The Bechdel Test requires more than simply having an equal number of male and female characters.

Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians

The rules of the Bechdel Test are distinct; in order to pass, the film must have (1) at least two women in it (2) who talk to each other (3) about something other than a man. By these standards, passing the test seems fairly simple. For example, a female character ordering from a female barista at a coffee shop would minimally clear the Bechdel bar if the pair engage in a quick conversation. Over the years, representation advocates have suggested addendums to the test, including requiring the two women in question to be named characters, or that their conversation last for a pre-specified length of time. Additional guidelines such as these would encourage filmmakers to create a greater number of complex roles for women. But, for now, the tenets of the Bechdel Test remain the three original, seemingly easy-to-follow rules.

And yet, many films of the past few years fail to live up to these minimal standards. Popular blockbusters like Baby Driver, American Made, and Solo: A Star Wars Story do not pass the Bechdel Test; while each features at least two female characters, these characters either fail to have conversations with each other at all, or those conversations revolve around the leading male characters. Even animated children’s content falls short; The Boss Baby and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie struck out in regards to the Bechdel Test.

However, while the Bechdel Test has the best intentions, its rating system does sometimes miss the mark. For example, 2018’s near-silent horror, “A Quiet Place,” was given a failing score on the test’s online rating database. But while the film’s two leading female characters, a mother and daughter, don’t technically speak, they do communicate via sign language, as the younger character is deaf. In this case, the Bechdel Test gets it wrong; if anything, the film should be praised for its portrayal of strong female protagonists, and for its representation of characters with disabilities. Similarly, Academy Award winning Gravity fails the Bechdel Test, as there’s only one female character in the film. But that character, played by Sandra Bullock is not only the titular protagonist of the movie, but she’s only one of two characters in the entire film.

But the Bechdel Test only goes so far in terms of equal representation.

Emily Blunt and Millicent Simmonds in A Quiet Place

Because of these inconsistencies, a new metric to measure female representation in film has been gaining prominence in the past few years. The Mako Mori Test, named after the character from 2013’s action-packed Pacific Rim, dictates that, in order to pass, a film must feature (1) at least one female character who (2) gets her own narrative that (3) is not supporting a male character’s storyline. Thus, while films like A Quiet Place, Gravity, and Pacific Rim failed to pass the Bechdel Test, they would pass the Mako Mori Test.

Neither the Bechdel Test nor the Mako Mori Tests are meant to be oppositional; they are both much-needed frameworks through which Hollywood can survey female representation in film. Screenwriters should use these tests and their rules as more of a roadmap than a checklist. Are there female characters in your story, and do they serve a specific purpose? Or, are they just fulfilling the wife or girlfriend trope? Are the women interacting with each other and talking about things other than the men in their lives? Asking yourself these questions as you’re crafting your story could be the difference between creating a rich narrative with realistically complex female characters or a stereotypical depiction of women that strays from what’s being sought after in the current market.