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The Bechdel test is a rough way to measure how much presence women have in film (and to a lesser extent other creative works). For an individual film to pass the test, three criteria must be met. The film must:
- actually have two female characters
- who have (at least) one conversation
- about something other than a man (not necessarily romantic, sons/brothers/fathers/male friends/male politicians/cool male hero they recently met also qualify)
These criteria would seem at first to be enormously lenient. How can an entire two-hour film not have at least one scene where two women talk to each other? In fact, many films fail it, which is the entire point.
Take the science fiction blockbuster Inception. It's a mostly male-dominated cast, with a male lead, and sure enough, the only time two women are on screen at the same time, they're talking about a guy.
It is instructive to look at the converse. How many movies pass the "reverse Bechdel test" – have men talking about something other than women? Practically all of them. It's quite difficult to name films that fail this version. When you compare the two, it becomes apparent that there's a serious lack of balance in the representation of men and women on screen.
The test was created by and named after comic writer Alison Bechdel, who articulated it through the mouth of one of her comic's characters. The woman in the strip only watches films that pass it, and laments that she hasn't been in a theater since Alien.
What the test is not
The Bechdel test is not supposed to be an endorsement of a particular film that passes it, nor an indictment of a particular film that fails it. Sucker Punch certainly passes, since most of the main characters are women, but they're hyper-sexualized women with no character depth whatsoever, so it's hardly a feminist work. And Gravity fails due to having only one female character, but it only really has two characters anyway and the woman is the lead, so it's clearly more friendly to women than most films. Working Girl (1988) surely passes, since two women sniping at each other over office politics is feminist-OK.
Rather, the idea is to test a group of films, or even all films that are made, and see what percentage of them stack up. There shouldn't be a rarity in seeing two women talking like normal people, yet it's still happening. Or rather, not happening.
The Mako Mori test
Proposed as an alternative (or complement) to the Bechdel test, this is based on the character from Pacific Rim named Mako Mori. The film must have:
- at least one female character
- who gets her own narrative arc
- which is not about supporting a man's story
While the movie is ostensibly more about Raleigh Becket coming to grips with his brother's death, Mako has her own problem of having her family killed when she was a child. Shortly after the death of her parents, she is adopted by the later commanding officer of the Jäger program. The major arc for her is her coming to grips with their death and her desire to break the mold and become a jäger pilot herself, something her adoptive dad will have none of.
- Bechdel Test list
- Anita Sarkeesian has an excellent video on this topic.
- An article summarizing results from 2013. Films that passed actually managed to make more money than films that failed.
- Bechdel and other tests.
- Some versions require that the women have names, to exclude works whose only depiction of women's lives is a two-second chat about the weather courtesy of nameless extras.
- Admittedly, it's Leonardo DiCaprio's character they're talking about, and he's so yummy it's hard to blame them, but still.
- All is Lost fails both regular and reverse forms, due to only having one character. That's about it.
- With thanks to Liz Wallace
- Looks she missed Nikita. And Volcano too, but that was mostly shite anyway.
- Though astronauts are questioning the lack of ventilation garments for fanservice. Damn it, Cuarón!