The Bechdel Test Is Not Enough

Lots of new movies are coming out, as is the usual happening at the beginning of the year. Of course this creates this whirlwind of discussion about how movies are not representing the non-male population. My wife was kind enough to link me this video, which is a Ted talk about how movies are impressing our young people.

For your reference, the Bechdel Test basically has three requirements: Are there at least two female characters, do they talk to each other, and is that conversation about something other than men?
A friend also shared this article with me, which is a good argument on why the Bechdel Test isn’t enough.

Now fast forward about 35 seconds, and this sparked a conversation about the Lego Movie, which just came out on February 7th and has a staggering 96% on Rotten Tomatoes as of the time of this writing. Whoa. Very few animates movies ever maintain that kind of high rating. I just happened to see it this past Sunday, right before this whole conversation started.

Now, the Lego Movie barely passes the Bechdel test, and it only passes by virtue of the fact that the Unikitty character is being considered female (although it’s a cat unicorn thing, so I don’t know how much identity reinforcement is really happening there). The main female character, Wild Style, is a totally kickass Master Builder who basically has no romantic interest in the other main character until she does. I don’t want to spoil the plot for you, but of course they get together in the end.
Here’s the not-so-awesome. There are basically exactly four female characters in The Lego Movie. Five if you count Unikitty. Out of thousands of characters. You have Wonder Woman, Random Cat Lady, Female Construction Worker (with cleavage), Unikitty, and Wild Style. The last character they had to invent, because there are basically no female legos in the real world.
EDIT: Apparently there are actually six because Lego Cleopatra.

You know how I know that? Because I LOVE Legos, I play with them more often than any adult should. Oh, and because this brilliant 7-year-old also noticed that there are no girl legos.

But despite this weirdly disproportionate arrangement, the Lego Movie still technically passes the Bechdel Test. I hope you will understand, then, that I feel there is a call for a greater test.

We’ll call it the Seibert Test because that’s my last name and that’s how you name stuff like this.

First, to adequately represent the actual population of the world, is the cast (including minor and major characters) made up of at least 50% female characters?
-If you don’t think this is a problem, you need to read this amazing article on Geena Davis. “The percentage of women in crowd scenes in films is 17”. 17%, not even close to the actual nearly 51% of the population that is female.
In order to pass this test there must be both minor and major characters, so a movie with one main male character saving a planet full of women only to be wined, dined, and sexed by them? Does not pass. Sorry, Captain Kirk.

Second, because we’re all sick of the stereotypes, is the genre ANYTHING other than romance?
-If you don’t think this is an issue, name three movies with an all-female or mostly-female cast that are not porn or romance movies (especially rom-com). Let me see… Steel Magnolias? Nope, 8 female and 12 male characters. Arguably a rom-com-drama. Bridesmaids? Rom-com. Sex and the city? C’mon, it has the word Sex in the NAME. If you think of three movies, now think of three that have been released in the last decade. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
I want for someone to prove me wrong, except that rom-coms keep being delegated to the girl’s section in the movies. This needs to change.
To pass this portion of the test, the movie can’t be filed under one genre but so full of romance that no one really knows the difference. It’s safe to say if it fails the Bechdel it will also fail this one.

THIRD, do any of the female characters have power over their own destiny?
Movies like The King and I, which have literally 60 or 70 female characters, would fail this portion of the test because basically everyone is stuck going along with the whims of a powerful male. Some define this as being a “strong” character, but I like the way my friend Betsy Dornbusch calls it “women of impact.” If a character just goes with what’s happening and lets the world hand her platter after platter of whatever the hell, she’s not really a character of substance. Which means she exists to tick a box. This is not how real people work, and it’s not how characters should be either.
For the record, if there are no intelligent conversations between two women, there probably won’t be any evidence of passing this point.
A caveat/addendum to this rule is that rape may not be used as a plot device to further the story unless necessary for the sake of historical accuracy or because of a “real events” representation. It is not an easy out for the writers to use to show how much of a jerk the bad guy is and may not be used as a power play or in any way painted in a positive light. Rape strips power from the characters in a movie or show and that can never be fully recovered.
– Why do we need this check? Because otherwise movies with one dude with a harem would totally count as gender equal because there are lots of women in it.

FOURTH: Are ALL Characters capable of being equally hypersexualized regardless of gender? You can put the girls in awkward skin tight clothing if you do the same thing to the boys because it’s A. Porn or B. A World Device.
Examples of this: The Avengers in Joss Whedon’s World, the characters in Remember Me (a recent Capcom/Steam release that got not enough attention), Orange is the New Black (mostly).
– If you don’t think this is necessary you probably also don’t notice yourself staring at cleavage.

