The Bechdel test: Application, historical context, and introducing a male equivalent

I write about men in movies. I write about how they can serve to inspire us to greatness.

Thankfully, there are also those who write about women in movies. Or rather the lack of women in movies. And when doing so, some tend to pull on the Bechdel-test.

The Bechdel test was introduced by Alison Bechdel, an American cartoonist, back in 1985. Here are its humble beginnings:

A movie, as the cartoon tells you, passes the Bechdel test if:

  1. It has at least two women (with names) in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man

The test has become very popular in feminist circles and recently Swedish cinemas announced that they will henceforth rate all movies using the Bechdel test.

In other words, the test has become politicized.

Applying the Bechdel test

The basic premise of the Bechdel test is that there are too few women in significant roles in movies. And there seems to be truth in that; According to Colin Stokes’s TED talk “How movies teach manhood” that I wrote about a few days ago, only 11 of the top 100 movies of 2011 had women leads.

Most movies featured on my site fail the test. Here’s a list of those who pass it (with a score of 3 out of 3), according to

tomb-raiderSome of these pass it only just. So at least 12 of 41 reviewed movies pass the Bechdel test, which is almost 30%. A clear minority.

Here’s something puzzling though: A movie like Tomb Raider (which I haven’t reviewed) fails the Bechdel test. In fact, it absolutely flunks it (0 out of 3 points). So in other words, a female heroine with enormous courage making her way through a typically male-dominated environment scores no points. I understand that Lara Croft is not a well rounded, realistic female character that will serve as a positive role model to the young women of the world, but it still strikes me as peculiar that a movie featuring a female heroine scores 0 points on the Bechdel test.

Another interesting observation: Despite a whole host of powerful female characters, the Lord of the Rings trilogy gets pummeled (1 out of 3 points) and the scene in Return of the King where Eowyn arguably saves Middle Earth by defeating the Nazgul King while exclaiming “I am no man!” (she can kill him only because she is a a woman; see scene below) scores no points with the Bechdel test.

Basically, a wide range of movies where women are portrayed as powerful and in control of their destinies fail this test. Here’s but a few:

That seems strange to me.

So while there seems to be some validity to the test, it shows some strange results in practice.

What is still undeniable, however, is that there are more male protagonists in the movies. Why is that so?

Historical context

The role of women has historically been about nurture and the family sphere. There are good reasons for this. The male brain has much greater spatial awareness and our bodies are better at dealing with adrenaline and extreme physical conditions. In effect, we cope with hunting, hard labor and danger better than women.

Workplace death statistics (more than 90% are men) reflect this fact; men seek out the challenges and danger for which our physiologies are built. The woman’s brain, however, is much better at language, social interaction etc. In fact, women on average use three times as many words per day compared to men (20000 vs 7000).

These naturally occurring differences are the result of a co-created evolutionary process which has, among other things, ensured that pregnant women were sheltered from hard physical labor. (for a feminist who gets this, refer to Lauren Barnett’s presentation).


While the women were sheltered, men have historically been expected to provide that shelter. The ideals of the traditional male role are to serve, provide and protect. World mythology is overflowing with stories of men starting from humble beginnings, only to become a true hero after overcoming a series of trials. These tales – and acts – of heroism have brought solace and protection to those in need for milennia. Mythology expert Joseph Campbell calls this mythological theme the Hero’s journey.

There is something inherently exciting about the Hero’s journey. Most men I know feel a visceral bodily response when observing other men undertake acts of heroism. It’s what made Braveheart so impactful when I watched it in my teens. And women seem to find such men very sexy. (quote from a female friend: “I don’t like Mel Gibson, but William Wallace is super hot”).

The archetypal theme of the Hero’s journey has called many men to greatness. But it has a shadow side too; it has trained men to see themselves as expendable. The basic idea was this: As long as men died in service of a noble purpose, theirs was a fine death.*

So this is the bottom line: While women were expected to live limited yet relatively safe and social lives at home, men were given influence on the condition that they would sacrifice their lives in a heroic spectacle at the drop of a hat.

