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Visualizing the Bechdel test.
July 10, 2013 2:37 PM   Subscribe

Visualizing the Bechdel test. Datawankery and female representation in film.
posted by shakespeherian (82 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
These are great graphs. Honestly, I'm surprised there are so many films passing the test, I would assume a ~90% failure rate for current films but it looks like I'm way off on that internal estimation.
posted by mathowie at 2:46 PM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ahhhh, nerds. Gotta love it.

I'm surprised that horror as a genre did so well, but it's not so surprising that westerns are the worst. Go Pedro Almodovar! And what's up with Austria?

Finally I am SHOCKED that movies with women producers, writers and directors are more likely to pass.
posted by medusa at 2:50 PM on July 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


Horror as the 2nd-best genre for the Bechdel Test surprised me, too, but then I realized the genre's sexism works in its favor in this one case. It's always young, nubile women getting killed off one by one, and so their conversations aren't about men but rather whatever's hunting them, warnings, escape plans, general panic, etc.
posted by frogstar42 at 2:59 PM on July 10, 2013 [15 favorites]


And what's up with Austria?

And what's up with Czech Republic?

Why two neighbouring cultures ended up on opposite ends of that scale?
posted by hat_eater at 3:00 PM on July 10, 2013


This is some great work. I like the simplicity of the Bechdel test however I do think a gender test for film more in line with what art historian John Berger said about western culture, i.e. that "a man's presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you and for you. By contrast a woman's presence ... defines what can and cannot be done to her" would have a higher validity and provide supportive insight.
posted by Jernau at 3:00 PM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I did a less sophisticated "Bechdel" analysis on movies I watched from 2007-2009. My summary data is below. Sorry it's messy. Anyway, I gave up because it was too tedious to record the level of detail I wanted and make judgment calls.
# of Movies: 57

Less than 2 women PLUS: # of movies 1 movie out of:
Speak only about male 19 3.00
Only has domestic role 9 6.33
Only plays object of desire/lust 11 5.18
One-dimensional or stereotype 12 4.75

Movies with 0 points* 8 7.13

*0 pts meant it had no violations of the rules above
Mostly I did this to win an IM argument with Sasshat.
posted by mullacc at 3:02 PM on July 10, 2013


Honestly, I'm surprised there are so many films passing the test, I would assume a ~90% failure rate for current films but it looks like I'm way off on that internal estimation.

Keep in mind that, by most reckoning, all that is required for a film to pass the Bechdel test is any conversation between two women that isn't specifically about a man. As an example: No Country For Old Men passes based on the scant sentences between Carla Jean and her mother on the way to the bus station: they talk obliquely about Llewellyn, and Carla Jean asks if mother packed her medication.

That's it. That's all it takes to pass the Bechdel test.

And by that measure, it's not just surprising that more movies don't pass; it's appalling. Overall, movies present a weirdly skewed view of the world in which women simply never open their mouths except to talk about men.
posted by Elsa at 3:04 PM on July 10, 2013 [33 favorites]


Below the result, I added a violin plot on each axis...

For reasons that have nothing to do with the successful communication of information, I would have gone with box-and-whiskers for this one.

At least for the vertical axis.
posted by gurple at 3:05 PM on July 10, 2013


I was just about to post this. Interesting stuff.
posted by brundlefly at 3:15 PM on July 10, 2013


I would've thought Tarantino would be higher. I guess my memories of the interminable talking scenes in Death Proof got scattered around the rest of them.
posted by echo target at 3:28 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have given the Bechdel Test entirely too much thought lately with regards to my own writing.

So, urban fantasy with a strong dose of erotica, primary POV protagonist is male, other two primary protagonists are women, lots of other (named!) women in the cast. Over the course of this story and in reference to the Bechdel Test:

*Two women talk about their finances as they arrive at a costume party. The conversation never mentions a man, though they've been hired to help with security at a guy's house and that's part of why they talk about money. Plus, their conversation eventually ends with them looking for a particular guy at said party. Pass/fail?

*Three women talk about Big Picture stuff (zomg, magic is real, those were monsters, blah blah blah). There's a guy in the room, but he doesn't speak. Eventually, with that conversation done, one of the women goes over to talk to him. Pass/fail?

*Lady demon and lady werewolf sit in Starbucks and talk about the nature of the universe. (Demon is there to say to werewolf lady, "No, really, you're going to hell, for really reals, so go ahead and keep pissing me off.") There's a guy at the table. He takes very little part in the conversation, but he's there. Pass/fail?

*One woman tries to hire two other women onto her monster-hunting team. No man is referenced in the conversation. Contextually, they wouldn't ever have met had it not been for the central male protagonist (but the hiring agent here couldn't give a damn about him at this point), and getting hired on would inevitably lead to working with men, but again, it's not mentioned. Pass/fail?

*Named little girl asks named woman to help get her cat out of a tree. Said cat happens to be male. Pass/fail?

