Tuesday, April 19, 2011

despite all my rage, I'm still just a chick with nothing to say

I recently learned about The Bechdel Test and now I can't get it out of my head. The Bechdel Test, born of classic queer comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, is a laughably minimal three-part test for movies:

1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. who talk to each other
3. about something other than a man.

this image is from DTWOF author/illustrator Alison Bechdel's blog here

After watching two very enjoyable and ostensibly more or less feminist-friendly movies and realizing that they both just barely passed the test (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Forgetting Sarah Marshall), I decided I should do a little research.

Thank goodness for the Bechdel Test Movie List, a website that rates over 2100 movies according to the Bechdel test. They have a great icon system to indicate how a movie scores--a system I am going to borrow from shamelessly here for simplicity's sake:

= Fewer than two women
= Two or more women, but they don't talk to each other
= Two or more women, but they only talk to each other about a man
= Two or more women and they actually manage to talk to each other about something other than a man
= Passes but only just barely

Using the Bechdel Test Movie List, I have compiled the following highly academic study:


I used two sample sets for my MOVIES I AM SUPPOSED TO LIKE group: the top ten AFI Top 100 Movies and the 2011 Best Picture Nominees. Let's start with the AFI picks.

1: Citizen Kane (1941)
2: The Godfather (1972) (surprisingly not on BTML but the internet tells me it does not pass)
3: Casablanca (1942)
4: Raging Bull (1980)
5: Singin' in the Rain (1952)
6: Gone with the Wind (1939)
7: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
8: Schindler's List(1993)
9: Vertigo (1958)
10: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Wow! That's...not very many smiley faces. According to this list, women in the top ten films of all time are limited to the following topics of discussion: how to fashion a dress from curtains, whether one is a good witch or a bad witch, and what might happen when they get to Auschwitz.

captioned for those who cannot read lips very well, such as my husband: 'are you KIDDING me?'

Real talk? The only movies I've seen on this list are the ones with smiley faces next to them. ...and The Godfather.

Well, surely the 2011 Best Picture nominees will be an unblemished field of smiley faces. Right?

Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone


Looking at this list only reaffirms my vehement belief that Winter's Bone should have won Best Picture this year. If you haven't seen it, see it immediately. It is breathtaking. The actual Best Picture winner, The King's Speech, only contains two short interactions between women that barely register as legit conversations: a brief introduction and a mother telling her daughters a story. Maybe that's part of why I thought it was such a total snooze compared to Winter's Bone.

The Bechdel Test is an embarrassingly low bar. It's not a test for determining whether a movie is feminist-friendly--it's merely a metric for determining if a movie treats women like human beings. Of course, not every movie has to pass the Bechdel Test--there's always a place for male- and female-centric movies. I'm pretty sure Steel Magnolias wouldn't pass the reverse Bechdel Test. But if only the occasional movie didn't pass the test, the test wouldn't exist in the first place. It is downright sickening how few popular movies from the past century pass the test.

What's so scary to me is not that many popular movies marginalize women. I didn't roll off the cabbage truck (or...whatever) yesterday. What's truly disturbing to me--what fills me with Smashing Pumpkins levels of rat-in-a-cage fury--is that the movies we hold up as the finest examples of the medium are guilty of the same sins as 1980s beer commercials. Strip away the grandiose cinematography and the heartfelt performances and you've got the same old bull we've been seeing since the beginning of time--women existing only in relation to men.

I'm ragin' like Achilles.

I know, Brit. I know.

As for MOVIES I ACTUALLY LIKE, here's a hastily assembled list of my perennial favorite movies to watch, in no particular order:

Annie Hall (1977)
Clueless (1995)
Little Women (1994)
Mean Girls (2004)
St. Elmo's Fire (1985) (not on BTML but believe me, definitely passes)
Steel Magnolias (1989)
Sound of Music (1965)

See?? It's not that hard!

awww you guys

So I'm curious. How do your favorite movies of all time stack up to the Bechdel Test? Look them up here and report back. Have any of my female readers out there experienced a similar SHOULD LIKE/ACTUALLY LIKE dichotomy? Holler back and let's talk about ladies who have better things to talk about than men. And in doing so, we'll be passing the test ourselves.

Bonus discussion question: Creative types out there, I need some advice! How do other people with creative jobs keep their creative juices flowing in their off-hours for their own projects? I've missed blogging but I'm finding it so hard to find the motivation to write blog posts after long, draining days of editing. Tips??


  1. Now isn't that funny, movies like Clueless, Mean Girls, and even Little Women and Steel Magnolias ostensibly have a lot of women talking about men BUT still manage to actually make women complex characters who exist outside of the plot development for a man. I'll never understand why screenwriters and directors think you need to have one or the other! I really don't think it would have detracted from say, True Grit to have one more woman in that universe.

    And also I could probably write an entire side rant about how embarrassing The Social Network was for anyone who thinks women are people.

  2. Raising Arizona: Not listed but probably a :) for the diptet talk
    Big Lebowski: Women don't talk to each other!?
    Pulp Fiction: Women don't talk to each other
    UHF: not rated, but I'd guess would be a X or no talk
    Matrix: :-)
    The Beach: not listed, but I'd guess is a :)

    Though I don't have favorites - those are just a few of the ones I enjoy

  3. @Kate The lack of women in True Grit was a little shocking, especially with such a totally badass female protagonist. And, wow, The Social Network, just wow. I'd be interested to read your rant!

