Does Art Imitate Life? Uh-oh!

The Bechdel Test

by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

I can always count on my sons to introduce a provocative topic into the conversation, one that almost always makes me think about things a little differently. For example, one night we were discussing movies and they asked if I could name any that passed The Bechdel Test . “The what?” “You know…The Bechdel Test.” “Noooo…never heard of it.”

With the summer movie season under way, it’s the perfect time to explore The Bechdel Test and guess how the latest releases will do. In order to “pass,” a movie needs to meet just three qualifications:

  1. Does it contain two or more named female characters? [Named female characters is important here.]
  2. Do they talk to each other? [Not to a male character or to an unnamed female cast member; to each other.]
  3. Do they discuss something other than a man? [Anything. Anything at all.]

Important reminder:  All of the criteria need to be met to pass the test. Think of a movie yet?

There have to be some, right? Sure, there are! Let’s see…there’s Thelma and Louise! There you go! Two named female characters who talk to each other, and yes, they discuss something other than a man. One of their topics is why they’ll drive their car over the edge of the Grand Canyon because they can’t see another way out of their problems brought on by and/or exacerbated by…wait for it…men. Hmmm. But it qualifies. That’s one!

Terms of Endearment! Of course! The film has several named female characters: Emma and her mother, Aurora, and Emma’s friend Patsy, primarily. Although they talk about men throughout the film, they occasionally introduce other topics. Topics like Emma’s terminal cancer, and how Aurora (and maybe Patsy) will raise Emma’s children because the husband she’ll leave behind is hardly up to the task. Wait a minute…another man on the periphery of the dialogue, but the movie still counts.

What about more current films? Maybe we’ve become more enlightened in the 21st century. Director Katherine Bigelow won an Academy Award, for God’s sake! Surely she has directed strong female characters. She has…in 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, which passes The Bechdel Test. Her Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker, does not.

What about Gravity? Nope, only one named female character. Captain Phillips? Nope, another film with only one named female character. Dallas Buyer’s Club? Maybe this works, though I’m not sure if Jared Leto’s character counts as a female. Bridesmaids passes!

Back to the archives. The Wizard of Oz passes. So do Gone with the Wind, Mildred Pierce, The Sound of Music, and Private Benjamin. I grant you that a number of films make the cut, but doesn’t the nature of the test trouble you? It gave me pause to consider how women are portrayed in films. Our perspective appears to be shockingly narrow, and it’s offered up over and over again on screen.

Finally—newsflash!—there is no Bechdel Test for male characters. If there were, it would evaluate whether or not a film has two named male characters who talk to each other and who discuss a woman. There are plenty of those. I think even The Godfather passes the male version of The Bechdel Test. [Surprisingly, Bridesmaids would not pass the male Bechdel Test. I don’t think two named male characters speak one word of dialogue to each other in it.]

What have we learned? Two things: 1. Films with strong female leads that carry the narrative seem to have the best chance of passing the test. (Blue Jasmine, Frozen River, Winter’s Bone, and Margaret come to mind.) 2. There are few movies produced that have strong female leads who carry the narrative.

So what are your favorite films that pass The Bechdel Test? And isn’t it weird how many don’t? 

Renee-JamesRenee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates—and broods about—life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, “Really? You’re kidding me, right?” (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.

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6 Responses to Does Art Imitate Life? Uh-oh!

  1. Donna in Delaware June 27, 2014 at 6:49 am #

    This is very interesting. I know, it’s difficult! Renee, what about August Osage County with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts? I think that one may qualify, but they did discuss the dreaded topic, ‘men,’ or a ‘man’. But it wasn’t the real focus of the movie. What about Beaches? Not sure, but I think that passes too! I want to say Steel Magnolias, one of my favs, but…

    Isn’t it weird how these movies start out as one thing, then morphs into something about a man, then maybe back to what it was meant to be at the start? There always have to be a man, or men, involved in the plot, as if we women can’t be interesting on our own, and keep the interest of the audience without bringing the man-woman relationship into things.

    Maybe I could think of a few more, but It’s difficult off the top of my head without giving it hard thought, and that’s sad, now that you have brought it to our attention. Who thinks of these things? Hollywood and tv have inundated us with this for so long, that we just feel that it is normal and it goes right over our heads! Again, an interesting blog. Definitely food for thought!

  2. Renee June 27, 2014 at 7:52 am #

    Thanks Donna! I think it depends partly on how much you want to interpret the rule about the topic of conversation. You’re right – men seem to be connected – at least by a dotted line – to many conversations between female characters. I haven’t seen all the movies you mentioned but the test’s website lists thousands of movies with their “pass / fail” rating and comments from viewers. Interesting reading.

    I have no objection to relationships being part of plot. That’s life! I may have objections, or at least questions, when relationships are the only part of a plot, at least when it comes to female characters.

  3. Donna in Delaware June 27, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    I have no objection either Renee, simply because it’s life, and the intertwining of the relationship between a man and woman, or men and women, is constantly present, like what to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Just don’t always make it the main plot in a movie, or book, for that matter. There are other things in life just as, or more important and relevant to people.

  4. Heather Uczynski June 27, 2014 at 9:20 pm #

    Renee – I learned about the Bechdel Test a while ago from niece Paige. I also read several of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novels, which I really enjoyed.

  5. Renee June 29, 2014 at 2:58 pm #

    Where would we be without young people keeping u up to date? : ) I’ll have to pick up some of her books – the boys started me on graphic novels, too!

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