I didn't set out with the Bechdel Test in mind. I realize that the Bechdel Test is an absolute low standard of measure, and that fiction should be well past it by now... but yeah, now that I'm at the final editing/revising stages, I'm stuck chewing on it. I can't tell if my book passes or fails that test because there are always details and there's always context to everything.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 3:30 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I can't tell if my book passes or fails that test because there are always details and there's always context to everything.

All of those are passes to the point where I can't tell if you're being sarcastic or not.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:32 PM on July 10, 2013 [10 favorites]


scaryblackdeath, you're totally overthinking it. Head over to bechdeltest.com to see exactly how lenient the test really is.
posted by Jpfed at 3:36 PM on July 10, 2013


All of those are passes to the point where I can't tell if you're being sarcastic or not.

I am not at all being sarcastic. I chew on this stuff a lot. I am well aware that I am writing "erotica" with a guy's perspective, and I don't think that's inherently bad. However, I care a lot about gender equality. I'm not out to write the Great Feminist Smut Novel, but it means a lot to me to at least not add to the problems we see in fiction today.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 3:37 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Jpfed, not everyone is lenient about it. :)
posted by scaryblackdeath at 3:37 PM on July 10, 2013


I'm kind of surprised that Woody Allen, Lars von Trier, and Kevin Smith, of all people, do so relatively well on the test.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:40 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


And by "appalling," I really mean... well, weird.

Movies present this eerie, uncanny world in which women's lives revolve around men so completely that we rarely speak unless it is to or about a man. Even in many movies that pass the Bechdel test, women only occasionally --- maybe only once! --- say anything to each other that isn't explicitly about men.
posted by Elsa at 3:43 PM on July 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


I would've thought Tarantino would be higher.

Reservoir Dogs.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:57 PM on July 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


I am not at all being sarcastic.

The Bechdel Test is a blunt instrument. It's not a good yardstick to use to measure whether or not your female characters are well-rounded, have agency, whether you're using sexist tropes or problematic stereotypes. It's not at all the last word on anything - it's a starting point, that's all. Framing your analysis of your work in terms of the Bechdel Test is more likely to get you into trouble than out of it.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:58 PM on July 10, 2013 [16 favorites]


and Kevin Smith, of all people

That seems to be more an individual's perception then. The rules are:
For a movie to pass the test, it must meet the following prerequisites:

1. It has to have at least two women in it,
2. who talk to each other,
3. about something besides a man.
Almost all of Kevin Smith's pass this test. It's not a particularly stringent test (to be sure) but I don't think that's surprising at all. He loves to write people talking at people.
posted by grubi at 3:58 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Movies present this eerie, uncanny world in which women's lives revolve around men so completely that we rarely speak unless it is to or about a man.

Or they ignore women altogether.
posted by grubi at 3:59 PM on July 10, 2013


Framing your analysis of your work in terms of the Bechdel Test is more likely to get you into trouble than out of it.

Good point. As much as I like that one of my favorite directors has done well in terms of this particular test, I'd hardly say he's excelled in his portrayal of female characters (he's better than many, but there's still too much room for improvement).
posted by grubi at 4:00 PM on July 10, 2013


I'm trying to think of any movies that could represent the opposite (for the sake of an example), where the few male characters only talk about female characters, and are barely characters of their own.
posted by Joh at 4:08 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm trying to think of any movies that could represent the opposite (for the sake of an example), where the few male characters only talk about female characters, and are barely characters of their own.


Juno is the only one I can think of; I actually noticed this feature of it during my initial review, and rewatched it just to see if it fit. The male characters are decently defined, but they never talk to one another.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 4:15 PM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I do think a gender test for film more in line with what art historian John Berger said

I'm sure there are other approaches that could provide a critical perspective, but I don't think that's what the Bechdel test (which was, after all, in its genesis merely a tongue-biting bit of crackling cynicism, and not a formal analysis) is driving at, particularly. I mean, critically, I can imagine a feminist film that consists wholly of male actors, successfully and brilliantly deconstructs modern gender tropes, and wins numerous awards and accolades while still utterly failing the Bechdel test. And I think the inverse is more true, in that there are probably many existing films, in this database even, that pass the test but are anti-feminist, anti-woman, and supportive of gendered patriarchal society.

grubi, I was and wasn't surprised to see James Cameron up there with Nora Ephron -- he does like his woman characters, and after all one of his more iconic (Sarah Connor) is a woman as is one he picked up from someone else (Ripley) -- but one of my favorite of his films, The Abyss, only nominally passes the test. By contrast, the Coen Brothers only seem to pass the test half the time, and they have great characters in their films like Marge Gunderson on their resume. But you have to think to remember which of their women characters weren't played by Joel's spouse Frances McDormand....

