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Attention is being drawn to women in movies, or rather, the lack thereof. Check out the Bechdel Test and New York Film Academy chart of women in Hollywood.

Montage of Golden Hollywood

Photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinema_of_the_United_States

Golden Age of Hollywood. 1st row, l-r: Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Marlon Brando, Marx Brothers, Joan Crawford. 2nd row, l-r: John Wayne, James Stewart, Buster Keaton, Claudette Colbert, Gene Kelly, Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Kirk Douglas. 3rd row, l-r: Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Harlow, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks and Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Laurence Olivier, Marlene Dietrich, James Cagney. 4th row, l-r: Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Orson Welles, Mae West, William Holden, Sophia Loren. 5th row, l-r: Vivien Leigh, Joan Fontaine and Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Barbara Stanwyck, Lillian Gish, Tyrone Power, Shirley Temple, Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston, Rita Hayworth, Mary Pickford.

My family often spends some part of holiday vacations in the movie theater.  I grew up going to the local $1 movie with my dad, which set a precedence for giving most movies a try.

If your winter plans include some type of movie going experience, you might want to check out the Bechdel Test movie list.

The Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test is meant to draw attention to women in movies, or rather, the lack of women in movies.  The test has three criteria for judging a movie: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. Basically, the test is meant to be a simple way to gauge the active presence of women characters in Hollywood.  Allison Bechdel is credited for the concept—outlined in her 1985 comic Dykes to Watch Out For. (The test has also been roughly adapted to look at race in popular fiction).

The list of non-passing movies might re-color the way you think about some of your favorites (Slumdog Millionarie, The Princess Bride, The Fifth Element, Shrek, The Shawshank Redemption—all failed).  Movie theaters in Sweden have started introducing this rating system, and a Scandinavian cable channel is hosting “A” rated nights to show films that pass the test.

But is it that simple?

The tool has received some criticism for not recognizing that films might fail the test but still enrich society or do things to promote equality.  I’m not sure that you can argue The Silver Linings Playbook passes the Bechdel Test, but I think the movie had important mental health messages.  The Representation Project, who made the film Miss Representation, has a must watch video out called “How The Media Failed Women in 2013.” One of the success stories they highlight is the popularity of Gravity at the box office, but this movie would fail the Bechdel test.  I can also imagine a string of youtube videos that tout passing the Bechdel Test but resemble a certain Robin Thicke video.  My own research has shown how the transitional process of gender equality isn’t necessarily straightforward or fluid.

The absence of women in Hollywood

So, this test isn’t perfect, but the need to talk about women in Hollywood is undeniable.  Look at the New York Film Academy chart released last week.  Basically, they showed that women are portrayed less in film and, when they do appear, are often in sexual clothing or partially naked.  Overall, there are smaller percentages of women employed behind the scenes, too; in Academy Award history, the chart points out, only four women filmmakers have been nominated for best director and only one (Kathryn Bigelow) has won.  Another disheartening statistic—the top 16 single-film paychecks all went to men (scroll down to see the list of highest paid actors and actresses).

There is hope—the chart also points out success stories and women who are breaking down these glass ceilings.  Seriously, did you need another reason to see or read The Hunger Games (or re-read or view one more time)?

We aren’t just sponges soaking up culture

For me, one of the most important steps in feminism is learning to engage in critical thinking about the world around you.  Maybe you won’t decide to reject any movie that fails the test, but the Bechdel Test can be a great first step to reflecting on the content of movies you see and the way women and gender norms are represented by Hollywood.  Bring it up after a movie date or at a dinner party and see what people think.  For a straightforward test, I find that applying it to movies actually complicates what I think my expectations are for women in movies.

Margo Mullinax

works as Project Coordinator at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University while working on a PhD in Health Behavior.
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