Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Applying the Bechdel Test

In 1985, cartoonist Allison Bechdel created a litmus test to determine the presence of women in movies. Many of us in the industry are aware of the Bechdel Test, but the average movie-goer may not be. The test looks for three things:

1) Does the film have two or more women who have names? (In screenplays, it's fairly common to give small roles titles like TEENAGE PUNK or CASHIER rather than actual names.)

2) Do the women talk to each other?

3) Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

For a brief overview of the Bechdel Test I encourage you to watch this little video: 

But my purpose here today is to take a look at my own screenplays and see if they pass the test. I write both higher concept, bigger budget scripts that I hope to sell, as well as little indies that I plan to direct. I feel like I write great roles for women (and men). But I'm also always aware that for a lot of projects, if they don't have a strong male presence - or protagonist - they will be difficult to sell or finance.

I have never looked at my scripts from this perspective before, so here goes:

VACCINE (horror/thriller): An inner-city doctor fights to save his infected wife after the mandatory bird flu vaccine he administered to his patients proves to cause horrific mutations as devastating as the pandemic it was intended to prevent.
        1) Bee (hero's wife); Cecilia (Bee's sister); Mrs. Zeitlin; 
        2) Yes, Bee & Cecilia talk to each other, and Bee & Mollie 
        3) ... about things other than men.

TAKEN IN (horror/thriller): When the arrival of four homeless teenagers to a small town triggers disturbing personality changes, one rebellious teen fights to keep her identity after discovering that the strangers' intention is to use humans as shells that house their own alien species.

1) Paige (protagonist); Dr. Cameron (Paige's mother); Mrs. Strohmeyer; Sgt. Colaprete; Rose; Winter
2) Paige has several conversations with her mother, and speaks to Mrs. Strohmeyer and Sgt. Colaprete...
3)... about things other than men.

SKYBREAK (action/sci-fi): After the first-class passengers use all the escape pods to abandon a fatally damaged spaceship and leave the prisoner-class passengers behind, an incarcerated engineer fights his way through the crippled ship and panicked gangs to save his wife and repair the last remaining escape pod before the ship is destroyed.

        1) Alana (hero's wife); Delfina (prisoner)
        2) Yes, they have a conversation...
        3) ... though men are mentioned in the conversation, but 
        the women also talk about themselves.

HANDS AND KNEES (indie/psychological thriller): A stay-at-home mom is driven to the edge when her mute daughter suddenly claims to be a 17th century witch. As she struggles to prove to her husband that their daughter needs help, it becomes increasingly unclear just which one of them is mad.

        1) Suzette (protagonist); Kate (Suzette's daughter)
        2) Well, they are in many, many scenes together...
        3) ... though Kate is a child who does not speak.

THE MACHINE WHO LOVED (indie/psychological thriller): A lonely woman forced into early retirement makes a radical decision to ease her loneliness: she commissions her ideal mate - an artificial life form tailored to her every specification. But things quickly grow complicated when she fails to foresee the pitfalls of owning a sentient being.

       1) May (protagonist); Erica (May's best friend); Betty
       2) May & Betty speak, and May & Erica have intense scenes 
       3) ... though, due to the nature of the story, May & Erica 
       talk almost exclusively about May's acquired partner, 

GRAND CANYON (indie/drama/adventure): The true account of how a family's dysfunction reflects the vastness of the landscape itself when they all become separated during a poorly planned backpacking trip.

        1) Piper (protagonist); Morgan (sister); Ginger (mom)
        2) Yes, they all talk to each other...
        3)... about things other than men.

I have additional projects, but I think these are representative. I was a bit saddened to realize that I have quite a few scripts where women only speak to one another briefly. And I also found some missed opportunities to name characters with smaller roles! Although, I think the Bechdel Test fails to properly acknowledge films with a female protagonist. Of my 6 examples, 4 of them have female protagonists: TAKEN IN; HANDS AND KNEES; THE MACHINE WHO LOVED; and GRAND CANYON.

There continues to be gender imbalance in the decision-making process in the film industry, and thus much of what Hollywood produces is skewed toward the interests of men. Women are much better represented - as writers, directors, and story subjects - in independent films. But, because the budgets (and subsequent profits) are much smaller for independent films, the myth continues that woman-driven films and woman-oriented stories are not as profitable as male-driven, male-oriented stories. Until we see a balanced production slate - 50/50 male vs. female created films, with comparable budgets - it will be hard to disprove what the market seems to indicate. But we, as creators and movie lovers, can try to pay attention to what we create, what we watch, and what we like.

Have you seen something recently that fails or passes the Bechdel Test?

And for you writers (or filmmakers) out there, do your scripts tend to fail or pass the test?  

Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts - I'd love to know what you're watching & writing! :-)


  1. Feminist Frequency applies the Bechdel Test to this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees! Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PH8JuizIXw8

  2. Allison Bechdel is the best! "Fun Home" is especially good.