The Bechdel Test and Box Office – Being More Than Infographics and Sensationalist Headlines

I can’t be the only person that cheered when Cate Blanchett cradled her Oscar,  proclaiming “those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences wanna see them, and, in fact, they make money.  The world is round, people!”

(Sidenote: I have not seen Blue Jasmine as of yet, and I’m also very unsettled with the Woody Allen accusations, but that is for another post).

I don’t know how to describe how I felt – validated, maybe a bit rewarded, that I’m at an age where there are many women filmmakers speaking out about the continued repression of incredible female roles, and am even finding a cool little niche in the twitter-verse where we discuss how these roles affect us as artists.

As I scrolled my Facebook feed today, the catchy Huffington Post linked to the even more catchy Upworthy with this description and title: “Cate Blanchett is right — films with women at the center make money. In fact, lots more money than films without women at the center” and the title “Why The Standard Hollywood Narrative About Female Roles Is Bunk.”  And of course I clicked because it combines my two favorite “F”-word topics – filmmaking and feminism.

Found on Upworthy 03/11/14

This image was originally found on Vocativ and The Mary Sue. The Bechdel test was created by illustrator and cartoonist Alison Bechdel.

While this is originally found at Vocativ, I’m linking to the Upworthy post as that is what I saw first.

For those of you who haven’t heard of the Bechdel test, it’s basically a measure of the roles of females relegated to the following guidelines.

A movie passes the Bechdel test if:

  1. It has two or more female characters …
  2. …who talk to each other …
  3. … about something other than a man

And it fails the Bechdel test if:

  1. There are fewer than two women;
  2. There are two or more women, but they don’t talk to each other; or
  3. There are two or more women, but they only talk to each other about a man.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is great correlation news.  As I looked into it more, I became pretty quickly frustrated.  The problem is only a handful of those have females as the actual carrying leads of the movie, those being Hunger Games, The Heat, and Frozen.  Many of the movies on this list are still fairly male dominated, and are still marketed towards a pretty strictly male audience, including some of the children movies (with exceptions being Despicable Me 2 and Smurfs 2).

And…sorry, Upworthy, but the majority of the films that pass the Bechdel test are still pretty standard Hollywood narrative.  I wouldn’t call any of them revolutionary in terms of making over what it means to be a female lead, other than the three aforementioned movies, and even then, the Hunger Games SIGNIFICANTLY toned down the “omg do I like Peeta do I like Gale omg omg” (emphasis mine but that was the one part that almost made me stop reading the books entirely).

However, one thing that is not included on this, nor any subsequent links besides the source at Vocativ state that out of 50 movies, only .5 are directed by females (that being Jennifer Lee, who was co-director of Frozen).  That, to me, is so indicative of where we are at as an industry right now.

Where are my ladies at?!

But if you think about it, what is more important – to pass the Bechdel test or to have women behind camera?  As much as I love Scandal, and the fact that it employs so many talented women in top positions, I wouldn’t necessarily say it passes the Bechdel test because almost every interaction between Mellie and Olivia surround our favorite misogynistic president.  But yet, I think the show is stellar with the amount of strong, relatively rounded female roles.

So can we have our cake and eat it too?  Can we pass the Bechdel test AND have women behind the camera?  I’d love to say yes, but  as with all things in film, it will take time.  But that’s where I do have some hope – if we assume these movies were put into play 2-3 years ago, maybe in 2-3 years we will have a balance with women behind the camera and in front passing the Bechdel test.

The fact that monetarily, movies with female roles is growing, is significant.  But please, don’t be swayed by sensationalist headlines and pretty infographics, because we still have a ways to go.  As much as I think the Bechdel test is a great start to examining these issues, that’s what it is – a start.