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The Bechdel Test is a delightful if imperfect tool used to gauge how much Hollywood actually pays attention to women, instead of treating them like second class citizens. It’s a simple formula, one that has three guiding principles. First, a movie needs to have more than one woman, because otherwise it comes across as tokenism (or Tolken-ism, as Peter Jackson fudged the text of The Hobbit to include one female character that is, nonetheless, by her lonesome). These women also have to talk to each other, which proves to be a challenge sometimes as many screenwriters are men. And third, and most importantly, these female characters need to be talking to each other about something, ANYTHING, other than a man. It’s a common screenwriting cheat to have characters exist only to circle the leading man and explain their skills and appeal. Frequently this person is a female. And frequently, it’s pretty lame. So you can see how the Bechdel Test isn’t just about feminism, but also about lazy storytelling.
The website Vocativ recently checked out the most successful movies of 2013, cherrypicking the top 50 for analysis. And, surprise, movies that pass the Bechdel Test gross much more than movies that don’t! Hooray! Hooray? In most cases, Hooray! The best example of this, noted in the piece and elsewhere, was The Heat, which featured nonstop bantering from leads Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, frequently about their jobs and almost never about men. It’s the fifteenth highest grossing film of 2013, but you don’t even have to look far to find other films passing the Bechdel standards: the top two films of the year, Iron Man 3 and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, already pass. Again, of course, it’s not a fine science: ultimately, Iron Man 3 doesn’t give Gwyneth Paltrow and Rebecca Hall THAT much to discuss, and in a circular way, all talk in an Iron Man film is about one pretty specific dude.
You’d find a more relevant example of female representation in Gravity, the year’s seventh highest-grossing film. Of course, it fails the test, given that Sandra Bullock’s besieged astronaut is the only woman in the film, and only one of two live action characters overall. Also passing the test are testosterone-heavy Fast And Furious 6 and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. It’s really not hard to pass this test, so it was something of a black eye to the industry when failure was common, but things seem to be turning around. If a movie like Man Of Steel can pass the test, anything can pass the test.
The question is: who is telling these stories? If you guessed, "Pretty much all men," place a gold star on your shiny new Trapper Keeper. Of the fifty highest grossing films of the year, only one woman could even score a co-directing credit, that being Jennifer Lee of the animated Frozen. In fact, aside from Frozen, only two wide-release movies this past year were directed by women: the remake of Carrie and the mis-marketed Black Nativity. Nothing will ever truly be equal, but that’s an obscene level of misrepresentation, particularly considering so many movies this year seemed interested in female characters. Maybe studios will see these findings, realize it pays to not ignore women, and we’ll see some ladies in more director’s chairs.