And I think that points to a subtler issue that the Bechdel test illuminates, which is that when you have a cast of several men and one (significant) woman, the men get to be characters, while the woman is often forced into archetypal or universal portrayals.
posted by dhartung at 4:16 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


And I think that points to a subtler issue that the Bechdel test illuminates, which is that when you have a cast of several men and one (significant) woman, the men get to be characters, while the woman is often forced into archetypal or universal portrayals.

Indeed. This happens even in movies where the main character is female.
posted by grubi at 4:19 PM on July 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'm trying to think of any movies that could represent the opposite (for the sake of an example), where the few male characters only talk about female characters, and are barely characters of their own.

This --- or at least, the second part --- was one of Roger Ebert's complaint about Julie and Julia: "Both husbands are, frankly, a little boring: They’ve been assigned their supporting roles in their marriages and are reluctant to question the singlemindedness of their wives." I was irritated and a little unbelieving over that criticism. OF COURSE the husbands are supporting roles: the movie isn't called Julie and Eric and Julia and Paul, and the male roles were at least as fleshed out as most of the supporting-role wives and girlfriends I've sat through in mainstream movies of every genre.

I was a little tickled by how Bridesmaids treated the various husbands and boyfriends of the bridesmaids: if they weren't important to the plot (as Kristen Wiig's love interests were), they just appeared at the periphery of the film, sometimes barely acknowledged... just the way female characters are often just there at the edges, ornamenting the men's lives.
posted by Elsa at 4:20 PM on July 10, 2013 [11 favorites]


I'm now mildly curious if anyone has ever tried a reverse Bechdel test, where movies fail if the conversations between men are only about women. (I imagine the number would be vanishingly small and maybe even zero, which is pretty amazing.)
posted by maxwelton at 4:24 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


This page demonstrates conclusively that Michael Bay is a better director than Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Stephen Spielberg, and the Coen Brothers. It's counter-intuitive, but you can't argue with science.
posted by straight at 4:39 PM on July 10, 2013


I would've thought Tarantino would be higher.

> Reservoir Dogs.


And Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, I think. (If I remember correctly, the only conversation "between" women in IB is Shoshanna talking to Landa through an interpreter, just as in Django, Candy's sister speaks to Broomhilda only to direct her to speak German or otherwise make herself available to their guest.) I think of Tarantino as a director who portrays female characters as active possessors of their own agency and drivers of their own stories, but these two recent films keep the female characters tidily separated.
posted by Elsa at 4:40 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Two women walk into a bar and talk about the Bechdel Test...

(shamelessly stolen joke)
posted by lbebber at 4:56 PM on July 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


The Devil Wears Prada fails the reverse Bechdel test.
posted by autopilot at 5:01 PM on July 10, 2013


By contrast, the Coen Brothers only seem to pass the test half the time, and they have great characters in their films like Marge Gunderson on their resume.

Marge is such a great character, so clearly defined and rounded and active! But I'm not sure even Fargo passes the Bechdel test: does Marge ever have a conversation with another woman that's not about a man?

Marge speaks to the two young sex workers, but of course they're talking almost entirely about the (male) suspects Marge is pursuing. I think she asks the girls where they're from, and I suppose that pleasantry does just barely pass the test.

Marge also talks to her (unseen) friend Valerie while she's in the Twin Cities, and during a brief aside, Marge mentions she's leaving town, but they immediately switch back to talking about Mike Yanagita: "But you think he's all right?" Marge asks, and the pronoun "he" rather than Mike's name indicates that they were already talking about him before the scene begins.

Again, those two sentences ("Oh, Valerie, I'm leaving this morning back up to Brainerd. I guess I won't see ya") do mean the movie passes the Bechdel test, just like the Coen Bros. True Grit passes on the few sentences between Maddie and her landlady in which they negotiate the price of her room.

The merest crumb of independent female dialogue --- not independent existence, not even independent planning, just the occasional aside between two women not discussing a man for a sentence or two --- allows a movie to pass the Bechdel test, and still most of them don't.
posted by Elsa at 5:07 PM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


The thing to remember is that the Bechdel Test is just an indicator. It's an idea that attempts to illustrate how many movies (or other media) are male-centric, dominated by male characters, in stories that revolve around a male protagonist, or where men are in control of their own destiny. Meanwhile, women play secondary roles in these stories and exist to support the male in his endeavors, or are the objects to be defended, rescued, or won.

It's like the starting point towards a greater discussion of gender portrayals in popular culture. It's not the be-all-end-all that determines whether or not a movie is sexist or misogynistic, and it doesn't mean that a movie that fails the test is suddenly a terrible movie.
posted by CancerMan at 5:22 PM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Of course it doesn't mean that a movie that fails the Bechdel test is a terrible movie, just as it in no way indicates either the quality or the feminism of a movie that succeeds.

