Is there a formula that can help write a blockbuster or a best seller? After the roaring success of Hunger Games recently and Twilight earlier-both of which feature lead female protagonists- there has been much discussion on the Bechdel test. These discussions found more footing in the wake of two recent studies which confirm that films that pass this test are doing better at the box office than those which don’t [1,2].
What is the Bechdel test?
Bechdel test poses three simple questions on any script:
- Are there at least two female characters?
- Do those characters speak with each other?
- Do these characters speak other than about a man?
The Bechdel test has been used as a gauge to highlight gender inequality in modern literature in general and films in particular. It was first introduced by Alison Bechdel in a comic strip published in 1985. It became an instrument used by mainstream critics in 2010’s. Every year, particularly around the Oscars, nominated movies are scrutinized by activists to question gender equality in Hollywood. Year on year, almost 70% films fail to mark yes against the three simple questions.
The bare basic requirements to pass the test are a damming indictment on the poor standards maintained by the film industry. It shows that even today, female representation is mainly in the form of a romantic interest of an alpha male in majority of the movies.
It should also be realized that despite the basis of the test resting on a minimum denominator, it isn’t the lowest of the low indicator in the entertainment business. In many movies, female roles are assigned just to make up the numbers. This form of tokenism is dubbed as “Smurfette Principal”. And at the very end of this prevalent negativity one finds content that utterly dehumanizes and objectifies women.
Shortcomings of the test
Should the Bechdel test be used out rightly dismiss the quality of screenplay? Does failing the test imply that “Dead Poet’s Society” is any lesser than “Mona Lisa Smile” or that Al-Pacino should be chastised on signing up for “Scent of a woman”? And continuing on the same principal should movies like Step mom, Erin Brockovich, Miss Potter and Little woman be scored high? The obvious answer is no.
Human beings have partial perspectives. Unless highly cognizant and extremely observant, it will be hard for a man to pen stories that explore the intricacies of a relationship between the fairer sex (a women and her daughter for example). The same is true vice versa. And thus the quantity of movies coming out from Hollywood that fail the Bechdel, doesn’t depict the bias in taste but it rather points to a shortfall in the number of females in film making roles. In 2013, a report published by the Center for the Study of Women in Television documented this deficit as the “Celluloid ceiling”.
The Celluloid Ceiling
Some statistics from the Celluloid Ceiling  report are tabulated below :
|Roles||Male %||Female %|
Cumulatively, women comprise of only 18% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, editors and cinematographers and therein lies the problem.
To verify this conclusion, it would appropriate to observe an industry other than Hollywood where the stats are reciprocal.
To the surprise of many readers, the test case lies several thousand miles away in Pakistan. This country has always had a parallel entertainment industry run by woman for woman. Woven in the fabric of society is the culture of Urdu digests, printed in millions. In the hot afternoons, it is the collection of condensed sagas that many a housewives read up to their siesta.
This print industry has organically evolved has now found a stronghold into TV entertainment business. Today, Pakistani dramas/soap operas are extremely popular not just in the country but across the subcontinent and beyond. Pakistan boasts a rich legacy of female writers from Bano Qudsia, Fatima Suryya Bajia, Haseena Moeen, Noor- ul-Huda Shah to Umera Ahmed all of whom started as magazine writers. The country has been blessed with equally talented female directors. Sahira Kazmi, Sultana Siddiqui, Badr Khalil, Sawera Nadeem are just to name a few. More often than not these dramas feature lead female characters. The topics are varied and not just limited to romantic relationships.
Notes from Pakistani Media
Pakistani Media Analyst Saman Junaidi offers a tongue in cheek explanation “Off course an all-time favourite is the topsy-turvy bond between a women and her mother-in-law but that is just a tiny fragment in the range of stories. Our TV serials touch on sensitive topics, challenge taboos and create awareness on issues of a global scale.” She smiles and adds “There is also a huge following of men, who would on the face deny it and claim their preference for political talk shows.”
“There has never been a need for Bechdel test in Pakistani TV industry. For the film industry it used to be a different story but that is probably why it’s gone into oblivion.”
Putting aside the utility, the Bechdel test has consolidated a thought process of creating a balance that expands beyond women. Similar tests are now being used by minorities to highlight their unfair representation.
The test is having an influence on modern script writers. Sticking within the framework of political correctness is now the way of the modern writer. Joss Whedon for instance engineered a greater role for the Scarlet Witch in Avengers Assemble partly because of this push.
Similarly, in Thor the movie, unlike the comic strip which was based on a Nordic culture, one can see race representation from all corners of the world most notably Idris Elba playing the gate keeper of Asgard. And then there is the Fast and Furious franchise which also tries to cash a global audience by using ethnic diversity in their characters.
Weather this politicking is improving the quality of entertainment is debateable but it is undoubtedly improving business for Hollywood.
To sum up the Bechdel test should not be used in isolation to gauge the integrity of story or as a vetting process but it can be used to measure a collective trend. Many movies may pass the test and would still have sexist content. The most telling example of this is 50 shades of grey, a movie that passes the test with flying colours but tarnishes its spirit.
The test from an equality perspective highlights the gap and from an economic perspective highlights an opportunity. The need is for more female writers, directors and producers to step up and add their unique angle to the stories.
Those who thought that one man army roles (played by the likes of Stallone and Arnie) are suited to men alone may have to think again. The gradual success of women in action movies starting from Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil), to Kate Beckinsale (Underworld) and Jennifer Lawrence (Mockingjay) tells a of shifting paradigm.
- Sharma, Versha; Sender, Hanna (2 January 2014). “Hollywood Movies With Strong Female Roles Make More Money”. Vocativ. Retrieved 2 January 2014.
- Hickey, Walt (1 April 2014). “The Dollar-And-Cents Case Against Hollywood’s Exclusion of Women”. FiveThirtyEight.
- Lauzen, Martha. “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 012” (PDF). The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. San Diego State University. Retrieved 2013-05-20.