The Bechdel Test, originally inspired by a 1985 installment of Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, features a character with three basic requirements for a movie: it has to have at least two women in it, they have to talk to each other, and they have to discuss something besides a man. Although the rule is no guarantee of quality — or well-developed female characters — it’s long been considered a useful tool for assessing how often entertainment excludes women, and whether they are portrayed as three-dimensional characters whose lives do not revolve entirely around men. In 2016, a third of the top 50 films at the box office still did not feature female characters talking to each other in any meaningful way.
While the Bechdel Test is one useful metric for looking at Hollywood’s blind spots around representation, however, it doesn’t touch on many important aspects of cinema — about how central those roles are, about people of color, about who’s working behind the camera, as well as in front of it. With that in mind, FiveThirtyEight asked 13 people in the entertainment industry to come up with personal standards for representation in cinema. The site has presented these highly individualized rules as alternatives to the Bechdel test, and its writers examined 2016’s top 50 box office performers to see how they measure up.
There’s no one-size-fits-all test for cinematic feminism, so it’s useful to consider a variety of metrics and individual rule sets for diversity — especially since so many of the films still failed, regardless of the requirements for inclusion. No one film passed every single test the FiveThirtyEight poll recipients suggested, but Bad Moms, starring Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell, came the closest. Some of the tests require films to meet a single criteria. Rory Uphold, writer and actress on the comedy series This Is Why We’re Single, said that for her, a film passes if “the on-set crew is 50 percent women.” But although The Uphold Rule sounds simple in design, all 50 films of the examined films failed the test. The Conjuring 2 was notably one of the worst offenders, with a crew that was 90 percent male.
Lena Waite, who won an Emmy for writing the episode “Thanksgiving” on Master of None, says a film passes for her if there’s a black woman in a position of power and in a healthy relationship. Only five films passed her test: Bad Moms, Hidden Figures, Independence Day: Resurgence, Boo! A Madea Halloween, and Central Intelligence.
Ligiah Villalobos, a producer and the head writer for Go, Diego, Go, proposed her own rule for Latina representation: “The film has a Latina lead and the lead or another Latina character is shown as professional or college educated, speaks in unaccented English, and is not sexualized.” As with The Uphold Test, none of the films passed.
Other tests were concerned with how central female characters are, or whether they’re well-developed. Do they exist just to get pregnant, create problems for the male protagonist, or die to make a male protagonist experience emotion? Are supporting characters mostly men? The Hagen Test, proposed by Kate Hagen, director of community at the scriptwriter group The Black List, asks a film to give half of one-scene roles to women, and have the first crowd scene be 50 percent women. Five films passed this test: Bad Moms, Finding Dory, Passengers, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Lights Out.
It’s weird and a bit sad that Bad Moms, in spite of its cheesy premise and less-than-stellar reviews, does the best job representing women of any of 2016’s top 50 earners. But if a film brought to us by the bros who made The Hangover can do it, there’s surely hope for the future. Tests like this will always offer an incomplete picture of a film, and the number can’t necessarily tell us whether it’s a compelling story. But they can help us challenge Hollywood to do more than settle for the status quo, and to question the systematic absences of many different kinds of people from the movie-making process — ones who could enrich our entertainment in countless ways, both on the screen and behind the lens.