FINALLY, as a bonus point, shoes. Sensible freaking shoes. Dear DC: Catwoman probably shouldn’t wear spikes. Neither should Wonder Woman. Kate Beckett would be one of the coolest characters ever if she didn’t wear those idiotic heels. At least Lt. Rizzoli only wears those heels in the promo photos. As sexy as they make you look, they are clearly a crippling disadvantage–especially in action situations! No real woman makes these dumb footwear decisions if they live in a highly active situation.
…except my wife who insists on cute shoes, but she clearly isn’t guiding my action star criteria.

Interestingly enough, there are lots of series that seem like they would make this cut–and that’s our perception of female-crowding in media going on, apparently. For example, I feel like Once Upon a Time has a solid and extensive female cast. But according to their wiki, they have only 61 female characters and over 100 male. Hey, L Word has lots of ladies, but it’s basically porn, sex, porn, romance, drama, porn. It was on HBO, though, so what do you expect?
Frozen by Disney has two female protagonists and they talk about lots of things besides boys–but as soon as Elsa hits 18 she becomes weirdly hypersexualized, and they are basically the only female characters in the whole movie (except Mom who dies, random lady with a kid, a single servant and a female troll or two). In the grand scheme of things there just aren’t a lot of girls around in Disney movies. This is kinda weird considering the fact that the Princess market is their biggest money maker…

Recently someone linked this very sarcastic and brilliant Cracked article  (yes, I did just say that) reversing the roles and calling out bad characterization of women in movies. I appreciate their points of view, especially since my biggest complaint in the Lego Movie was not its lack of female characters. Instead, I was frustrated by the “wind-blown plastic hair” and the fact that Emmett completely tuned out Wild Style because she was pretty.

To recap, the Seibert Test  calls for the following:
1. That a movie or TV show contain at least 50% female characters comprised of both main and minor characters.
2. That the movie/tv show be any genre other than romance and not have a romantic element so heavy handed that it “might as well be” romance.
3. That at least some of the female characters have impact over their own destiny and rape is not a plot device.
4. That if hypersexualization occurs in the movie/show, it is equally applicable to all of the characters regardless of gender.
4.5 That there are sensible shoes where sensible shoes should occur.

If film and TV directors and writers would take the reality of what the world looks like into account, and apply this test not just to female characters but to minorities as well, we would see a drastic shift in the way the next generation looks at people. We aren’t invisible and we aren’t going to be the silent majority any longer.

5 thoughts on “The Bechdel Test Is Not Enough

  1. Liquor Box says:

    This is silly. The whole point of a test is that it is an objective assessment. The value of the Bechdel test is that people are surprised by the number of movies that don’t pass it.
    The test proposed in the article is anything but objective – “have a romantic element so heavy handed that it “might as well be” romance”. How is anyone supposed to assess that? If someone was to hear that 95% of movies fail your test, it would be meaningless, because it would not be obvious what you define as power over their own fate (for example even slaves have the power to try and escape and die – so some power) and other such broad statements.
    If all you want to do is say whether a particular movie saitfies your thoughts on gender representation why not make the test simply “Does this movie adequately represent women?” – that would be a much simpler test, and no less subjective.

    • kseibert says:

      The Bechdel test was invented in a comic strip. If it is the only checkbox a movie has to achieve, then why even bother? Why not let everyone except the revered Rugged White Male Action Star fade into the background?
      Incidentally, since one of the points of the Bechdel test is “Do they talk about anything other than a man,” that’s not really objective either.

      I don’t have solid research for percentages of the romance factor, but I would say less than 15% of the time (or word count) should be absorbed by describing or illuminating romantic plot. This is important because a key stereotype about women is that–for reproductive purposes–they are more emotional, more attached to creating a family unit, etc. These stereotypes are only accurate as far as a culture buys into them.

      As far as power over their own fate, I do clearly outline that in a previous post (about strong women) where I talk about the psychology concept of Locus of Control.
      Any character, whether male or female, who believes and acts as though the things that happen to them are entirely outside of their own control, is acting from a stance without power over their own fate. These come from a Social Cognitive perspective, which makes sense since my background is in social behavior and psychology.
      You can read on one version of this perspective here:

      However, the short list is useful primarily because the whole drawn-out explanation of “why” each of these points are necessary won’t exactly fit on a 3×5 card.

  2. Michael says:

    Actually there are girl Legos. Princess Leah queen amadallah in the Star Wars sets. There is the female robot secretary in the Lego movie. There are mermaid sets and city sets. Harry potter sets have the female in there. And many more.. So I see your argument about no female Legos is invalid

    • kseibert says:

      City sets almost never have female characters. Walk around Target or Walmart and prove otherwise. As for the rest, even Lego has admitted the percentage is very low–considerably lower than the percentage of kids in the world. There are now some “Lego Friends” sets targeting girls, but they aren’t normal legos and don’t retain the same dollar value that normal legos do.

  3. […] Bechdel Test Is Not Enough was originally posted on my other blog, Confessions of an Awesomist Parent. This is a revised […]

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