But the ease with which a movie can pass, often on just a sentence or two as I've indicated in my examples above --- and the frequency with which most films still fail to do so --- is an indicator of how female agency, activity, and independence is erased from film in general.
posted by Elsa at 5:28 PM on July 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


> does Marge ever have a conversation with another woman that's not about a man?

Kinda? She questions the two girls who slept with Buscemi and Storemare, but in the context of investigating a crime. ("Yah!") She doesn't know who the men are at that point.

More surprisingly, I realized Fargo is the only Coen flick with a sole female protagonist -- and even then she has less screen time than William H. Macy. I suppose a woman instigates the action in Raising Arizona, but that's more of a Nic Cage vehicle. Everything else: dudes. That's weirdly disappointing.

OTOH, how does Kevin Smith rate so high? Chasing Amy and Dogma, I can think of specific scenes, but everything else, I dunno.
posted by frogstar42 at 6:25 PM on July 10, 2013


The Bechdel Test is the lowest possible bar. Trying to JUST pass the Bechdel Test is like trying to not score a zero out of 100 on any other test.
posted by Freen at 6:27 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Bechdel Test is the lowest possible bar. Trying to JUST pass the Bechdel Test is like trying to not score a zero out of 100 on any other test.

Yeah, passing the Bechdel Test really should be the equivalent of remembering to put your name at the top of the quiz.
posted by skycrashesdown at 6:30 PM on July 10, 2013 [13 favorites]


I went to an all girl's school for years, so I was always confused when guys from our brother school would say things like "I bet you just talk about your boyfriends all day" or "What DO you even talk about on the phone for hours?" Because, obviously, two girls, what would we possibly discuss besides crushes?
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:03 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Marge speaks to the two young sex workers, but of course they're talking almost entirely about the (male) suspects Marge is pursuing. I think she asks the girls where they're from, and I suppose that pleasantry does just barely pass the test.

I guess the original context (the comic this test comes from) doesn't specify, but I always thought that the "about a man" criterion was from a romantic standpoint. That is, a movie would fail if the female characters only talk about a man in a romantic sense (e.g., "He's so handsome" or "I wish he'd ask me out"). Talking "about a man" in the context of doing a job (pursuing a suspect, in the case of Marge) wouldn't be a failure.

I can see an argument for either interpretation, but I kind of feel that the interpretation I'm quoting above (that the test is failed because the objects of the conversation happen to be male) would automatically rule out any film about a woman in a not-traditionally-female line of work.
posted by hartez at 7:58 PM on July 10, 2013


More surprisingly, I realized Fargo is the only Coen flick with a sole female protagonist

I had to think about it cause I haven't seen Blood Simple in a long time but I guess you're right.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:02 PM on July 10, 2013


Indeed. This happens even in movies where the main character is female.

TV shows too, of course. I think of stuff like Weeds where it started out as an intriguing, gender-balanced community and literally ends with this shot of the main cast: your strong female main character and the swarm of men who make up her entire remaining circle. Also my recollection of Spin City is that after Heather Locklear joined the cast, all the other women--three or four of them?--very quickly disappeared.
posted by psoas at 8:09 PM on July 10, 2013


Hartez, I don't follow? Men, in just about any line of work are allowed to have a social life beyond the office, why wouldn't women? Even if that's too much of a stretch, why couldn't you have two female co-workers talking about a project? Just because a woman works in a non traditionally female field, that shouldn't make her a unicorn.
posted by peppermind at 8:11 PM on July 10, 2013


That is, a movie would fail if the female characters only talk about a man in a romantic sense (e.g., "He's so handsome" or "I wish he'd ask me out").

That's a common misunderstanding of the Bechdel test, so I understand why you thought that. But no, the parameters of the test are clear:

1. Two female characters

2. who speak to each other

3. about anything other than a man.

It doesn't, as you seem to think, mean that the female character must never talk about men, only that they must at some point talk about something other than men. At least, that's what I think you mean by "I kind of feel that the interpretation I'm quoting above (that the test is failed because the objects of the conversation happen to be male) would automatically rule out any film about a woman in a not-traditionally-female line of work."

The test doesn't specify that the not-about-a-man is limited to romantic or sexual interest. That's because the oft-supposed preoccupation of women with romance isn't the point; the point is that the over-arching plots of most films are structured almost without exception around men, pushing women to the sidelines to such absurd degrees that female characters almost never speak unless it is either to or about a man.

Men are usually tacitly presented as the center of the plot --- so much so that any female characters almost inevitably end up talking either to or about men.

To use your own words, if "the objects of the conversation happen to be male" every time two female characters are talking, then that narrative is silently positioning men at the center of the world, and also positioning the female characters so that all their action and conversation revolves around those male characters.
posted by Elsa at 8:30 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I guess the original context (the comic this test comes from) doesn't specify, but I always thought that the "about a man" criterion was from a romantic standpoint.

It doesn't specify that this has to be "about a man about love" because it doesn't have to be about that. They need to speak about something that isn't a man at all. Food, or work, or the weather, or how to obtain the unobtainium or whatever.

