In 1985 American cartoonist Alison Bechdel drew a comic strip in which one woman told another of a rule she applied when deciding whether or not to watch a movie. The film had to meet three criteria:
1. Are there two women in it?
2. Do they speak to each other?
3. Is that conversation about something other than a man?
So it was that a test was created that could be used to assess gender bias in cinema. Pop culture picked it up and ran with it and the questions as they are applied now typically have the amendment that the two female characters should be named rather than merely appearing the film. The test caught on because there are genuinely and alarmingly a significant number of mainstream films that score poorly when measured in this way. Often this is not obvious on initial viewing but when you push it through the Bechdel filter it becomes evident how the girls have been short changed. An example of this would be The Avengers which is surprising considering Joss Whedon’s commitment to strong female characters. There are three named women in the film, Natasha Romanoff, Maria Hill and Pepper Potts, but at no point do they converse. That is a disappointing 1 out of 3.
Other films that clock up the same minimal score include all three parts of the original Star Wars Trilogy, the The Lord of the Rings, The Social Network, Back to the Future 3, The Princess Bride, The Dark Knight Rises and curiously the last Harry Potter movie (women say things to other women but get no response and that isn’t a conversation now is it, Molly Weasley and Bellatrix Lastrange?)
Encouragingly there is evidence that the times they are a-changin’. Seven out of the top ten highest grossing films of 2013 score the maximum three points and, of the few that don’t, one only has two named characters in it of either sex, one of which is a woman. It’s an outer space film too which don’t traditionally score big in this area. Consider Star Trek Into Darkness which does have female characters but doesn’t exactly show them in the most empowering way, putting them in and taking them out of tight fitting costumes.
Of course, the test only measures the lowest benchmark and has flaws but I don’t think Alison Bechdel can be criticised for that. The idea was launched in a cartoon strip after all, not a thesis. Clearly a film scoring poorly does not automatically mean it is misogynist, Captain Phillips gets a big fat zero but that is appropriate to the context. Conversely a healthy three does not mean you are dealing both genders an equal hand. Oz the Great and Powerful has four main female characters but one of them is a desperately fragile china doll and the others are witches. (I know Glinda isn’t an evil crone but she really isn’t challenging any stereotypes and she is waiting for a man to save her just like everyone else.)
To be fair Oz is slightly shackled by its fairy tale origins just like many other classic kid’s films. It is clearly always important for gender to be presented in a manner presenting equality and respect across the board but it is arguably a more fundamental requirement in films marketed to children. Most of the Disney Princess movies sail through to a score of three on the Bechdel Scale but still don’t send a perfect message to impressionable young viewers. Cinderella, for instance, lives with three other women so there is plenty of conversation but they are an oppressive and demanding bunch and she needs to rely on two generations of a patriarchal monarchy to rescue her from her drudgery. She is a strong, resilient and independently minded woman but the mice still offer a better picture of feminism than she does.
Sleeping Beauty is the same, plenty of women talking to each other but we still have a heroine that needs saving by a prince. Then there is Lady and the Tramp. Yes there are two named female characters and yes they speak to one another but it isn’t just a conversation about the male protagonist, it is a whole musical number. Thank heavens for Mary Poppins (even with its interesting take on the suffragette movement).
Today though, we have plenty of positive portrayals of women to show our little ones. In Tangled Rapunzel doesn’t really get rescued from her tower as much as she escapes by knocking a man unconscious, tying him up and bribing him to take her where she wants to go. (Ariel was another free spirited girl but you can imagine her doing that no matter how much she deified her Daddy.) I may have put a particular spin on this but Tangled is certainly very effective in how it balances the gender roles; both the male and female heroes are constantly saving each other without any Mulan style cross dressing involved. Disney has also worked to redress the Princess movie balance with The Princess and the Frog. This film features a female lead who works hard to start up and manage her own business and takes charge in the face of the man’s ineptitude. She still falls in love but does so without compromising her independence or ambition and yes, her nature changes as a result of her relationship with the boy but that isn’t sexist, that is just relationships. Besides, he evolves just as much, if not more so.
Disney’s subsidiary company Pixar has enjoyed incredible critical and commercial success but is curiously inconsistent in terms of its representation of women. They did give us Jessie, the dynamic go-getter cowgirl doll and Elastigirl who manages to be both a mother and a superhero but their last film, Monster University is all nameless cheerleaders, fussy Mums and intimidating head mistresses. It’s as though Annie Oakley and Wonder Woman had been booked to deliver an inspirational speech only to be replaced at the last minute by Norma Bates, Mrs Trunchbull and The Laker Girls. Monsters University scores just 1 on the Bechdel test. As previously stated this isn’t a problem in itself. Previous Pixar film Up scores 0 but that fits with the story it is telling and we don’t want tokenism either. The single named female in Up is the driving force behind the entire movie, even though she dies ten minutes in.
What we really want is films where the spread of significant male to female characters simply reflects that of real life and where all involved are moving the plot forward without being simpering damsels. There are movies out there for children that fit the bill but we still aren’t in a position where they can be taken for granted. How to Train Your Dragon, Despicable Me and Kung Fu Panda all measure up so you could start with them.
Okay, maybe not Kung Fu Panda. It scores a 3 and the girls literally kick butt as well as the boys but it just isn’t that good which is a whole different problem.
If you want quality film making and positive female role models in children’s films, just look to Studio Ghilbi.