State of the Union

Almost half of 2015’s top movies failed the Bechdel test


With 2015 behind us, there’s no better time to give the movie business a little check-up and see how things are going.

2015 was a year of outcry in Hollywood. Women plastered themselves on the cover of The New York Times Magazine proclaiming the inequality they experienced in the industry, and so did Jennifer Lawrence. Hollywood has been called out for how few women are in directing, producing, and high-profile roles. One area of Hollywood’s treatment of women is easy to measure: How they are portrayed on the screen.

This was the year of Joy, of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and of Cinderella. 2015, at first glance, seems like it was ripe with female characters doing badass things. But let’s look a little closer at how exactly women were portrayed on screen this year.

One of the simplest measures of sexism is called the Bechdel Test. Created by Allison Bechdel in her famous comic series Dykes to Watch Out For, all the Bechdel Test does is determine whether women are portrayed as humans in a story. To pass the test, a story only has to answer yes to three fairly simple questions:

  1. Are there more than two named female characters?
  2. Do those two named characters have a conversation at any point?
  3. Is that conversation about literally anything other than a man?

Seems easy, right? If you are a woman reading this article, all I would have to do is name you to an audience and we would pass the Bechdel Test. If a female character calls her sister on the phone and has a totally tangential conversation about spaghetti, the movie passes the test. Literally all two female characters have to do is talk about anything that is not a man.

This means that the Bechdel Test is not so much a measure of sexism in a movie as it is a measure of whether or not women are dehumanized. The Bechdel Test does not factor in explicit sexism, objectification, or how important characters are to the story. It only 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.

FiveThirtyEight’s Walter Hickey did a study last year of 1,794 movies produced from 1970 to 2013 and found that just over half of them managed to pass the test. This year doesn’t look much different.

I looked at movies that were released January through December 27 of 2015, double-checking them against Of the 100 highest grossing domestic movies this year (as determined by Box Office Mojo), 54 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 45 movies fail the test.

Got that? 45% of this year’s biggest movies failed the Bechdel Test.

Some blockbusters, like Entourage, pass the first two tests—they have two named female characters who talk—but fail the third because the female characters only discuss the men in the movie. Some movies, like Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, don’t pass a single test because they only have one named female character.

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, or the results from the first half of 2015.

In theory, this is a test that almost every single movie should pass. Can there be movies that aren’t about women and therefore do not pass? Sure. But in no world where women make up 50% of the talking population should 45% of movies fail this incredibly simple test. The fact that they do shows either severe misogyny or a severe lack of creativity among creators in Hollywood. Women have conversations all the time that aren’t about men! They talk about sports, and coding, and shopping, and food, and politics, and books. Women talk about all sorts of things, and it requires a sort of a deeply ingrained sexism to allow stories to be told without even considering that women might have a role in them.

What is encouraging about 2015’s movies, though, is the high performers. This year’s Top 10 movies have a much higher pass rate than last year’s.

Only one movie in this year’s Top 10 failed to pass the Bechdel Test. That movie was Spectre, the November James Bond release which came in at number 10.

The big change in 2015’s movies, though, came from action movies with heavily male audiences. In 2014, those movies—American Sniper, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and X-Men: Days of Future Past—failed to pass the test. 2015’s Top 10 was still stacked with action movies, but Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Furious 7, and Avengers: Age of Ultron all managed to pass the Bechdel Test and sweep up hundreds of millions of dollars. 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. Jurassic World, for example, passes the 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 Fitzpatrick 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. In fact, of the Top 20 movies, only four failed the Bechdel Test this year.

Maybe this is a sign that blockbusters are starting to look at their female characters a little more seriously. Hopefully, with some 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.