I can't tell if my book passes or fails that test because there are always details and there's always context to everything.


Without any more context than the minor description of a few conversations, if in the entire book there are 5 conversations between women that aren't about men and this is not approximately gender-balanced (on multiple axes), then there's probably an issue somewhere. If it is balanced -- you can't find many conversations between men not about women, you can find lots of conversations between men about women and between women about men -- then you're fine. We're talking about rough equivalences, not exact parity.
posted by jeather at 8:38 PM on July 10, 2013


First, I'm going to repeat this: To use your own words, if "the objects of the conversation happen to be male" every time two female characters are talking, then that narrative is silently positioning men at the center of the world, and also positioning the female characters so that all their action and conversation revolves around those male characters.

And then I'd like to build on it:

The problem isn't that this ever happens. The problem is not that sometimes men are at the center of the plot. No, the problem is that it almost always happens.

As I and others have noted here, passing the Bechdel test is ridiculously easy; it can be done in two or three sentences, a few seconds out of a 90-minute movie. Yet, as the linked graphs show, fewer than half of the movies studied even manage (or bother) to meet that ridiculously low standard of portraying female characters as anything other than accessories to men.

Of the films that do meet the extremely low standard set by the Bechdel test, many of them are likely to just barely meet it the way that, for example, No Country for Old Men or True Grit meet that standard: on the basis of two or three sentences passed between women who otherwise only speak to or about men.
posted by Elsa at 8:44 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


The inclusion of Buster Keaton on the director's graph is somewhat amusing.

All of his films fail the second word of the second criteria of the test automatically, being silent, surely?
posted by Hypnerotomachia at 8:48 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I too saw how many films passed and was like, yay, less bad than I thought. Then reading the thread, I was reminded just how trivial passing the test is. That does make it appalling that so few do pass it. It's really amazing when I think about it. Think of all the completely trivial conversation topics that qualify as passing the Bechdel test! Ones men have all the time! But women don't ... in film.
posted by R343L at 10:11 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


peppermind - I just meant that if she's in a non-traditionally-female job and the story is about her doing that job, then it would make sense that she'd never talk to another woman about the job during the course of the film because there are no other women in her workplace. So the movie would fail the test.
posted by hartez at 10:30 PM on July 10, 2013


Elsa - I'm not saying that a woman must *never* talk about a man (romantically or otherwise), just that I don't think a movie should necessarily fail the test if all conversations between two women are about a man in a non-romantic context. I'm sorry, I might not have been clear on that.

That said, you've pretty much nailed what I meant when I said "I can see an argument for either interpretation". An argument can defintitely be made that women are so marginalized that even when they are the central characters every conversation between them ends up being about a man (that is, everything that *happens* in a movie necessarily involves a man making it happen).

And while I think that's a valid interpretation, it bothers me for because we could then end up with an alternate version of, say, "Fargo", which depicts an incompetent Marge who fails to track down the suspects but passes the Bechdel test because she talks to another woman about cheese or something. I guess my point is that she's talking about men, but not "about a man". The men are an objective - you could replace them with stolen diamonds or some other macguffin and things would still make sense.

I'm not sure I'm making this point well, but the upshot is that I would consider Fargo to pass - the conversation Marge has with the sex workers about the suspects is sufficient.
posted by hartez at 10:31 PM on July 10, 2013


peppermind - I just meant that if she's in a non-traditionally-female job and the story is about her doing that job, then it would make sense that she'd never talk to another woman about the job during the course of the film because there are no other women in her workplace. So the movie would fail the test.

"Gosh, Mom. Are things ever getting tough in the steel mill/oil rig/car dealership/fire station/Internet startup/brokerage/mixed martial arts circuit. Revenues are down and there's talk about layoffs."

"Senora Ortiz, your Spanish class not only helps me relax from my job as a butcher/architect/lawyer/doctor/rancher/Imam/President, I think I want to leave that high stress line of work to become a medical translator."
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:51 PM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also regarding traditionally male careers, very few jobs are so male dominated as to be 90% male. And very few workplaces are so small as to have fewer than 10 people, with no clients or vendors. So what are the actual odds that there is only one woman in the workplace?

Also, at this exact moment, the #2 movie, with a box office take of $92 million, is a film about a woman, Sandra Bullock, working in the traditionally male environment of the police. I haven't seen it, but The Heat passes the Bechdel Test 23 seconds into the trailer.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:03 PM on July 10, 2013


the upshot is that I would consider Fargo to pass - the conversation Marge has with the sex workers about the suspects is sufficient.

As I said above, Fargo passes the very clear measure set out in the Bechdel test because the girls tell Marge where they're from. By most reckoning, that's the barest minimum by which a film can pass, and Fargo meets it.

