Is the Bechdel Test Out of Date?

GravityWarner Bros via Everett Collection

There is currently an ongoing conversation in Hollywood regarding representation of women in film, usually using the Bechdel Test as a measure. To pass the Bechdel Test, a film must contain two (named) women who speak to each other about something other than a man. Seems simple enough, right? But as the conversation about representation gets more complicated, we’re forced to look at whether the Bechdel Test is enough of a litmus test.

Women Made Bank in 2013

We have to hand it to the ladies. They helped rake in the dough for movie studios in 2013. At the end of the year, Vocativ released a handy chart breaking down almost 50 of the year’s top grossing films to show which passed the Bechdel Test and how much money they made. When added up, the movies that passed the test grossed $4.22 billion in the U.S., while films that didn’t pass only grossed $2.66 billion. However, many movies that passed the test had male-dominated casts, like Fast & Furious 6 and We’re the Millers, or male lead characters, such as Man of Steel and Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

Then there was Gravity. Of films released last year, Gravity fell into a weird gray area in the Bechdel Test since there were only two characters, one of which was a woman. The Academy Award-winning movie doesn’t pass, but it is arguably the most female-positive film of the year. So the Bechdel Test fails Hollywood in at least this aspect.

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Let’s Look Further Back

Recently FiveThirtyEight compiled data from — an online databank of films going back decades maintained by fellow movie-lovers — and found that in the past 20 years, at least half of the films released each year pass the Bechdel Test. Prior to 1985, only about 25 percent of films passed this litmus test. So there’s been an amazing increase in representation, as well as money, for longer than just the past few years. However, if we look a little deeper than simple representation, the numbers aren’t as great.

Seen But Not Heard

While there were female-led films making bank at the box office in 2013, in male-dominated movies, the ladies were either relegated to the sidelines and/or didn’t interact with each other. Although 2013 saw the release of The Heat, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Frozen, there was also Star Trek Into Darkness, This Is the End, and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, which were notably lacking in estrogen. 

In fact, aside from The Hunger Games, the year’s blockbusters almost exclusively starred men, even the ones that passed the Bechdel Test! Since the test doesn’t measure the number of female leads or how many stories are oriented toward women, it falls short of noting the problem that most blockbusters predominantly star, and are geared toward, men.

RELATED: The Highest Grossing Films in Every Genre

We need a new way of looking at women in movies because the Bechdel Test just doesn’t cut it. Any criterion in which Gravity fails and G.I. Joe Retaliation passes is not a good measure of ladies on screen. Perhaps 2014 will at least slightly remedy the issue of male-only blockbuster leads with the release of Divergent and the next Hunger Games film, as well as Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy. So there’s certainly hope.