These are the tradeoffs inherent in the traditional gender roles.

*added 30. nov: The hero’s journey is really a metaphor for inner transformation. As such, it is an archetype that exists on all levels of development. Its themes have however exerted influence over the gender roles of society, and particularly those of the premodern era.

Understanding the mythical foundation of movies

Movies are the main propagators of mythological themes in today’s world. In the absence of stories around the fireplace and kids gathering at the feet of grandpa reading fairy tales in the flickering light of a lone oil lamp, we look to the silver screen for that essential soul food. The movies which make our spirit soar build on the same essential themes as humanity have grappled with for millennia: Survival in a dangerous world, truth, justice, purpose, faith, love.

These myths always involve a Hero’s journey of some sort, even the ones featuring women in leading roles (few characters in movie history are as heroic as Ripley in Aliens). They resonate in some deep part of us, where things still matter and there’s something worth dying for.

When you get that a majority of people still hunger for epic stories featuring danger and the overcoming of it, and you also get that this is what the male body is designed for, you will begin to understand why so many movies feature male instead of female characters.

Men leading, women following: Have movies lost touch with society?

As I make these observations, a question becomes pressing: Have these movies become outdated? Are they out of touch with the world we live in? The answer is: Possibly. It depends on our cultural perspective.

GladiatorIn parts of the world, the liberal West primarily, gender roles are changing and men are becoming sensitized and somewhat domesticated. Women, on the other hand, are becoming more agentic and autonomous. Women are clearly leading the way in this process; it’s as if the men have become sensitive because the women demanded it, not because the men wanted it.

These changes are made possible thanks to huge changes in the techno-economical structures of society; in a service and information-based economy, career success does not involve risking my life at work.

In the conservative Western world and most of the rest of the world, however, traditional gender roles still prevail.

Let this much be clear: I would rather live in the liberal West than elsewhere. And I think it’s tremendous that we are encouraged to have more emotional range as individuals in this postmodern era (Spiral Dynamics green meme). But have you noticed, as I have, that most people who live in this cultural context seem a little bored? It’s almost as if nothing is at stake, everything is safe and comfortable. Life runs on auto-pilot. Despite all this emphasis on individual expression, things seem awfully flat.

Life-affirming qualities like vitality, passion and creativity have pretty much been erased by a postmodern crusade over the last several decades. Just look at postmodern art; often little more than ugly objects with some fancy conceptual description on a plaque. Pardon me for saying it, but most of it seems like pretentious crap. Beauty seems to have no inherent value anymore. Flying the banner of relativism, humanism and multi-culturalism, postmodernism has successfully wiped out all truths and absolutes. Without reference points to navigate by, life has become somewhat meaningless. It seems that these days, it doesn’t matter if what we say is true or meaningful, as long as we are expressing something. Look no farther than reality TV for what I’m talking about.

It’s as if the liberal West is held hostage by this pervasive meaninglessness. And men in particular seem affected. They’re becoming apathetic and impotent, in a double sense of the word. They’re dropping out of school, becoming losers in the workplace. It’s so epidemic that journalist Hanna Rosin is talking about “The End of Men”.

So for those of us who live in the liberal West, the theme of these movies may indeed be outdated. And yet, their success at the box office shows that even in this gender neutral postmodern era, the need for mythical stories of archetypal men and women still linger. I think the fact that they are “outdated” is exactly why they are popular. Once the politically correct police has gone home, people yearn for a different world, one where things matter, where people are loyal, have substance, integrity and dare to stand for something.

Introducing a new test

While the Bechdel test is great at pointing out how common it is for women in movies to be stuck in traditional gender roles, it doesn’t come with a multi-faceted and intelligent context within which to interpret the results. Accordingly, the people who use it often conclude that the marginalization of women is tantamount to discrimination, not realizing that the themes which they are critiquing are the very themes which contributed to making possible their modern lives of comfort.

