The ISWYD Test: a new way of measuring the portrayal of women in cinema.

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I think I need to stop judging films by The Bechdel Test. It isn’t that I think it is a poor test. It is a great way of measuring the way movies treat women but it is a little flawed. (No criticism of Alison Bechdel here. She never intended it to stand up to academic scrutiny.) The game changer here is Gravity, a film that scores a big fat zero on the test but clearly isn’t guilty of marginalising women.

As an alternative, after probably way too little thought, I’ve come up with The ISWYD Test; the letters standing for ‘if she was your daughter’. (What can I say? I am the parent of three girls!) These then are the three questions you need to check the film against:

1. Is there a female lead?

2. If that character was your daughter would you be proud of her?

3. If your daughter did those things would you tell all your friends about it?

Apply this to Gravity and you get a top score of three. Is there a female lead? Yes, the lead is a woman. If that character were my daughter would I be proud of her? Of course, quite aside from the fact that she is a doctor and an astronaut, she shows incredible ingenuity, fortitude and bravery. If my daughter did those things would you I tell all of my friends about it? You bet, it’s an incredible story. Although they might not believe me.

Let’s relate it to a few more of the films I’ve seen recently and hopefully you’ll get the full picture. If you look at Walter Mitty, the person closest to being the female lead is Kristen Wiig’s Cheryl Melhoff. Would I be proud of her? Sure, she’s nice, she’s a good mum and she goes out of her way to help people. Would I tell all my friends about what she does? No, not really, she doesn’t get up to that much. That’s two out of three so The Secret Life of Walter Mitty does not show women in a positive light as much as Gravity. I’d say that was fair.

What about American Hustle which scores an easy three on the Bechdel Test but doesn’t perhaps show the ladies at their best? It has two female leads but I wouldn’t be a proud dad based on their on screen exploits and I certainly wouldn’t be shouting about it. ‘Hi, have you met my daughter Sydney? She spends a great deal of her life pretending to be someone else, conning people out of their money, lying, manipulating, using sex as a tool for personal gain and you can see the majority of her boobs the majority of the time.’ American Hustle scores one on the ISWYDTest. This obviously doesn’t make it a bad film, it just means you shouldn’t look to it for positive visions of womanhood.

12 Years a Slave gets two, Patsy is a very strong woman that I’d be proud to call my daughter but I don’t think she’d want me telling everyone about the ordeals she suffers. That might seem a harsh ruling for such a great film but if we were looking at the male character I’d definitely tell his story, even the nasty bits, so there is a gender imbalance.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug gets three if you consider Tauriel a lead but zero if you don’t, which you probably shouldn’t. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire gets a well deserved three, as does Frozen and Thor The Dark World but it’s one for Blue Jasmine and possibly even nothing for Rush.

Of course the test is only as good as the moral judgement of the person applying it but if we lived in a perfect world maybe we wouldn’t need these tests at all.

What do you think, does it work?


7 thoughts on “The ISWYD Test: a new way of measuring the portrayal of women in cinema.

  1. I like it. Totally agree that the Bechdel has it’s limitations. This makes a good additional test, although like you say it depends on the user.
    I look forward to seeing how the next few films you review hold up under this new scrutiny.

  2. It’s interesting, but perhaps doesn’t quite hit the mark of what the (admittedly flawed) Bechdel test is trying to do.

    The point of the Bechdel test was really to show how few speaking roles there are for female characters that don’t revolve around men, and not as a moral judgement on the roles themselves. Your test puts the onus on females to have upstanding behaviour, and treats roles that may be more morally complex, or even downright villainous as less important, which they aren’t. If every film followed this guide, every female character would be pollyanna-ish, which would get a bit dull.

    It’s a good idea as a starting point though, and I agree, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have these tests at all.

  3. That is a really good point, thank you. I was trying come up with something that measured if women were portrayed positively rather than just being there but you are absolutely right that villainous characters would not get dealt with properly. This and the Pollyanna issue would both come down to the morality of the person applying the test which is a problem I am aware of. Certainly I would not require my daughters to be Pollyanna perfect to be proud of them. The true test of a test is clearly in its application so hopefully I can amend it once its flaws show through. I am currently writing a post on Wolf of Wall Street which is proving interesting in relation to this.

  4. The Bechdel Test is not a barometer of a film’s quality, it merely points out a flaw in depictions of women in film, however it tells us more when applied to many different films.

    As you said, a lot of great feminine depictions slip through the net (like Gravity)and, as Chloe rather aptly pointed out the test is generally about whether women in films are defined by their interactions with men. You mentioned the Hunger Games and the great thing about Katniss is she is completely undefined by her relations with males. In Gravity, the test really serves no purpose, there are only three or four speaking roles in the film, and two of them are over radio! Sometimes in a film the main point of it may be how women are defined by men. So who knows!

    With regards to your test, I find it hard to apply because I don’t have any children, so I don’t know how the “proudness” would manifest itself. There’s a lot of strong female characters that I wouldn’t say I hypothetically felt proud about, and that’s not just talking about “evil” characters.

    I doubt there can be any one test that encompasses all that is wrong with feminine depictions, but in truth, the best test is where we judge the film for what it is and not through a predetermined schema.

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