As for your assessment that the entire conversation passes because the men they're talking about aren't romantic interests:

1. Maybe that entire conversation in Fargo passes this other test that you're proposing in which the only male-centric conversations that don't pass are those centering on romantic or sexual interest, but that test isn't the Bechdel test.

2. In fact, the men were sexual partners of two of the three women in the conversation, so I can't see how it even meets the spirit of your exclusion.
posted by Elsa at 11:06 PM on July 10, 2013


As I've said several times now, Fargo does pass the Bechdel test --- by a bare margin, but that's all the test is for: it illustrates the bare margin by which a film recognizes female characters as existing outside of the scope of male-directed action. But since we started talking about Fargo, I'll continue with that as the example.

And while I think that's a valid interpretation, it bothers me for because we could then end up with an alternate version of, say, "Fargo", which depicts an incompetent Marge who fails to track down the suspects but passes the Bechdel test because she talks to another woman about cheese or something

Or it could depict an alternate world in which ANY OTHER MAJOR OR SECONDARY CHARACTER is female and has something pertinent to say: Marge's co-worker who reports the license plate number, her domestic partner, a daughter. Anyone.

The reasonable alternative to the hyper-competent Marge of Fargo operating in a male-centric world is not a less-competent Marge blathering to some inessential female character about cheese, as you suggest, but a the same complex, rounded character in a context with other female characters instead of a largely male world in which only the events precipitated by men are interesting.

That would be a movie depicting a world in which women are not largely erased, in which the affairs of women are remotely --- even fractionally --- as important to the story and characters as the affairs of men.
posted by Elsa at 11:24 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


As many many many people have pointed out, the Bechdel test is a ridiculously easy test to pass. The bar is set so low it's pretty much on the floor.

The last movie I saw that was an egregious example of failure was Star Trek: Into Darkness. There were basically only two named women, and they NEVER EVER NOT ONCE spoke to each other during the entire course of the film. Never! And unbelievably, when they showed the emergency meetings of the Federation higher-ups, they were ALL men. It was so blatant as to be jarring--I actually found it very distracting.

I was really disappointed and it ruined any enjoyment of the film. I was especially surprised because all the other JJ Abrams shows I've seen have passed the Bechdel Test with flying colours and gone well beyond that low bar--they actually had well-rounded female characters with agency and interesting non-male-focused lives (Alias, Fringe, Lost).
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:52 PM on July 10, 2013


Actually, looks like I spoke too soon about Lost--it does pass the Bechdel Test, yes, but only in about half the episodes or fewer. That's not...terrific.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:02 AM on July 11, 2013


hartez, if you're down to counting angels on the head of a pin to determine passage of the Bechdel test, you're probably missing the point. I see that you aren't by other comments, but I don't think the goal here is to make movies that "pass the Bechdel test" however technically, but to make movies that aren't wholly centered around men. As I pointed out, it was originally a gag and a thought-provoking one-off, and it should continue to be seen in that light rather than reducing it to a checklist that, once passed, satisifies revisionist-feminist dogma.

I think Abrams, with Star Trek, is somewhat hampered by the fact that the established main characters were nearly universally ISWIDT male. He's really made Uhura a more essential, action-oriented character, of course, but then also tied her romantically to another character which will then occupy a good chunk of her screen time. You'd think that Abrams would then over-compensate by throwing in some women in other parts of the film, but I guess not. This is pretty ironic considering the position Star Trek long held as a groundbreaking franchise that welcomed feminism. Female first officers! Female scientists! A female officer on the bridge! But if you're only telling one story every four years you don't have much room for those ancillary women unless they're directly ancillary to a main, and by dint, male character. And that's how you get Alice Eve in a sports bra. I'm not sure it matters that Pine's Kirk is more dumb-man-in-commercial than interstellar cocksman.
posted by dhartung at 2:46 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I removed movies where more than 50% of users who commented on it disagreed about the classification.

Hmmm, I wonder what percentage of the movies surveyed he removed on this basis, then? I suspect that a lot of movies would engender this kind of disagreement. If he's removed a large percentage of movie due to users disagreeing on whether a movie passes or not, doesn't that skew the results somewhat?
posted by crossoverman at 3:36 AM on July 11, 2013


I think those of you who are surprised that so many movies pass the Bechdel Test do not quite understand what a minimalist, ludicrously low standard it is. It is not a test of whether a movie has strong female characters or feminist bonafides; it is a test of whether a movie makes ANY acknowledgement whatsoever that women have any existence outside the frame of reference of men. If the weakest, lamest, dullest damsel-in-distress in history at some point turns to a waitress and asks, "What's the soup of the day?" and gets the answer "Tomato", THAT MOVIE HAS JUST PASSED THE BECHDEL TEST.

That is, in fact, the intent. How very low the standard is was part of the original joke. It is a standard so low that it is insane that hefty double-digit percentage of movies do not pass it; it is a standard so low that if that number is higher than a couple of percentage points, something is terribly wrong. It is, in fact, a standard that almost every movie, up to and including macho he-man muscle films, should be able to pass with ease. But a shocking number of them don't.

