10 minutes of Bechdel-Wallace fail

As I have said before, Bechdel-Wallace Rule or Test is a very low bar, and yet so few films pass it. A comic by Bechdel has a character whose rule for feminist moviegoing is as follows:

The film must have
1. at least two named women in it, who
2. talk to each other, about
3. something other than a man.

I’ve also run the thought experiment of applying the same rule to SF novels, with similarly depressing results of very few “classics” making the cut.

The video below is a beautifully made montage of memorable movie moments called “Epic Movie Tribute”, where the videomaker has pulled together his personal selection of “great films since 1960”. My pointing out that every film moment he selected fails the Bechdel-Wallace Test (BWT) is not meant to call his taste into question – I think most of those films would make a great movies shortlist for almost any fan of films that slant towards the action genre. Besides, even most “chick-flicks” fail the BWT, because the women in them mostly only have one topic of conversation – their romantic entanglements with/yearnings for men as the only possible path of personal fulfilment. This inability of most films (and books and plays and songs) to hurdle such a low bar in the portrayal of women characters is a matter of the zeitgeist of fictional narrative, so mostly liking films that fail the BWT is much more a matter of the films that get a wide market release rather than being a matter of personal taste.

My pointing out that every film in this 10-minute film montage fails the BWT is however meant to call Hollywood’s institutional taste and judgement into question – why are very nearly all these films written around an all-male or mostly-male cast, and why are nearly all these memorable moments in these films written for the male actors, especially those involving “buddy flick” moments? SilverF0x27/Jared hasn’t chosen many actual action sequences per se, (action scenes would make the BWT pretty irrelevant) – he’s chosen more in the way of “character-establishing” shots, many of which involve men interacting with other men to display aspects of character/personality, which does make the BWT relevant .

In the entire 10 minutes of this montage, I counted four female faces. Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor beside Arnie’s robot and the young John Connor in Terminator 2. Sigourney Weaver looking determined in Aliens. Uma Thurman with her sword in in the teahouse in Kill Bill. Naomi Watts looking terrified by the giant gorilla in King Kong. None of them are talking to anybody, let alone another woman.

For the rest of the montage, there are many solo shots of male actors in iconic shots from “lone wolf” hero roles, but there is also a plethora of memorable “buddy” moments from two-handers and ensemble films – arguably what is most memorable about these movies is the relationship between the male leads that is on show and which grows through the process of frustrating the bad guys. But what relationships do the female characters have with other women? Ripley and The Bride are lone wolf heroines (Ripley’s relationship with young Root is as a fierce protector, not as a buddy, and the other women in Kill Bill are fatal rivals to The Bride), Sarah Connor’s onscreen interactions are all with men, and I haven’t seen the recent King Kong but I haven’t heard that Naomi Watts’ kidnapped heroine gets any more female companionship time than Fay Wray or Jessica Lange did (which would be zero).

As many others have noted over the years, a montage of “great films between 1930 and 1960” would include many more iconic moments with women characters, and most of them would involve interaction with other characters rather than being a lone heroine (although few of them still would involve scenes of those women interacting with other women, even fewer would be women talking of something other than a man, and thus most would still fail the BWT).

I’m failing to find a satisfactory closing point for this post, so I throw it open to the readership, because it’s a while since we’ve discussed the BWT. What popular fictional works have you seen/read over the last few years that have actually passed the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism

Tags: ,

17 replies

  1. It is a bit of an oldie but Gosford Park does (I think) and it is full of absolutely stonking roles and fabulous, caustic dialogue for women. It is a shame that being ‘period’ it is easy to dismiss it but I loved the way it picked at the seams of class and gender relations. One of my favourite snippets of conversation between two women:
    -You know what I heard? … Oh, just listen to me.
    – What?
    – Why do we spend our lives living through them? I mean, look at poor old Lewis.
    If her own mother had a heart attack, she’d think it was less important than one of Lady Sylvia’s farts.
    She is talking of class but it strikes me that the B-W test selects for those movies where women don’t only ‘live through’ their relationships with and perceptions of men, so it seems apt.

  2. Battlestar Galactica had many female characters who interacted with each other on many topics, usually not their love lives. Sailed well over the bar.
    Breaking Bad just clears the bar – sistes Skyler and Marie often talk about Skyler’s husband, the main character, but I remember a conversation about Marie shoplifting.
    Dexter occasionally scrapes over the bar, with Deb talking to other women about police work.
    Mad Men – Peggy and Joan had some interesting conversations, and Betty had some scenes with Carla the housekeeper and also her childhood housekeeper whose name I don’t recall. But mostly the interesting female characters interacted with the men, not each other.
    30 Rock – Liz and Jenna mostly talk about Jenna’s career.
    Big Love – the shared husband, Bill, is often the topic of conversation, but there are many scenes between the wives, daughter Sara and her friend, and interesting supporting characters such as Bill, Barb and Nicki’s mothers , sisters and sisters-in-law. These conversations are often about men, but not always.

  3. p.s. I don’t think it’s an accident that my examples are from TV and not movies.

