We can do better than The Bechdel Test

Credit: Amazon

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.


Has there been any notable difference between Hollywood and Netflix / HBO / PRIME in the passing of the tests above?

As one who now only spends money to see tentpole franchises in theaters (almost all owned by Disney this year…yikes?) I have no doubt that none of my movies passed anything in the list above. But my streaming services look substantially different. As Hollywood declines, making way for these films – I wonder if the change will take place as a piece of the paradigm shift that is streaming video.

Can’t say for HBO, but Netflix and Prime In some ways it has due to shows like Orange is the New Black, Transparent, and a few others. Take OITNB, for example, where 85% of the cast IDs as woman, and around half of women in the cast are of color. Then there are interesting examples that happened this year, where you had a show on CBS starting Katherine Heigl, and featuring Laverne Cox. It was canceled due to poor rating, and partially because Katherine Heigl right now doesn’t have best reputation. But, it’s also notable for having a scene where three trans women(two of them women of color Laverne Cox, and Angelica Ross, with Jen Richards being the third person in the scene) were talking about life, work, and love stuff not related to being trans. Sadly there is a handful of tv shows on these networks(both new and old) that could pass any of these test.

Should we be worried that the current move towards race and gender equality in the liberal industries isn’t taking the rest of society with us? As a good article on Vox stated recently, Trump is still president and probably favourite to win the next election on current trends, and almost half of Roy Moore voters think the allegations against him are lies, and the rest voted for him anyway. Their supporters see things like this as ‘stupid’ and if we can’t take them with us we just risk putting larger wedges between ‘us and them’ in our society, and making the current polorisation even worse… I’m not saying we compromise our principles, but we need to bring everyone with us somehow… and I don’t know how

The fixation of western liberals on race and gender is part of what caused the reactionary backlash and Trump in the first place. There can be no successful progressive politics without bridging the liberal agenda of race and gender with discussions of class and capital. The conservatives have very astutely managed to associate talking about race and gender with the liberal elite, and American liberals have been all too happy to prove them right time and again. Pointless bullshit like the Bechdel test is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Your immense arrogance coupled with America’s obsession with race over the last few years is the reason you are where you are.

I could be wrong here, and feel free to correct me with actual usable information and not just "feelings," but isn’t the best way to support the types of movies/books/entertainment etc. that you want to see is to actually put your money where your mouth is and support them? Now, if were talking about FORCING people to make content that we want to see and not what they want to make that’s a whole other (fucked up) can of worms. At the end of the day, cash is king, and what people will plunk their dollars down for is what will be pushed towards the front.

I agree with you, but what part of the article are you responding to? These proposals could very well be a part of that process, especially considering the origin story of the Bechdel Test.

I think the last couple of sentences in the article nail it, except for the word "necessarily".

Here’s a truth (sad, happy, or indifferent)- Hollywood is struggling. Year to year, for the most part, the number of people who actually go to see a movie in a theater is declining (especially comparing to overall population growth). Hollywood has tried to offset this with ever-increasing ticket prices, but that’s just about maxed out (to the point where higher ticket prices discourage even more potential moviegoers). The future of Hollywood, if it is to survive, likely, isn’t in big theater productions but in streaming like Netflix releases.

Amidst this, Hollywood is focused on, obviously, maximizing whatever profits it can reap. They don’t like taking risk. Changing previously successful formulas. If a movie did better than expected, copy its formula and hope it does as well. This has birthed the current theme of repeats, rehashes, franchises, and remakes. What this means for women/minority representation and character development is that they aren’t going to go out on a limb. They tried that with the Ghostbusters remake- let’s remake a popular ‘80s film but with an all female lead cast- and, in the end, it likely lost between $50M and $100M. Sure, arguably, that wasn’t solely attributable to the cast, or it being female, but Hollywood executives won’t see it through such a complicated lens. At the end of the day, they look at history, see that the most successful movies of all time, for the most part, were written and directed by men, starred men, and had one-dimensional female characters. Why change the formula, if it’s worked?

Because it’s not working, as you said yourself. Preferring streaming over theaters is one option, but making different kinds of movies is another.

I wonder what a film that passed all their tests would be like.

How come I never see articles on these liberal websites complaining about the lack of male representation in nursing? It is a well-compensated career in high demand with great job security, after all. Maybe we could explore the social factors holding males back from that?

Also, maybe the author should take the time and describe the kind of movie that would be required to "pass" all these tests. From scanning over the "rules", such a movie would need to have a black, Latina, transgender female lead who spends the majority of screen time talking with other racial, anything-but-male gendered groups. And make doubly sure it contains absolutely no heterosexual relationships, because that would be violating the rule that women are not allowed to talk about men or vice versa. Homosexuality only please.

How come I never see articles on these liberal websites complaining about the lack of male representation in nursing? It is a well-compensated career in high demand with great job security, after all. Maybe we could explore the social factors holding males back from that?

Because nothing – literally nothing, you troll – is "holding males back" from nursing. Any man can get a nursing degree and get a nursing job any time he wants. Hospitals are desperate for nurses right now.

Hollywood, on the other hand, has a long and well-documented history of mistreating women and actually holding them back.

So should 50% of makeup artists, hair stylists and other professions largely occupied by women be held by men? This arbitrary stuff is beyond silly… Just think where this is leading us – in any organized group of 100 people it must include 50% women, 20% African american, 15% Hispanic, 15% handicapped people, at least 20% Muslim and don’t forget LGBTQ’s – in effect any group of people that have been excluded would be in this list.

The arbitrary nature of all of this that is encouraged would result in large numbers of unqualified people in these positions. This is an attempt to exclude the best qualified and most experienced people in a profession in the name of social justice. Instead of encouraging large pools of people to get educated and trained in a profession this thought process instead excoriates employers who don’t find the right mix of gender, ethnicity and creed. All this knowing in many professions there are not large pools of experienced personnel in any particular population group. This thought process is just plain destructive to all involved.

View All Comments
Back to top ↑