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Monday, July 26, 2010

The Bechdel Test now has its own website.

The Bechdel Test, of course, is about how movies treat women. Does a movie have (a) more than one named woman; (b) do they talk to each other; (c) do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

Lisa and I were going through our Zip.ca rental history. Not too many movies pass the test. We just watched HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, which is one of the best bad movies we've seen in a while. None of the many women talk to each other at all.

It's not surprising. In most mainstream movies, almost all the conversations are between the protagonist and one or two other people. So if the main character is a guy, that doesn't leave a lot of room for conversations between two women. If the main character is a woman, your odds improve, unless it's a romance, in which case she's probably talking about a guy. I bet you SALT passes the test.

In TV, there are lots of female protagonists in non-romances. Going through my rental history again, Sarah Connor in THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES talks to, e.g. Cameron about, e.g., whether she is a good robot or a bad one. Buffy and Willow talk about magic. Echo talks with DeWitt about missions. GILMORE GIRLS is about a relationship between two women, and they talk about everything, endlessly, at high speed, so you don't even have to be in spec fiction.

(TV has female protagonists because women watch TV. Movies have male protagonists because girls will go see guy movies but guys won't see chick movies. Or is it the other way around? Women watch TV because it has female protagonists, and guys won't see chick movies because all the women do in them is talk about men?)

I think the Bechdel Test is interesting. But I think it mostly relates to who the protagonist is. If your movie is about Queen Elizabeth I, there's going to be some conversations with Mary, Queen of Scots, about whether Lizzie's going to cut off her head. If your movie is about Henry VIII, there are not going to be a lot of conversations without Harry in the room, so there won't be many conversations between two women.

But, to carry this a little further, it's not a bad idea, if you're writing a Henry VIII script, to see if there's something to be made of a scene between Catherine of Aragon and that Boleyn girl. It may not fit in the story. But if you have lots of scenes between Henry's male courtiers, maybe we should be listening to the women, too.

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9 Comments:

Actually, I think the only female, named character in "Salt" is Evelyn Salt herself...

As far as I remember, there are only two other female characters with speaking roles in the movie. One is a tech with one or two lines near the end (she doesn't speak those lines to Salt, either--Salt's not in that scene). The other is a receptionist at a hotel who gives Salt the keys to her room. Because they're speaking about a room, does that count (even if the receptionist is unnamed)?

By Blogger Sasha, at 9:07 PM  

There is Salt's neighbor, a little girl whom she asks to babysit her puppy. That would pass the test though the girl isn't named.

By Blogger David, at 4:42 AM  

In your hypothetical movie about Elizabeth I, does the movie have (a) more than one named man; (b) do they talk to each other; (c) do they talk to each other about something other than a woman?

The Bechdel Test is a neat observation about patriarchy and how it's all about us men. A film can pass the Bechdel Test with a few seconds of dialog. The unlikelihood of that happening is eye-opening.

d

By Blogger daz, at 10:32 AM  

It's probably possible to over-think the Bechdel Test, but my own feeling is that women who appear on-screen briefly in a purely functional capacity probably don't qualify. If that Receptionist doesn't have any other role other than to give Our Heroine the room key, and doesn't do anything else in the story, I would suggest that it sholdn't make for a passing grade.

By Blogger Stephen Geigen-Miller, at 11:26 AM  

I'm a working screenwriter.

I recently had the job of - after failing to get a project made with a female lead - changing the lead in a script from female to male to give the script a second life.

Lots could be written about this, but here's the relevant thing:

Before the change, the script passed the Bechtel test. Afterwards, it won't.

This is simply because of the following truth, obvious to anyone who works in screenwriting but opaque, it appears, to cultural critics:

It is very rare in a movie to have two characters who are not the lead to have a discussion which is not about the lead.

So we start with that rare circumstance. If men and women were equally represented among supporting characters, notice how only 25% of the scripts which have a scene like that would pass the Bechtel test. (50% chance of each character being female).

Now, I'm not claiming men and women are equally represented in named supporting roles - although I think it's closer than many cultural critics think. Rather, I simply agree with the premise that it's all about the casting of the lead. WIth a female lead it's easy to pass the test. With a male lead it's very hard. But with a female lead, the opposite problem is ALSO hard (two named male characters not talking about a woman).

Because I've been going through this process recently, I can speak with some authority on it: unless you get Angelina Jolie in your movie, it is almost impossible to get a movie greenlit with a female lead in Hollywood today. The other actresses who should be seen as capable of carrying a movie are not seen as bringing in enough money (based on objective assessments of past projects).

Change that, and the Bechtel test will become irrelevant.

Don't change that, and nothing you can do will get films to pass the Bechtel test, because having two supporting characters have a conversation which isn't about the lead is a rare thing in films.

By Blogger Hotspur, at 2:26 PM  

Hotspur, I don't think it's true that secondary characters only talk about the lead. Many films today are nearly ensemble pieces -- from Lord of the Rings, to Oceans 11, to Hot Tub Time Machine, and even to indie films like Little Miss Sunshine. The secondary characters talk about many things besides the main character.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 5:09 PM  

Well, Lisa, I haven't seen HTTM. LOTR is famously male-centric, even by Hollywood standards, but as you point out it's an ensemble film. Who do you define as the lead? Frodo and ... Aragorn? Frodo, Aragorn, Pippin, and Gandalf?

If you take the larger group as the "lead," off the top of your head, how many conversations happen in the films which do not include one of that group and are not about that group. Off the top of my head, I can think of one: Eowyn talking to the lead Nazgul. Faramir talks to Denethor, but isn't one of the hobbit there? Eomer and Wormtongue speak. I'm sure I'm forgetting a couple but if you actually break it down they're few and far between, and we're talking about 9-10 hours of film here.

Oceans 11. How many times do two people who aren't part of the team have a conversation? Several of the character intros have conversations between minor team members characters and unnamed characters (which means they wouldn't pass the test even if the participants were female). Beyond that, what scenes are you thinking of? Maybe Andy Garcia has a conversation with his security guys which isn't about Ocean?

By Blogger Hotspur, at 2:16 PM  

Off the top of my head, applying the "Hotspur test" to Die Hard (picked because its the first movie I thought of that has a single obvious protagonist and that I'm very familiar with) I can think of a bunch of times minor characters talk to each other about something other than the protagonist.

Holly talks to her secretary about knocking off for the day, going to the party, and drinking while pregnant.

Ellis tries hitting on Holly, who rebuffs him.

Hans talks to the hostages about the need for compliance, to the FBI about his demands, to his team about the vault, and to Mr. Nakatomi about the vault and the benefits of a classical education.

So that's quite a bit...

By Blogger Steve, at 5:31 PM  

SALT passes the test because the role was originally written for Tom Cruise - the genderswap didn't require much rewriting, thankfully. It means the pitfalls writers often fall into when writing female characters can be avoided.

By Blogger stephanie, at 4:03 PM  

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