To make my point more explicit, I have decided to design a male equivalent of the Bechdel test. It targets two primary facts of the male role:

  1.  There are twice as many women as there are men in our genetic ancestry. Many men of history lived lonely lives without a woman to carry his child.
  2. Men’s lives are expendable.

A movie fails this brand new “ test” if it has a leading male role who:

  • Is risking his life in order to serve/protect
  • Is risking his life in service of truth and/or justice
  • Is risking his life/wellbeing in order to make it in the world/“become successful”
  • Is jumping through hoops to get the girl

Now, with the introduction of this test, we can join in with the women and point to movies and go “ooooh, traditional gender roles!”

Here are the movies on my site which pass this test:

That’s 5 out of 41 movies –  about 12% – and most of them are debatable. In other words, my test used against the archived reviews yields far worse results than the Bechdel test does.

Which begs the question: Why aren’t you complaining, men?

Why men aren’t complaining

So women are stuck in traditional gender roles in a majority of movies... check! And using the new test I just created, we can easily see that an even greater majority of movies features men in traditional gender roles. Surprising?

If the Bechdel test and feminism form our lens, we might be upset that a movie like Saving Private Ryan fails it. Complaining about a lack of women, we may pay little attention to the extraordinary suffering men go through in the movie in service of the women and children who are at home. It’s a telling sign of how blind postmodern thinking can make us.


When cinemas in Sweden now introduce the Bechdel test, it’s because they take it for granted that women should now be portrayed in a more postmodern light – free to do what they want, self-expressed and not limited by their traditional gender role. In other words, the women of Sweden should move on from traditional to postmodern gender roles and so should the movies they watch.

And since fewer are arguing a similar case for men, I can only assume that it’s because it’s not as big of a deal that men are stuck in their traditional gender roles. In effect, women are invited to the evolutionary process while it’s sort of handy that a large part of the men don’t come along. If they did, they might change their minds about dying at work and then civilization would start crumbling as communications towers fell into disrepair, resources stopped getting mined, nuclear plant meltdowns did not get attended to etc.

Society needs men who are willing to pay the ultimate price. And if we start talking men out of that, perhaps by making movies that pass the test I just designed above (oops), civilization as we know it would collapse. It’s not pretty, but it’s the truth.


For fear of repeating myself, the Bechdel test does a great job of identifying movies featuring women in traditional gender roles. It does a terrible job of identifying movies in which women are being discriminated against, however. It requires a special kind of postmodern thinking to assume that the two are synonymous, which I hope I have done an adequate job of explaining to you.

If the people who complain about movies using the Bechdel test would instead proactively contribute to making the postmodern movies they want, maybe things would look differently. But I don’t think they will anytime soon. Because frankly, the world looks a lot more boring from this gender neutral place. There are no epic storylines that play out in a postmodern context. The postmodern imperative is, somewhat crudely put, to complain, not to make art. It doesn’t sell at the box office.

Beauty arises in the dance of polarity. It arises in the longing for merging with something that feels “other than” and the alluring promise that this Other is our long-lost portal to Oneness. This is the yearning that has inspired poets since the dawn of time, be it for an idea, a woman or God. When that polarity is deconstructed, so is beauty, meaning, purpose. And men without purpose wither and die.

Use the Bechdel test all you like. It serves a purpose. But realize that its purpose will forever be to point towards more postmodern gender roles, and for women only. If that’s what you want, then so be it.

But if you, like me, are bored with that and instead are yearning for a world in which we dare synthesize old with new, masculine with feminine, in a genuine life expression free from traditional stereotypes and postmodern ideology, then you’ll turn your back on it and maybe find, as you turn, that in the place you dared not look, true art awaits.

Discuss the article below:

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  • James Barrow

    Awesome insights. Thanks. I think this is probably your best bit of writing yet.

