Video: Applying The Bechdel Test To The 2012 Oscar Nominees

Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency — a series of videos discussing female tropes and characters in pop culture — is back with a critical look at the 2012 Oscar nominees. A few years ago, media scholar Anita applied the Bechdel test to Hollywood films, with depressing results, but she’s decided to try again for the nine movies nominated for Best Picture.

Created by comic book writer/artist Allison Bechdel, the Bechdel test gauges the visibility of women in Hollywood films, based on three pretty simple rules:

  • There must be at least two women
  • who talk to each other
  • about something other than a man

Sadly enough, only a handful of Oscar films pass this test, and they do so narrowly. It’s shocking when you really consider movies that either have no female characters at all (Moneyball) or who subject their women to bland, meaningless conversations (Midnight in Paris). It’s kind of a given that The Help would fit on the list, though it doesn’t match the modified rule for characters of color, who must be able to talk about something other than white people.

A video like this highlights just how formulaic Hollywood has become, and how accepted it is for women to simply not interact on-screen.

You know which 2011 movie we loved that would pass the Bechdel test with flying colors? Martha Marcy May Marlene.

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    • Rachel

      While I agree with everything this video is saying about women’s roles in movies, I think that the test is applied a little too strictly to the movies “Hugo “and “Extremely Loud …” the women’s conversations in those movies are about a male child, not a man, which I think are considerably different things in movies. In both of those movies speaking about the child in question DOES move the plot along and have impact on the story, and the fact that the child is male has very little impact on the relevance of the women’s conversations. I think the Bechdel test should exclude male children under 13, since in most movies, the sex of a child under the age of 13 is practically interchangeable.

    • Cynthia

      I understand when there are few or no women in war movies, spy movies, historical movies about men in leadership roles, etc. Women are usually not represented in real life in those situations, they needn’t be represented on film. What really gets my goat, however, is when roles call for female representation, but are played by males instead. Some examples:

      1) Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). The lead ape researcher is played by James Franco; the choice of a lead female ape researcher would have been far more appropriate. All of the most famous ape researchers have been women: Jane Goodall (chimpanzees), Diane Fossey (gorillas) and Birutė Galdikas (orangutans).

      2) Antz (1998). The lead role of a neurotic worker ant went to Woody Allen even though in ant colonies there are very few male ants; Almost all members are female.

      3) Up (2009). There is a misfit pack of talking dogs owned by Muntz, the evil character in the film. All of the dogs are male dogs. Not a single one was female, even though it is quite common to use female dogs for guard duty.

    • Cynthia

      “By Rachel,” I have to disagree that “the Bechdel test should exclude male children under 13, since in most movies, the sex of a child under the age of 13 is practically interchangeable.”

      I haven’t surveyed the frequency of young boys verses young girls in movies, but I would hazard a guess that many more boys are represented than girls. Hence, the standard should stay as it is.

    • Cynthia

      I’d like to see an improved version of the Bechdel, one that not only tests for women’s presence in films, but also tests for affirmation of women’s agency (ability to take action to solve problems). My revised Bechdel would include the original three requirements:

      Section A:
      1) There must be at least two women
      2) Who talk to each other for at least 60 seconds (Thanks, Anita Sarkeesian, for the time requirement)
      3) About something other than a man

      Additionally, the film:
      Section B:
      1) Has to depict at least one woman with agency (taking action to solve a problem)
      2) Does not depict women as passive wives, lovers, girlfriends, or mothers.
      3) Does not depict women as sexually-alluring eye candy (naked or dressed in scanty clothing within a sexual context, especially when men present remain clothed).

      There are very few movies that pass. However, it’s interesting to note how the addition of these requirements changes the score. For instance, while “Lord of the Rings” only gets 1/3 in the original Bechdel Section A, it gets 3/3 in Section B of the Bechdel version 2.0 test (which, I believe, is one of the reasons women like it so much).

      A couple of the movies nominated for Best Film at the Oscars managed a 6/6 score: “The Help” and “The Descendents” (which had a young woman in a bikini, but it wasn’t within a sexual context).

      I’m just having fun with this: I don’t mean that we should apply these tests to films to determine their “watchability.” Far from it. Heck, my favorite film this year was “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” which would have garnered a 1/3 Section A, and 1/3 Section B. It’s just that if there’s a film out there with good reviews, and I suspect that it earns a 3/3 Section A, and a 3/3 Section, that’s the one I’m going to make sure to watch.