Half of 2015 has passed in a blur, and there’s no better time to give the movie business a little check-up, and see how things are going.
For the past year, Hollywood has been under heavy critique regarding the types of roles available to women, how much women are paid, and how many women occupy roles as directors, producers and screenwriters. One area of Hollywood’s treatment of women is easy to measure: How they are portrayed on the screen.
One of the simplest measures of sexism in narratives was created by Allison Bechdel in her famous comic series Dykes to Watch Out For. The Bechdel Test has only three requirements, and they’re pretty much the bare minimum for establishing humanity in female characters. To pass the test, a narrative must be able to answer yes to all three of these questions:
- Are there more than two named female characters?
- Do those two named characters have a conversation at any point?
- Is that conversation about literally anything other than a man?
Should be easy, right? All a film has to do to pass is have a single moment where two characters talk about anything that’s not a man. The Bechdel Test doesn’t measure whether or not a film portrays women in a negative light, or is openly sexist. It just informs us whether or not women are treated as humans in the narrative space dominated by men.
This year’s Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, passes the test because the movie’s protagonist Ana has a conversation with her mother about her graduation and a conversation with her roommate about her broken laptop. But plenty of movies fail the test.
I looked at movies that were released January through June of 2015, double checking them against bechdeltest.com. Of the 50 highest grossing domestic movies this year (as determined by Boxofficemojo), 29 of them pass all three of the Bechdel Test standards. With the exception of Monkey Kingdom — which is a documentary about monkeys and therefore not really a good movie to judge humanity’s sexism — the remaining 21 movies fail the test.
Some blockbusters, Entourage, for example, pass the first two tests — they have two named female characters who talk — but they fail the third test because the female characters only discuss the men in the movie. Some movies, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Mordecai, barely pass the first test.
Ultimately, the numbers from this year’s movies in the Top 50 don’t look drastically different than the results of the 2014 evaluation I did. In the first half of 2014, 52.5% of movies passed the test. In the first half of 2015, 58% of movies pass.
In theory, this is a test that every single movie should pass, regardless of subject matter. Women exist in the world and make up 50% of its population. We have conversations about all sorts of things when men aren’t around: Work, food, weather, existential crises, etc. The fact that so many movies manage to fail this incredibly simple test shows not only an extreme lack of creativity and thought on the part of Hollywood directors and screenwriters, but also a deeply-ingrained sexism that allows stories to be told without even considering that women might have a role in them.
What is encouraging about 2015 so far is how much better the top 10 grossing movies perform on the Bechdel Test compared to last year’s Top 10.
Several movies with women at the forefront have made the top 10 this year, including Pitch Perfect 2, 50 Shades of Grey, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Cinderella. Even the big summer action movies this year have managed to pass the Bechdel Test. The only Top 10 grossing movie that didn’t pass the test was the animated The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. That’s a huge improvement over last year, even if it is a small one.
Equality isn’t easily measured in any form, and the Bechdel Test is by no means a perfect gauge of how Hollywood portrays women on the screen. Jurassic World, for example, passes the Bechdel Test because Claire and Karen have a telephone conversation about their mother and Claire’s career. The movie, though, heavily employs sexist stereotypes and is, as my colleague Molly Fitzgerald wrote, regressive in the way it portrays women when compared to Jurassic Park.
That said, the number of Bechdel Test passing movies in the Top 10 is encouraging. The study done by FiveThirtyEight last year found that movies that passed the Bechdel Test performed just as well at the box office as their failing counterparts. That’s true this year, and maybe with a little more encouragement, Hollywood will continue to make movies that pass the Bechdel Test, and maybe even a few that portray women the same way they portray men.