    This very last part I don’t quite get though: “yearning for a world in which we dare synthesize old with new, masculine with feminine, in a genuine life expression free from traditional stereotypes and postmodern ideology,”

    When you say “synthesize”, you don’t mean you yearn to “merge” or “blur” the differences do you?
    What might this synthesis look like to you then?

  • Pelle Billing

    Good article, Eivind. A nice synthesis of societal and cultural processes.

  • Thanks, James. I appreciate hearing that.

    No, I don’t mean to blur.

    The concept of synthesis is to take two opposing forces and unite them in a higher union. The Hegelian dialectic process goes thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Traditional gender roles are the thesis and postmodern gender roles are the antithesis.

    Neither of them is truly mature, however. What I’m wanting is a synthesis, where we take the best of the traditional gender roles and the best of the postmodern gender roles and find their higher union in self and culture.

    It basically means that men who are really masculine are celebrated and men who are authentically really feminine are also celebrated – because it’s true, not stereotype or ideology.

  • Thanks, Pelle :)

  • Well written and well stated – the postmodern world has taken away the adversity that is needed to challenge us and help us grow. It has allowed us to be soft and passive, never enjoying the richness of being fully in the game, because there is no game – & we can sit alone without the need for companionship, unless you want someone to sit next to you as you watch sports on tv or play a video game.

  • Interesting argument, but I don’t accept your premise that the point of the Bechdel Test is to identify movies featuring women in traditional gender roles, or to push for female leads or female driven stories. Alien and Aliens do not pass the test because they feature women in “traditional roles,” or because the lead is a female character. Both pass because they feature a fairly large number of female characters of differing types, and so it’s natural they will talk to each other, have names, and talk about something other than a man.

    If you make a film (in any genre) and half your characters are women, odds are you will past the test. If you make a film where all the characters are men, except for a token girlfriend or secretary, you’ll fail. Pretty simple.

    The fact that Star Trek: Into the Darkness didn’t manage to pass the test, because there are only two named female characters and their entire focus is on men, does say something about the filmmakers. If you’re writing a space ship centered story from scratch, in order to pass the test you simply have to envision a world where half the characters are women. Which doesn’t seem to be too much of a challenge. Same thing if you’re writing a cop movie, or a war movie. Just imagine a world where half the people are women. Just imagine.

    When you’re dealing with older source material, like a Lord of the Rings, it’s a challenge if you want to be faithful to the material. But it’s not that hard to imagine that Eowyn might have had a lady in waiting that could have had a name and a line of dialogue helping her sharpen her sword for battle. Or that Lara Croft could have encountered a woman during all her adventures and talked to her. If you’re doing a WWII infantry movie, it’s understandable that most of the characters might be men. But there were women nurses, resistance fighters, etc.

    I think it’s silly to try to read too much into the test. It simply points out that most film makers are too lazy to deviate from character stereotypes where the doctor, lawyer, police officer, etc. that the lead male character encounters during his adventures with might be a woman, rather than a man. And it’s interesting that even when the woman is the lead, there is still an assumption that every character on their journey will also probably be a man. The test is mostly about supporting characters, not a demand for new stories.

    But nice try trying to turn this into a complaint about men not be appreciated for the pressures of having to go out and hunt for food.

  • NWOslave

    Correct me if I’m wrong but the Bechdel test doesn’t pass the Bechdel test because it’s two women talking about men. Movies as well as books are fictions, a pleasant escape from the feminist dogma that’s destroying western culture. No doubt Lady Bechdel will praise a fiction where a 90 pound waif tosses around 200 pound men like ragdolls as empowering, yet she’d call men tossing women about toxic masculinity and encouraging violence against women.