If 95% or more of films passed the Bechdel Test, that doesn't mean we've achieved feminist utopia. A movie can be a horrible piece of sexist claptrap and still pass the Bechdel Test. What the Bechdel Test is, and is intended to be, is a signifier of the first, tiniest baby step in the right direction.

And we still haven't finished taking that first tiny step yet.
posted by kyrademon at 8:17 AM on July 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


If he's removed a large percentage of movie due to users disagreeing on whether a movie passes or not, doesn't that skew the results somewhat?

Good news! Since he took his data from a publicly available site, you can see for yourself how often more than 50% of commenters disagreed with the rating. As you can see on the site, disagreement swings both ways: sometimes commenters disagree that a movie passed the Bechdel test, sometimes they disagree that it fails.

It's easy to look over the reviews and spot those with disagreement posted; they're indicated by an exclamation point included with the pass/fail icons. You'd have to count the comments and registered disagreements, but I've been clicking and counting at random for a few minutes and haven't yet found one with 50% disagreement registered.
posted by Elsa at 8:41 AM on July 11, 2013


[For some reason, MeFi rejected my link to bechdeltest.com in that comment, but it's linked in the article, so it should be easy to find if you decide to check out the data for yourself.]
posted by Elsa at 8:45 AM on July 11, 2013


MeFi rejected my link to bechdeltest.com in that comment

What...? Is there some kind of blacklist?
posted by Gordafarin at 9:58 AM on July 11, 2013


Nah, looks like Elsa just forgot the http:// so it wasn't working properly.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:11 AM on July 11, 2013


ahaha, nah. It's a formatting thing. If the html doesn't look right, MeFi magically strips out the (presumed-botched) link and redirects back to the thread. I don't know why this one link wouldn't, um, link, but it wouldn't.

r_n, I actually tried it with the http, too, but it wouldn't take. Don't know why; never had this problem on MeFi before.
posted by Elsa at 10:12 AM on July 11, 2013


(By which I mean: the link doesn't display the http:// itself, so I added it in an edit, but that still redirected back to MeFi, so I edited out the link entirely rather than leave a useless link.)
posted by Elsa at 10:14 AM on July 11, 2013


Huh, weird.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:16 AM on July 11, 2013


(Although I just copy-pasted it into something else and it did include the http://, though it didn't when I pasted it earlier. So weird --- it must be some glitch or user error on my end. But that's not really pertinent here, so I'll drop it.)

Annnnnyhow, anyone who wants to check the data entry by entry can find it at http://bechdeltest.com/ <-- not even going to bother trying to link that again.
posted by Elsa at 10:21 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The webcomic Sinfest shows a character writing something that passes the test. It's really not a high bar.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:57 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


I was really disappointed and it ruined any enjoyment of the film. I was especially surprised because all the other JJ Abrams shows I've seen have passed the Bechdel Test with flying colours and gone well beyond that low bar--they actually had well-rounded female characters with agency and interesting non-male-focused lives (Alias, Fringe, Lost).

That's the difference between TV and movies. Television doesn't always exist in some uncanny valley where women never speak to other women (about anything other than men.)
posted by Squeak Attack at 11:20 AM on July 11, 2013


“The reasonable alternative to the hyper-competent Marge of Fargo operating in a male-centric world is not a less-competent Marge blathering to some inessential female character about cheese…”

I think Fargo is a special case there. Marge is not only by far the most competent character in the film, but all the men (and women) in the film are dullards. Norm (Marge’s husband) scores points only for being a good spear carrier for Marge. Which is a complete role reversal. (Macy drives the film, but he’s the villain and an incompetent one at that.)
Since they’re in the Coen’s universe, I think Marge could take out Anton Chigurh (in terms of who’s a strong character). Marge is vulnerable, but indestructible. She’d have the same “what the hell is wrong with you?” speech she had for Gaear in the back of the squad car.
The big thing about the Bechdel test is its simplicity. Sort of the “if you can’t even do that” rule of thumb than a feminist ruler. And I think the creator has said this (IIRC).
Consider the film “Argo” – any big female leads? The one I can remember was in a pretty subservient role and didn’t speak to another woman. Apparently though the movie passes because some of the eminently forgettable hostage wives talked to each other about Canada.
In contrast Fargo is a masculine ruled world but shows not only how poorly that runs whether for the good guys or the bad guys (literally ‘guys’ here), but shows in microcosm how well Norm and Marge’s world works where there’s equity and support (getting up to make eggs, bringing arby’s, giving the prowler a jump) From the back story the two actors worked up, Marge and Norm decided one of them had to stay home when Marge got pregnant, Norm apparently was a cop too.) And there are plenty of contrasts between all the men in the film who are objectifying women (e.g. from Jerry’s trading his wife for money down to little details like his Playboy’s tucked into the magazine rack at home) and the one who doesn’t.