  4. I haven’t been to a lot of movies recently but I just remembered Paranormal Activity had two scenes of the main heroine talking with her friend about both their hobbies and the weird stuff happening in the house. And there’re only four people in the cast!
    The only other things I’ve been watching are old series and new video games
    Lost: passes
    Slayers Revolution: I’m pretty sure passes, main character Lina talks to Amelia, Syphiel, random background characters and the main vilian is female so we get two women talking about plot
    Accidentally on Purpose: passes, main three women talk about their lives, the main character’s pregnancy, they talk about guys a lot too but thankfully not all the time.
    on the games side of things I’m playing Assassin’s Creed 1, so far not passing, there are women in the garden who must be talking to each other but you can’t hear it and while I’ve done one evaes dropping/pickpocket mission with a man and a woman talking so far none with two women. Dragon Age Origins passes, even if you make a male character you get Flemmeth and Morrigan talking to each other about the state of the world about Morrigan etc.

  5. * Grey’s Anatomy passes well and truly (and also passes the bar of having two women of colour talk with each other about work).
    * Ugly Betty – conversations between Betty and her sister, and between women at Mode; these are sometimes about men, but not always.
    * Bones – Temperance, Angela, and Camille talk about remains and their detective work
    * Nurse Jackie passes in the first episode or two (Jackie “training” her student nurse, Jackie lunching with her snobby doctor friend) – I haven’t seen much else yet
    * True Blood – Sookie and Tara don’t only ever talk about men
    * Army Wives
    * Sarah Jane Adventures

  6. Serenity – yay for Joss, as per usual.

  7. Yes, Orlando. Yay for Joss. Buffy and Willow used to interact a lot, and usually not about guys.
    What about Dollhouse though?

  8. Tigtog, you’re right to say that this problem is a product of Hollywood to a certain degree. Hollywood is focussed on producing films for adolescent males and it’s pretty easy for the executives to tap into their own adolescent male and make films about blokes blowing stuff up.
    I looked ay my filmwatching diary for this year an did a bit of counting. I’ve seen 102 films at the cinema. 38 would pass the test (still way too low) and it’s no concidence that 22 were directed by women. It’s also not surprising that none of them come from mainstream Hollywood, except for ‘Julie and Julia’. Yet, there’s a huge market to tap into that Hollywood doesn’t supply. That is the market that’s made up of women who would actually like something entertaining, engaging and reflective of women’s lives in all ouur diversity.
    It’s really important to support women directors, because they’re the one’s making films where women are at the centre of the story. I saw a preview of ‘Bright Star’, Jane Campion’s new film and it really is a great film. It’s primarily about the relationship between Fanny Brawne and John Keats. But it’s her story, not his and she has strong, interesting relationships with her mother and her girlfriends. It’s also ravishingly beautiful.

  9. Here’s an interesting blog about women and Hollywood, which is pertinent to this discussion.

  10. This post made me realise something. My comic aces the BWT. It has three named women in the lead roles, three named women as the recurring “bad guys” and many of them often talk about things that have nothing to do with men. There are two recurring male characters so far. Huh. 🙂

  11. Is ‘named’ named on screen or named in the script?
    I think Roman Holiday just scrapes in because of the scene towards the begining of the film where Princess Anne and Countess Vereberg, her lady-in-waiting, discuss Anne’s schedule for the next day.
    However, if it weren’t for that scene, the movie would fail Bechdel-Wallace-wise because Anne doesn’t have much female interaction after she runs away.

    • @Purrdence,
      Pretty sure it only makes sense if the characters are named on the screen. It’s meant to be a guide for normal film consumers, not film geeks.

  12. Desk Set
    All the Charlaine Harris books (she wrote the series True Blood is based on)
    Most mystery books with a female lead character have at least one scene that meets the Bechdel Test.

  13. Fringe passes fairly often, and Lost has passed it (though less often). Alias did too, come to that.
    Doctor Who has passed it (the scenes I’m thinking of are the moment where Rose and Sarah Jane snap at each other is about which of them has seen better monsters; and the moment where Martha and Donna share their sense of excitement when they step onto a new planet).
    Underworld passed, and Whiteout just about scraped through. (Conversely, the Whiteout graphic novel passes with flying colours, but that’s what happens when movie adaptations drop main female characters for male replacements).
    Sandstorm by James Rollins (a book thats placed into the “DaVinci Code for intelligent people” genre, though the comparison is a bit specious).
    Most books by Kelley Armstrong. The Blue Girl by Charles de Lint.
    One episode of Poirot did (Cards on the Table, where he was cooperating with three other investigators, one of whom was Ariadne Oliver). I would assume the book did as well, but I haven’t read it, to my shame.

  14. The Kelly Armstrong books – Women of the Underworld series should pass the test. The women are all strong character, interact about supernatural things – sometimes about the men in their lives, but generally about the supernatural… though at times they play the Lone Wolf.
    Elizabeth Moon’s – Serrano Legacy books are again based on strong women characters who are often talking about everything other than men… so their careers, horses, society, etc… and are great space operas.

    • Thanks, Purrdence. That’s a great list. I’m trying to work out whether Daria should be on it – because it’s set in high school there’s a lot of angst about relationships going on generally, but half the conversations I remember are between Daria and her bestie rolling their eyes at Daria’s sister, Daria’s parents, and whatever trendy ridiculousness the cool kids at school are into that week.

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