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American Women's Club of Hamburg

The Bechdel Test

The film Romantic Exiles (shown at both FilmFest Hamburg and London Film Festival) sparked my interest, only when the final scene took a ‘dig’ at gender bias and films. The reference by the two female actresses that the film wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test made me curious. I was interested to know what the Bechdel test was and why should films pass the test.

What I found was both thought-provoking and a rather gloomy statement on our society. The Bechdel test is a gender benchmark for films developed by Alison Bechdel in 1985. For a movie to pass the test, it must contain just one thing – a scene in which two or more named female characters have a conversation (that is, back and forth dialogue) about anything at all besides men. It doesn’t have to be good dialogue, it just has to pass the test. Whether the film passes or fails, doesn’t mean it’s a good movie but rather gets people thinking about the presentation of gender in film.

The Bechdel Test is important as it highlights the type of female characters we experience in films. They are typically unsubstantial, one dimensional and male dependent.

Curiously, Geena Davis held a symposium on this very topic at this year’s London Film Festival. During the symposium Ms. Davis presented the research findings from her own Institute on ‘Gender imbalance in children’s entertainment’.

She explained, “The results are stunning. In a world that is half-female, in the 21st century we are showing a message that women and girls have far less value than men and boys. In family rated films, for every speaking female character there were three male characters. The research also shows that when female characters do exist, they are very often stereotyped or hyper-sexualized. In G-rated films in the U.S. animated female characters wore the same amount of revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies.” It seems 30 years after, the Bechdel test female characters are still far outnumbered and enforcing gender stereotypes to the very young, impressionable minds of both boys and girls.

The representation of characters’ jobs in film also proved striking. “In family rated films, 81 percent of the jobs are held by male characters and the function of the female characters is very often to serve as eye-candy,” she said. “And it’s really bad if you look at the professions. Women hold 21 percent of global political positions, but one of the studies showed that of 127 political characters, only 12 of them were female.” It seems for once that fact is actually better than fiction.

A shining light in the professional sphere on film was, thanks to the CSI series, female forensic scientists, who make up at least 50 percent of the characters. “And in real life, the number of women wanting to enter that profession has skyrocketed, something like 75 percent of people studying that now are women," she said. "If they see it, they can be it.”

Another bright point is that the research found that there had been an increase in female characters over the past 20 years. However, Ms. Davis commented, “If we continue at this rate we will achieve parity in 700 years. The more hours of TV a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life. The more hours a boy watches, the more sexist his views become. So clearly, there’s a powerful negative message in what we’re showing kids, and this is why I chose to focus on what kids see, because it makes sense – let’s not create a problem that has to be solved later.”

So which of your favorite films or series would pass the Bechdel test and help to change gender stereotypes and attitudes?

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