Tough to put the abstract stuff into graphs. Although apparently it's hard for hollywood to write simple, non-male centered dialogue too, despite any other considerations.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:32 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I just saw Looper, which was not a good movie to see immediately after this conversation. It's hard for me not to get cranky about the dearth of female characters and their stereotypical roles (whore, madonna, mother) in general, but especially when I've just been thinking about it.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:16 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


As you can see on the site, disagreement swings both ways: sometimes commenters disagree that a movie passed the Bechdel test, sometimes they disagree that it fails.

When a commenter disagrees that it passes the Bechdel test, aren't they suggesting that it has failed? And vice versa?

If, say, half of the films on the site are contentious, doesn't the selection of only half of the films for analysis in these graphs make the graphs flawed?
posted by crossoverman at 6:18 PM on July 11, 2013


I'm now mildly curious if anyone has ever tried a reverse Bechdel test, where movies fail if the conversations between men are only about women. (I imagine the number would be vanishingly small and maybe even zero, which is pretty amazing.)

That is definitely something I wished this article covered. I'd like to see a graph comparing the percentage of movies that pass the bechdel test vs. movies that pass the reverse-bechdel test.

I guess I worry about people who might figure that if half of all movies pass the Bechdel test, it must not be a big issue, but what if 90% of movies pass the reverse-Bechdel test? It would be indicative of a serious imbalance.
posted by picklenickle at 9:20 PM on July 11, 2013


Conservatively, I'd guess 99.999% of movies pass the reverse test.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:24 PM on July 11, 2013


What the hell is the reverse Bechdel test?

1. Two men
2. Don't talk to each other?
3. About women?

1. Two Men
2. Talk to each other
3. Only about women?

1. Two Men
2. Talk to each other
3. About anything but women?

Is there a problem finding male-dominated narratives that do any of these things?
posted by crossoverman at 9:25 PM on July 11, 2013


It is, in fact, a standard that almost every movie, up to and including macho he-man muscle films, should be able to pass with ease. But a shocking number of them don't.

so I just watched Pacific Rim and it was hilariously dumb and wonderful and the monsters were super awesome, but unless all the monsters were lady monsters and TERRIBLE RAWR SHRIEKS were conversations, it got a 0. There are awesome lady killer robot drivers but they never talk shop about their crazy awesome killer robots!
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:00 PM on July 12, 2013


I just got back from Pacific Rim myself and came in to post the same thing as jetlagaddict. Honestly I was infuriated. There were three speaking roles for women:

1) rookie pilot who was relatively well developed and had some actual agency
2) female newscaster whom we hear on TV but don't see
3) female pilot with zero character development and about 5 lines in subtitled Russian. Her name was mentioned once but I forgot it promptly. She never speaks to the rookie character.

What is wrong with moviemakers? I expected better from Guillermo del Toro. This was just fucking ridiculous. It looked like a plague had wiped out most of the women on earth.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:30 AM on July 13, 2013


"Watching [Orange Is the New Black], one begins to realize that all the good parts for women truly have been kept locked up somewhere; now, here they all are, free (in at least one sense) to be portrayed. Within the first six episodes, they are expertly and fully sketched, textured and realized: Latinas, lesbians, an activist nun, a fireman who transitioned into a woman, a housekeeper-turned-murderer, a Russian inmate (Kate Mulgrew) who runs the kitchen and serves Piper a used-tampon sandwich out of initial spite."

By logistical necessity, which feels like dramatic necessity as well, the story is populated almost entirely by women.
posted by dhartung at 3:16 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Watching [Orange Is the New Black], one begins to realize that all the good parts for women truly have been kept locked up somewhere; now, here they all are, free (in at least one sense) to be portrayed.

Anyone who think that all the good parts for women ON TELEVISION have been locked up somewhere is an moron who hasn't been paying attention.*

Now if he were making that argument about good roles for women of color on television, he would have a point.

*Or possibly has a mental block against including genre.
posted by Squeak Attack at 9:12 AM on July 13, 2013


good roles for women of color on television

I am reminded of a couple of similar 'test' variations, one for characters of color in general, the other more specifically for a show that has one or more Latino/Latina characters: posted by rmd1023 at 9:40 AM on July 13, 2013


Heh, rmd1023, the Orange pilot lampshades that Morales rule by having a Hispanic woman who speaks no Spanish, catches hell from it for another character, and is handily beaten in fluency by the lily-white, naive, suburban character.

Squeak, I don't think that "all" was meant to be taken seriously, just as an aside. Rather, as I noted before, when there are a paucity of women in a cast that means they are forced into universalism or at best playing types.
posted by dhartung at 1:25 AM on July 14, 2013


Gravity director defends casting Sandra Bullock after pressure for a male lead.

posted by octothorpe at 12:56 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


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