Are There Women in Movies?
Cinema & New Media Arts | On Feb 06, 2013
In 1985 a woman named Liz Wallace came up with a test (now commonly called the “Wallace-Bechdel test” or just the “Bechdel test”) for thinking about how women are represented in film. When she saw a film, she asked herself:
1) Does this film have at least two named female characters who
2) Have a conversation with each other about
3) Anything other than men?
Wallace concluded that a massive percentage of the films she saw failed “the test.” This is still the case in 2012. Even films with the most compelling female characters often don’t include a conversation between those women (Do Galadriel and Eowyn ever speak to each other?). And if they do, that conversation commonly revolves around men (Do Hermione and Ginny talk about anything other than Harry and Ron, or Voldemort?). You’d think narrative couldn’t function without male characters to move the story along.
What are we to make of this?
I don’t think the proper response to this phenomenon is simple indignation. Nor is the proper response to boycott all films that fail the test. Remember the caveat above! Think about the incredible films you’d lose if you stuck to such a rule: films that have only one or two characters, films without dialogue, films that take place in monasteries or in military camps, films like The Passion of Joan of Arc, which has only one female character, but teaches us more about feminine suffering than just about any other film I know.
I am not suggesting that we must all become activists in favor of films that represent women well. Rather, I want to introduce the representation of women as a category for questioning.
When we watch films, we should wonder why female characters tend to speak on such a limited plane, why storytelling in film tends to be mediated by male characters, and why films seem to avoid conversations between women about something other than a male character. These questions are not meant to point out a moment of representative injustice (though I do think that may exist). They’re meant to help us recognize the assumptions the stories we consume make about gender.