Have you ever heard of the Bechdel test? It’s a test, popularized by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, that asks three questions of movies:
1. Are there at least two women characters in the film?
2. Who talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
If a film fulfills all three, then it passes the Bechdel test. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t. The point of the Bechdel test, among other things, is to note that even here, in the twenty-first century, the role of women in film is very often to be support for the male roles or to keep the story and audience focused on the male protagonist. Whether that means something to you or not is really up to you, but, as a creative person myself, I do find it an interesting test to apply to my own work.
I was curious to see how some of the most popular science-fiction films of the last decade fared when the Bechdel test is applied
to them. Below, for your conversational delight, are the results.
Two things to know: I’m excluding 2010 films from the list because I
don’t want to spoil them for people who haven’t seen them. And, for the
purposes of this exercise, I’m going to say that the female characters have to be named — i.e., significant enough to the
plot that the audience knows their names. So, for example, the big-eyed
doctor telling Captain Kirk’s mom to push while she’s giving birth in
the shuttle in the opening sequence of Star Trek doesn’t qualify. Got it?
1. Avatar: Four named female characters, none of whom talk to each other, except for a couple of brief discussions about the main male character. Fail.
2. Star Trek: Two named female characters, one of whom only briefly talks to another female character, first about Klingons and then about Kirk. Fail.
3. 2012: Four named female characters, including a mother and daughter who very briefly talk about something other than a man. If I remember
correctly, it’s about the daughter’s bladder issues. Technical pass.
1. Iron Man: Two named female characters, who briefly talk about the main male character. Fail.
2. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Two named female characters, neither of whom, if recollection serves, actually talks with the other. Fail.
3. Hancock: One named female character. Fail.
1. Transformers: Three named female characters, none of whom, if memory serves, talk to each other, except for the main character’s mom, who expresses approval to her son for being in the same room as Megan Fox. Fail.
2. I Am Legend: Four named female characters, including the wife and child of the main character, who very briefly have words not relating to the
main character. Technical pass.
3. AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem: Several named female characters, at least two of whom have a discussion not about a man. (Specifically, about getting out of town before the military blows it up.) Pass — but it’s still a terrible, terrible film.
1. X-Men: The Last Stand: Several named female characters, two of whom talk briefly about a cure for mutations, although one of the characters is motivated to change her mutant status so she can touch her boyfriend. I’m calling this a technical pass.
2. V for Vendetta: An interesting case in that, while the several
named female characters don’t talk to each other, one named female character reads a letter from another named female character (for which there is a voice-over) that is not about a man, and there is a significant narrative interlude involving a lesbian couple, where it’s obvious that their
interaction is not about a man, but, due to the structure of the
interlude, we don’t see the couple speak to each other. This is a technical fail, but I wonder if it doesn’t pass, in terms of the intent of the Bechdel test.
1. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith: One named female
character, who spends nearly all of her time being mopey about the future Darth Vader. Fail.
2. War of the Worlds: Two named
female characters, being the daughter and ex-wife of the main character,
whose interactions consist of hugging good-bye at the beginning of the
film and hello at the end. I’m calling this a fail.
Fantastic Four: Two named female characters, who, if memory serves, don’t
have any significant dialogue with each other in the film. Fail.
Fourteen recent science-fiction films, with nine fails, one technical
fail, one pass, and three technical passes. Is this significant? Does
it matter? You decide. But in the meantime, I’d say it wouldn’t hurt
science-fiction films to have women characters talk to each other more about something other than men. We’re not that interesting.