What makes you want to watch a movie? There are various factors to consider: how original the idea is, pacing of plot, quality of acting, emotional engagement, suitable score… Out of all of these factors, one of the most interesting is the Bechdel-Wallace test.
In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel wrote a comic strip called Dykes To Watch Out For, where one of her characters states that she only goes to see movies that satisfy three conditions.
- First, the film must have at least two women in it. Modern adaptations of the rule state that these women must be named characters.
- Second, the women must have a conversation with each other at some point in the film.
- Lastly, they must talk about something other than a man.
It is quite easy to pass this test. Even a simple conversation between two women, such as about the food they are eating or what happened at work count. As simple as it sounds, the test is surprisingly powerful.
Upon review of all movies listed in major databases, it has been shown that only 50 to 70% of all movies pass the Bechdel-Wallace test. The most common reason is the lack of any conversation between two named women characters. This suggests that a large proportion of female characters are put in the movie as a romantic interest or support character for the male, or they are the “token woman”, such as a sole female soldier in a special forces unit.
The Bechdel-Wallace test initially started as a joke in a comic strip, but it highlights the depressing fact of how poorly women are represented in films. There is a strong tendency for women to be portrayed only as a damsel in distress, a love interest for the (male) protagonist or someone who helps the (male) protagonist develop their character, such as their mother. This may be an extension of the fact that the overwhelming majority of directors, producers and screenwriters are men – a gender gap commonly known as the “celluloid ceiling”.
The scariest part is that many movies only passed the test because of a single, short scene where two women have an extremely trivial conversation. It is almost as if those scenes are inserted by moviemakers to tick a box saying that they are not sexist.
The test has many flaws due to its simplicity. For example, it does not account for movies with very few characters, such as those focussed around a female protagonist who does not interact with many other people, or movies focussed purely on one woman and one man conversing with each other.
Nonetheless, it sends a powerful message regarding the rampant inequality women have to face in day-to-day life.