Whether you’re raising daughters or sons, you should know what the Bechdel Test is and how it applies to your life and your children’s lives.
Hollywood is notorious for favoring strong male leads and male-driven stories while casting women in sidekick and love-interest roles. Most of us don’t want our daughters (or sons) to live in a world like that. The Bechdel Test is one easy way to measure if a work of fiction meets three very basic gender standards:
- It has to have a least two named women in it.
- The women must talk to each other.
- The women must talk to each other about something other than a man.
Sounds simple, right? You may be surprised at just how many recent blockbusters fail to meet these flimsy standards. In 2017 alone, several popular movies, including “Thor,” “Boss Baby,” and “American Made,” all fail this simple test.
It’s not only PG-13 and R movies that don’t pass. Recent children’s movies such as “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie” fails the test, as does “The Emoji Movie.”
What’s a Bechdel?
The Bechdel Test was popularized by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s comic “Dykes to Watch out For,” in a 1985 comic strip called The Rule. The comic, which ran from 1983 to 2008, became a countercultural institution among readers. The author has said, “The secret subversive goal of my work is to show that women, not just lesbians, are regular human beings.” How novel. On her website, Bechdel notes that it was her friend, not her, who originally came up with this “rule,” and that her comic merely publicized it.
Bechdel’s comics have appeared in The New Yorker, Slate, McSweeney’s, The New York Times Book Review, and Granta. She has also published popular memoirs. In 2014, she was named a MacArthur Fellow.
Passing and failing flicks
I first stumbled upon the Bechdel Test when I was researching the animated Disney movie, “Brave.” I wanted to learn more about the movie before exposing it to my five-year-old daughter. The show’s female heroine is a princess, yes, but she kicks ass with her bow and arrow, and the movie focuses more on her relationship with her mother than a love affair with a prince. It passes the Bechdel Test with a three out of three.
Other popular animated Disney movies that pass the Bechdel Test include “Mulan,” “Frozen,” and “Tangled.”
Which popular children’s films don’t hold muster? “Aladdin” doesn’t even score a one out of three. Jasmine is the only named female character and she doesn’t hold a single conversation with another woman; plus, she exists solely as the love interest instead of having her own story. Surprisingly, the first two “Toy Story” movies can’t hold up to the Bechdel Test, and neither can “The Little Mermaid,” “Bambi,” or “Monsters, Inc.”
Up for debate
If we allow our children to watch a film that doesn’t score a three out of three on the test, are we undermining feminism and corrupting our children’s views of female empowerment? Does failing the test automatically make it a “bad” movie? That’s up for debate. Many “Finding Nemo” fans would swear it’s one of the greatest kid’s movies of all time, even if it doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. It’s the same with classics like the “Sword in the Stone” and “Lady and the Tramp.”
To complicate things further, if a film technically passes the three-prong test, is it automatically feminist-approved? Take a look at the animated Disney “Cinderella.” The movie actually passes the three layers of the test, but can we say the plot itself is female-strong? Does the conflict with the evil stepmother and “ugly” stepsisters counts as complex female to female interaction? And what about the fact that the beautiful, helpless girl is saved by a prince? Probably not as female-strong as its results from the Bechdel Test would imply.
More questions quickly follow: Can we love movies that don’t have a female lead? Alternately, can we love movies that don’t have a male lead? To be fair to everyone, does every single movie need one of each? Is that even realistic? Clearly, the Bechdel conversation becomes complex and leads to more questions than answers. Maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.
In my daily life as a mother of two, I see the Bechdel Test as giving me one more way to judge the quality of a movie I’m not familiar with when I’m pressed for time. I’m not sure I can pass up eventually sharing my beloved “Sword in the Stone” with my kids, but armed with new information, I may pass on “Aladdin.” Perhaps movies we watch that don’t pass the test can be used as conversation starters with our children about gender, power, and equality.