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Oscar and the Bechdel Test

Emma Thompson Saving Mr. Banks

This morning on Twitter, Ryan, Paddy, Tero and I were discussing women in film, specifically, women in film and the Best Picture race.  Ryan came to the conclusion that it’s been roughly 60 years since films dominated by women also dominated the Best Picture race. I took it one step further to say that films dominated by women have been steadily declining not just in Hollywood but specifically in the Oscar race, which now has a wider selection of Best Picture contenders than any time since the mid-1940s.

The last year to feature films with strong female leads was 2010, when the Academy had a solid ten Best Picture contenders. The difference between then and now is that voters could put down ten votes for Best Picture. Now they pick five.  In 2010, the Best Picture race had three films that easily passed the Bechdel test: Winter’s Bone, The Kids Are All Right and Black Swan.

So what is the Bechdel test? Oh, it’s just three little things, believe it or not:

1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
The following year, The Descendants and The Help both passed.  And last year?
What do we have on the table, Bechdel-wise, this year?
1. 12 Years a Slave
2. Nebraska
3. Dallas Buyers Club
4. Saving Mr. Banks
5. Before Midnight
6. Blue Jasmine
7. The Butler
8. Labor Day
9. Short Term 12
10. Blue is the Warmest Colour
11. The Past
Special circumstances. Gravity – I am arguing that it passes because Sandra Bullock interacts with her daughter, even if not in a literal sense. I think you can stretch it to include what they include — they certainly didn’t have to.Not passing (I am fairly sure – but need to double check):

1. All is Lost
2. Rush
3. Her
4. Captain Phillips
5. Out of the Furnace
6. Lone Survivor (haven’t seen it so I can’t be 100%)
Not yet known:
American Hustle
Wolf of Wall Street
Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Why does it matter, someone on Twitter asked me. First off, it’s kind of sad to me that anyone would need to ask.  After that come the criticisms – it’s a flawed test, its restrictions are too confined, etc.
But think about it, is it really asking too much to simply have two female characters, named, who speak to each other about something other than a man? When 90% of the film features men, named, who speak to each other about plenty of things other than women – it does seem a bit strange that women function  only to support the male characters, considering how important women are to life itself.
This is the only thing I know about the Bechdel test – if I were a filmmaker writing a film with a big cast I might consider the Bechdel test and ask myself why my film failed something so simple.  What is it about women that cause them to be obliterated from stories on the big screen? Is it that the primary target audience are young boys and boy have unsettled issues about girls? About their mothers? Is it we women who are so competitive with each other we hate most women on film unless they’re in a romantic comedy getting married?
A great example of how badly a film fails the Bechdel test is last year’s Argo. Technically, it can be concluded that it passes, as there are a few scant lines exchanged between women. This was up for debate over at  But I’m thinking, really? Not a single person in the CIA or Hollywood who has any power is a woman?  These were the only lines exchanged AT ALL between two women (that wasn’t about a man, although I’m not even sure women talk to each other at all):
“Sahar, How are you doing?”
“Fine, thank you”
“Your friends from Canada, ma’am. All this time. They never go out.”
So, hey, that’s better than nothing, right?
I don’t think a movie has to pass the Bechdel test to be considered a good, or even great film. I don’t think it needs to pass the Bechdel test to be nominated, or to win Best Picture.  A movie like All is Lost is constrained by having one character, a man.  Gravity constrained by having two characters, one of them, a man.  What the Bechdel test does do, however, is shine a light on the status quo, the accepted condition of the modern woman in Hollywood storytelling.