    The fact is there’s no such thing as gender roles, men and women are biologically different. Gender equality is just another of the great fraudulent attempts at social engineering. How can gender equality be achieved when men and women have different bone structure, muscle structure, skin structure, brain structure, reproductive structure, and on and on it goes? Shall we remove a rib from every woman at birth so we all have an equal number of ribs? Perhaps a better approach would be to simply accept reality instead of the failure of trying to change societies perception of reality.

  • Thanks for your comment, Uncle Bell. I’m glad you don’t accept what I’m saying just because I bring a convincing argument.

    And when I read your post, it seems that you want to remove the Bechdel test from the whole context of gender roles. It seems you prefer that the test does not exist in a larger socio-cultural context. My desire with this article, however, is to explain that it does – and then trace the contours of it.

    Try as I might, I don’t understand exactly what you mean or where you’re coming from with your message. You say it’s silly to read too much into the test and at the same time you seem to be making a strong case for how movies are underrepresenting women (which I can totally get).

    It seems you mean that movie makers should intentionally rewrite their story arcs to include scenes that satisfy the requirements of the Bechdel test. Is that not reading a lot into the test in your world? Because to me it seems like you are reading into the test that it’s a template for how movies should be made.

    Which would make movies totally at odds with reality. Take a war movie where men are dying in droves and then the desire to satisfy the requirement “two women speaking about something other than a man”.

    Scenes where two women speak about cooking recipes, work, hanging out together or the latest fashion, while their husbands are dying in the trenches would just be very strange movie making.

    There’s ideology and there’s reality. If ideology is used to misrepresent reality – as it often is – then we’d expect movie makers to start jumping through hoops like this.

    But I want what is natural. What is natural is my friend (but it’s not the friend of postmodernism and many feminists).

    To the extent that movies have an unnatural lack of women, I’m all for that changing. But a huge number of the movies that don’t pass the Bechdel test don’t suffer from an unnatural lack of women – they simply reflect the traditional gender roles of men serving and protecting and women tending to the family, kids etc. The men are rewarded with visibility at the cost of being expected to die.

  • Yep, not too inspiring this postmodern world. For all its high-flying ideals, the results are non too heartwarming.

  • I think there are both gender roles and biology. It’s not a binary thing. We can be products of society and of biology at the same time.

    Otherwise, I think you’re doing a good job of pointing out some of the inconsistencies of feminist ideology and I’m glad you’re willing to drive home that we’re biologically different.

    Ideology is a mental game of abstractions that cannot hide physical reality. Which seems to be frustrating to many – the world never seems to align with their beliefs. That’s what happens when beliefs run counter to nature.

  • Leslie Dawson
  • Leslie Dawson
  • Leslie Dawson

    Time to tell the truth: MANHOOD101. COM

  • Leslie Dawson: If you’re going to contribute to this thread, then don’t be a dick. You’re welcome to contribute, but only from a place of true power, not machismo posturing. I’ve marked all your posts as spam. I want to hear what YOU think, not watch some Youtube stuff.

  • Linda M

    It is easy to show the hypocrisy of the Bechdel test. You don’t have to reverse the gender, you just have to replace something positive (agency) with something negative (disposability).

    I propose the anti-Bechdel test, which requires media that features violence to:
    – Feature at least two ordinary, thinking women
    – Who commit violence on one another
    – Without involving a man

    Especially in video games, it has become completely normal that the hordes of grunts are 100% disposable males. The latest Tomb Raider video game is a perfect example, with its story conveniently constructed so that Lara’s entourage of men dies one after another to save her from other men. Superhero movies are another obvious case.

    Oh sure, you’ll find a strong female character here and there who wields a club or a gun. But find me one who beats up or shoots another woman, preferably intentionally, and without her turning into a sobbing wreck immediately after. Find me evil women who take matters into their own hands rather than delegating to others.

    And then you’ll figure out what’s really going on here.

  • NWOslave

    The Hegelian dialect as well as marxism, communism, feminism and so forth are destructive ideologies by design.

