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Bechdel wasn’t kidding

Regular readers of this blog know about the Bechdel test for movies:

1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

Amusing, huh? But I only really got the point the other day, when I was on a plane and passively watched parts of the in-flight movie. It was something I’d never heard of (of course) and it happened to be a chick flick—even without the soundtrack, it was clear that the main character was a woman and much of it was about her love life. But even this movie failed the Bechdel test miserably! I don’t even think it passed item #1 above, but if it did, it certainly failed #2.

If even the chick flicks are failing the Bechdel test, then, yeah, we’re really in trouble. And don’t get me started on those old Warner Brothers cartoons. They’re great but they feature about as many female characters as the average WWII submarine. Sure, everybody knows this, but it’s still striking to think about just how unbalanced these things are.

19 Comments

  1. Erin Jonaitis says:

    I actually would not expect very many chick flicks to pass the Bechdel test — my impression is that they're usually about the main character's (heterosexual) love life, with very little other plot. Chick flicks not passing #1 is surprising, though.

  2. Jeff Lax says:

    Is there a way to do the Bechdel test in R or do I have to go back to Stata?

  3. Michael Lugo says:

    Now I'm tempted to write a multiple-choice exam question "which statistical test would be appropriate to use here?", where one of the choices is the Bechdel test. I wonder how many students would choose that answer.

    It's too bad I already wrote my exams for this semester.

  4. Cyrus says:

    Well, Jeff, if you even need to ask…

  5. Jared says:

    I assume you have seen this, as its recent publication has really reengaged this Bechdel Test conversation, at least within my own group of friends:
    http://jezebel.com/5799064/the-bechdel-test-and-c

    But I mean, its not just gender obviously (I like how the Jezebel articles makes that point). Can you name a movie with more than two Black characters that was meant to appeal at a "general audience"? There are two exceptions: 1) when the movie is about drugs or 2) when the movie takes place in Africa and there is still a White hero (Hotel Rwanda, Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland– imagine if those movies didn't have White people in them to help save the day and be a foil for the savagery around them, how could a "normal person" ever relate to the films without them?)

    Theres also the Johnson test for race, which is more formal: http://theangryblackwoman.com/2009/09/01/the-bech

  6. Daniel says:

    Yeah, I would be very surprised if any chick flick passed that test. Very few characters, male or female, in chick ficks are given any sort of character development beyond 'they're secretly perfect for each other'.

  7. Andrew Gelman says:

    Jared:

    I hadn't seen this other Bachdel link. I'm behind on my New Yorker subscription.

    I don't know if I buy your analogy to a black Bechdel test. After all, 52% of the U.S. population is female, only 12% is black.

    But if you really want to see sexism, check out old Warner Brothers cartoons. They do have a black character but none of the main characters are female. Unless you want to count Tweety's owner, which I don't.

  8. Tom says:

    I recall seeing and interview with actor Don Cheadle some years ago in which he stated that during an interview with a couple of movie executives he accidentally got a look at a guideline, or formula, for casting. For a movie to be successful, it had to either have a white male as the lead or a black male (or other minority) lead had to have a strong white male supporting cast. I've forgotten the details, but it was pretty clear that minority actors were either second-billing or supported by strong white, male actors.

    So it seems that there is a generalized form of the Bechdel test, and it's used, somewhat cynically, by at least some film companies.

  9. A. Zarkov says:

    If a movie does not pass the Bechdel test then what? How about I don't care if the movie passes it or not? I judge a film according to my own standards and those are the standards that count as I'm the one paying. Others can do likewise.

    The movie business is just that. A lack of revenue would ultimately kill the industry. If being successful means failing the test, then so be it.

    Finally I don't understand the statement, "If even the chick flicks are failing the Bechdel test, then, yeah, we're really in trouble." What kind of trouble are we in?

  10. Andrew Gelman says:

    Zarkov:

    I agree that different people have different criteria for evaluating movies. I wouldn't claim that the Bechdel test is some sort of ideal, just that it's an interesting perspective.

    One reason the Bechdel test is interesting to me is that I suspect that the lack of female characters following rules 1,2,3 above is implicit–not so much a business decision by movie executives as to some extent an unthinking following of past practices.

    Again, consider Bugs Bunny and his friends. What's the point of all of them being male? My guess is that the creators just weren't thinking about it.

  11. John says:

    The WB characters were male because Mel Blanc was.

  12. A. Zarkov says:

    Andrew:

    I agree that the movie makers were not thinking about the number of female characters in cartoons. Cartoons are for little kids who probably don't notice. This is of course speculation on my part. One would have to study the question to be sure. Would the cartoons have been more popular with more female characters? I think not.

    Film makers have to pay attention to what audiences want to see. If the audiences wanted movies that conformed to 1,2 and 3 then they would get that. Don't you think? Perhaps audiences don't want 1,2 and 3. All that being said, predicting the success of any give movie is difficult to impossible according to Art DeVany's book, Hollywood Economics. Some very interesting mathematics regarding stable distributions. I don't know if he's correct. You might find it an interesting book.

    I think Sam Goldwyn said "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." Perhaps we should heed his advice.

  13. Andrew Gelman says:

    John:

    Mel Blanc was a genius and I'm sure he could've done girl voices if they'd paid him to do so.

    Also, it's not just WB. For example, the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel was a woman.

  14. eric says:

    The screenplay I just finished doesn't pass the Bechdel test. I mean, a woman, who has Alzheimer's, in the movie, talks to her nurse. But they also talk about a man, in that conversation. Does that count? They talk about other things.

  15. Andrew Gelman says:

    If the nurse is a woman and the two characters talk about other things, then, yes, I think this passes the test. I suppose you can run it Stata to be sure.

  16. eric says:

    I'm really not interested in spending the money to buy Stata, so I may never know. A pity, as I like the story, about two brothers.

  17. Paul says:

    You're right that the Bechdel test isn't a tool for evaluating individual movies. In my experience film quality is almost an orthogonal dimension. But it's informative in aggregate.

    Essentially, your point about giving the audience what they want is spot on. When the Bechdel test is consistently failing, that means people are being drawn to movies with poor characterization of female characters, and that raises the question of "why?". This is also a push/pull phenomena: since we have finite choices in movies, and directors have imperfect knowledge of the public's desires, it's almost certain that to some of this can be explained by the consumer, but some of it is also being pushed by the producers.

  18. marcel says:

    1) About little kids not caring about the gender of the characters they watch: I've read numerous times that little boys will not pay attention to stories in which the main character is female, but little girls will pay attn to those about males. Don't know anything about any formal study on this, or whether there were any kind of controls for upbringing, etc.

    2) I first noticed the lack of female characters, at least main characters, in children's stories when I started reading to my daughter (20+ years ago now). I was reading stories to her that I'd read to my son a couple of years earlier, and got in the habit of switching pronouns and changing names, unless there were pictures of characters who were unmistakeably male or female. This is one of the reasons that I have come to appreciate the Disney movies of the last 25 years with which I am familiar. I was so in love with Beauty and the Beast, which was the 1st movie we took her to. Strong, bright, brave female lead, the main male characters have to learn from her, one of the does… The Princess and the Frog was pretty good too, although I had less skin in the game by then.

  19. Bradly says:

    I am also could not understand the statement, "If even the chick flicks are failing the Bechdel test, then, yeah, we're really in trouble." How and What kind trouble could come?? don't know it.