Culture

Nominated for the Oscars but failing the Bechdel sexism test

Box-office winners that get Oscar nods can get failing grades when it comes to intelligent roles for women

Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's "Her,'' nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, about a man who falls in love with an artificial-intelligence system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. It has two female characters but doesn't pass the Bechdel Test.
Warner Bros. Pictures/AP

Oscar-nominated "Her," about a man who falls in love with his home's artificial-intelligence system, is one of the nine Best Picture contenders. Despite having two main female characters, it fails the Bechdel Test. Created in 1985 by writer Alison Bechdel, the test judges a movie on its inclusion of women, using three criteria: 1) Does the film have at least two women 2) who speak to each other 3) about something other than a man?

Writers and commentators have used it for years as a yardstick for gender balance, and recently, cinemas in Sweden announced that passing the Bechdel Test would be required to get an A rating.

Measured according to the Bechdel Test, three out of this year's nine Best Picture nominees get failing grades.

Five movies pass: "American Hustle," "12 Years a Slave," "Philomena," "Dallas Buyers Club" and "Nebraska." ("Gravity" is hard to classify, since it features only two characters, one man and one woman).

Title Bechdel rating Gross
Gravity N/A $256.2 million
Captain Phillips Fail $104.9 million
American Hustle Pass $104.7 million
The Wolf of Wall Street Fail $80.7 million
12 Years a Slave Pass $38.9 million
Philomena Pass $21.9 million
Dallas Buyers Club Pass $16.7 million
Her Fail $10.4 million
Nebraska Pass $8.2 million

But this year's nominees highlight the test's shortcomings.

"The Bechdel Test is a starting point and not a finishing point," Melissa Silverstein said, founder and editor of Women and Hollywood, an online publication for issues related to women and media. "I don't believe that two women talking to each other (about subjects) other than a man should be the bar we are setting for our films. I want strong female characters."

And although Silverstein and others would like to see films meet a higher standard, many past Oscar-nominated and top-grossing films fail to clear even this low one.

For three of the previous five years, a majority of the Academy Awards' Best Picture nominees failed the Bechdel Test. In 2010 and 2012, a majority of the nominees passed. Some of the failing films are "Avatar," "Slumdog Millionaire"and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." A majority of this year's nominees passed, but the margin is slimmer than before.

Best Picture nominees by Bechdel test pass/fail, 2008 to 2013

Sources: IMDb.com, BechdelTest.com and Al Jazeera reporting.

Movies that fail the Bechdel Test make more money, on average, than passing films. For films from this same period, 2008 to 2013, the highest-grossing category is films that have two or more women who speak to each other only about men.

Average film gross, 2008 to 2013, by Bechdel rating

Zero: Fewer than two female characters. One: The female characters don't speak to one another. Two: The female characters speak to each other only about men. Three: Pass.
Sources: IMDb.com, BechdelTest.com and Al Jazeera reporting.

In fact, since 2003, films that passed the test earned the most, on average, only one year: 2010. This year's passing films had some of the highest grosses, but the group earned slightly less, on average, than the films that failed.

Average gross, by Bechdel Test pass/fail, 2003 to 2013

Sources: IMDb.com, BechdelTest.com and Al Jazeera reporting.

Where this trend isn't true, however, is for top-grossing films, as another analysis shows. Over the past 10 years, top-grossing films that passed the test have earned slightly more than top-grossing films that failed. This year, passing films like "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" earned significantly more than those that failed.

Average gross of top 50 grossing films by Bechdel Test pass/fail, 2008-2012 versus 2013

Sources: IMDb.com, BechdelTest.com and Al Jazeera reporting.

But making conclusions from the Bechdel Test can be frustrating, Silverstein said. "Look at 'Gravity.' 'Gravity' fails the Bechdel Test, but if someone tells me 'Gravity' isn't a good movie, I'm going to slap them silly."

In "Gravity," Sandra Bullock plays a female astronaut cast adrift in space with a fellow astronaut, George Clooney, after an accident at the International Space Station.

"It has science, engineering — she’s an astronaut. A girl can dream about being an astronaut. These are the kinds of things I'd like to get the discussion around," Silverstein said. "That's why I don't agree that (the Bechdel Test) is going to take us to the next level."

To better get a better sense of how a film portrays women, some have proposed additional criteria for the Bechdel Test.

Jennifer L. Pozner, a media critic and author of "Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV," has put forward the Pozner PS, which has five criteria:

1) Are there at least two main female characters?

2) Are they not simply the love interests, wives or mothers of the male lead(s)?

3) Are they not prostitutes, maids or rape or domestic-violence victims?

4) Do they have goals involving something other than men, love, sex or child-rearing?

5) If the show is animated, are the female characters fully clothed?

Actor Geena Davis, who runs the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, recently proposed that screenwriters randomly change characters' first names to women's names and, if a film involves a crowd scene, they should ensure that women make up 50 percent.

Although not a full answer, Silverstein says, the Bechdel Test has served as a useful frame for thinking more about gender in film. "I think it's become a touchstone for people to have a feminist conversation about the films they see. Because there's no language to talk about it, it took me a really long time to articulate the issues."

For Pozner, the test is still a useful bullet point to discuss when people ask what effect gender inequality has on society.

Silverstein said that recent television shows like Netflix's "Orange is the New Black," while not perfect, have shown that other outlets exist for stories with gender and racial diversity but that movies remain important for their global reach.

"We are exporting these movies all around the globe, and they aren't seeing women in these roles," she said. "And that's why I stick to talking about movies and having a global conversation about movies."

Note: Top-grossing-movie figures do not include "Madea Goes to Jail," "Madea's Witness Protection," "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa" or "The Best Man Holiday" because Bechdel ratings were either unavailable or, in the case of the "Madea" films, the story line of a male actor portraying a female character complicates the test's rules.
Colin Fitzgerald, Joanna Kao and Alex Newman contributed ratings to this report.
We analyzed 1,698 films from 2003 to 2013 for which ratings were available through BechdelTest.com. Gross information was recorded Jan. 7, 2014. Download the data to see what you can find.

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