    @Nick GOTTA GET THAT DIPTET!! I'm glad that you own up to your love of The Beach--it seems like we end up watching that once a month

  4. I just wrote the most epic reply-rant to this and it was deleted. I will orally transcribe said rant to you tomorrow.

    Preview: Helen introduced me to this before I knew you and similar rage ensued. There are SO many characters out there that could be turned into women, or someone non-white, for that matter, with literally zero change to the story. Now rage has been replaced mostly by disgust. Wonder if books share the same fate? Flicking through the list of my favorite books I think every single one has at least one seriously badass lady, so I'm thinking not. Plus, there are so many more female authors/publishers than female filmmakers that I would like to believe books to be a far more balanced world...

    *saving post to clipboard*

  5. @Jess Thank god the children's book market has vigilant editors like us to make sure books are inclusive for everyone!! :P Thanks for reading--I look forward to raging with you tomorrow. Rage on, sister

  6. Kates: You would never know from my mundane suburban existence now that I was a feminist back in the days of The Feminine Mystique, MS Magazine and Adrienne Rich. Here's my take on the movie issue. It's similar to climate change which will go on until the oil industry gets out of the way. It's also why many health plans cover Viagra but not birth control pills. The vast, vast majority of movies are either produced or directed by men which means men control the $$$ behind the movies so the movies are produced from the male perspective. Not to say there are not enlightened males out there - your father is one and I know Nick is one. It's just the power behind the Hollywood establishment is still male and let's face it, a lot of men probably think that all women talk about is men. So the day that women grab the reins of power in Hollywood will be the day when movies are produced in which women change the world and men start talking about women. And women have made huge strides forward with more to come, especially from your generation.

  7. Great post Katie! I've been thinking about this for a while, and it's caused similar rage. I can't remember where I first heard about the test. I think some sort of radio interview?

    Anyway, the one modification to the rules from the interviewee was for #1: It has to have at least two women in it WITH NAMES. This brings up even more rage when you realize every woman besides the love interest is credited as "Coffee Shop Girl", "Girl With Dog", or anyone in a group of "Sexy Halloween Party Guests."


  8. Thanks for reading, Alex!

    'Blogger Woman' or possibly just 'Chick with Glasses'

  9. Years ago Thelma and Louise had a feminist effect on me. If I look at the plot decades later against this rating scale, I suppose now I realize the men won in the end, though--since Thelma and Louise chose death over facing the consequences of killing a scum-sucking rapist. But at least they smiled when they put the convertible in drive and sailed themselves over the cliff. So would a real woman have surrendered to police, or did Thelma and Louise do the courageous thing by controlling their destiny before they would let the men do it for them?

  10. Well, this is depressing.

    I'm trying to think back over my favorite movies... The Usual Suspects doesn't pass. Best in Show does! Harry Potter movies...sort of.

    The only thing that made me feel better? Most of the terrible TV I watch passes. Grey's Anatomy. Private Practice. 30 Rock (not terribble, just TV). Even Toddlers in Tiaras and Say Yes to the Dress! Hell, even Million Dollar Listing.

    So what does that mean? Why is TV doing a better job than movies?

    Also, remember that Sex and the City where Miranda wants to talk about her new phone but everyone else wants to talk about men? Yeah.

  11. @Betsy--Can you believe that I've never seen Thelma and Louise?? Clearly I am a poor excuse for a woman. PS Just finished rewatching the entirety of the X-Files last night--of course, I thought of you.

    @Lanier--Our draw to Toddlers and Tiaras explained!

  12. Hmm, I reckon society encourages women to watch movies tailored to men, but discourages men from watching movies tailored to women. Like, "she's a cool chick - she can quote The Big Lebowski", versus "he's the world's biggest pussy - he has Pride and Prejudice on DVD".

    I might be part of the problem since the favorite movies that come easily to my mind- The Big Lebowski, Forrest Gump, Memento, Idiocracy, Step Brothers- fail the Bechdel Test. I had to browse through the list on the Bechdel website just to remind myself of some favorites that actually pass- Adaptation, American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, and Black Swan.

  13. Wow, I am sad that Forrest doesn't pass. :( I love that movie more than I am supposed to.

  14. Maybe they will make a sequel- "Florence Gump".

    I skipped your bonus question because I'm not an especially creative type, but now I have an idea: Harnessing the power of procrastination. Sit down at the computer to do something more onerous than blogging; something like balancing your checkbook or writing thank-you notes, and your mind will rebel against that boring activity by spewing out blog-worthy creative distractions, hopefully. :)

  15. Now THAT'S a good idea! I'll do damn near anything to avoid paying bills.

  16. Yeah, when I learned of the Bechdel Test, I got really depressed about my favorite films--Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Amelie, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang... Even films like The Virgin Suicides, which I would certainly call feminist, barely pass, if they do.

  17. Could it possibly be that Virgin Suicides doesn't pass?? I guess the girls don't say much at all in that movie...

    ok now I'm depressed too haha

  18. Wait ... you've never seen Thelma and Louise?

  19. can you believe it?? I watched the first fifty minutes or so the other night and plan to finish it soon. As soon as it started I was basically floored that I had never seen it before, as it involves many of my favorite things

  20. Also!

    Her comic style reminds me a lot of Roberta Gregory's Bitchy Bitch.

    I love me some Roberta Gregory.

  21. @Mama, I'm sorry your comment got lost in my moderation queue! Thanks for reading and sharing your (spot-on as always) observations.

    @Terry, I've never read Roberta Gregory! Gotta check her out.