    There is no such thing as gender roles. Men are masculine and women are feminine, there is no overlap, blending or anything else. A man cannot be feminine nor can a woman be masculine. If a man pretends to be feminine or a woman pretends to be masculine that is a role, a false ideology.

    In fact, up until very recently there term gender role didn’t exist. The term is derived from feminist theology and should be immediately discounted as propaganda. The phrase is simply repeated over and over by the media and our indoctrinating education system that it becomes a part of our dialect, but has no relevancy in reality.

    When you look at deer for instance, do we shake our fist at them and scream they don’t have to live in a patriarchal society? Free yourselves from the doe herd and be your own woman! Stop rutting and raping the doe you evil stags!

    Humans are animals with a higher consciousness, yet we still have the same biological limitations. A man cannot be feminine nor can a woman be masculine, they can act that way, which is nothing but a child’s game of let’s pretend.

  • I’m interested in what you’re saying here, Linda. What you’re highlighting is how women are often treated as these innocent, beautiful beings incapable of violence and evil. Which is as untrue for women as it is for men of course.

    I’m curious where you’re coming from with your words. Are you upset with feminists and the Bechdel test or is there something deeper here? What I imagine is that the way women are portrayed makes it harder to own your dark side as a woman – and that that might be frustrating.

    I’m just probing here – would love to have my curiosity satisfied :)

  • I love how committed you are to your perspective, NWOslave. There’s something about that which I admire. And I also notice that it seems pretty dense – there seems to be no breathing room in there in which your perspective is open to being expanded.

    I’m saying that because, while I applaud your championing of biology, I have a very different experience of masculine and feminine.

    Masculine and feminine are ancient concepts – found e.g. in the yin/yang model of Daoism. And as I’m sure you know, yin contains yang and yang contains yin.

    In other words, people have seen feminine in men and masculine in women for thousands of years. It’s basically untrue that it is related to postmodern ideology. It’s founded in ancient wisdom. A couple of minutes with Google should confirm that for you.

    That is one thing. Another is that I see it/feel it. And my seeing it has nothing to do with feminism. I have simply done enough experiential work in my life to know very well what these things are and how they show up.

    A man can stand in front of me and I challenge him and I feel one thing. I ask him to bring out as much feminine as he can and I feel another.

    In fact, polarity starts running even with a man when he is acting feminine. It’s not something I decide, it’s just nature. I believe this simple fact that polarity exists between masculine and feminine regardless of whether I relate with it in a man or a woman is what has so many men caught in the grip of homophobia. They don’t understand that the pull they feel to this feminine man is simply a magnetic force – it doesn’t mean there is desire there.

    I imagine you place a lot of emphasis on rationality and that this does not seem valid to you. If so, I’m cool with that. I will respect your view and say that it does not fit with mine.

  • What I’m saying is that the test has nothing to do with the type of story.

    In the vast majority of cases, it would take little effort on the part of a talented writer to pass the Bechdel test, regardless of any story arc. I simply don’t accept that telling mythic/epic/action oriented stories presents any particular difficulty in including women characters in supporting roles (other than love interests). In fact, epic stories are probably easier to write in a way that passes the test, just because they have so many characters. (A small father and son drama would be understandably hard.)

    Now, whether or not a filmmaker wants to bother to pass the test is up to them. But making a modest effort to do so sounds like good business sense, given that half the world is made up of women, and the fact that the test has gotten a certain head of steam in pop culture. It IS partly about being politically correct. Just like I think it’s great when film makers make an effort to have a multi-ethic cast, even if that might slightly stretch reality. (It was kind of silly in The Warriors and Gangs of New York.)

    But I think the test also highlights something else: the fact that the vast majority of film makers, and film executives, are still men, frequently geeky men who become powerful young and whose world view of women formed around casting couches and helpful personal assistants. As a crude (and funny) way to examine sexism in general, the test offers an interesting perspective.

    Star Wars is a wonderful film. But what it does say about George Lucas that he can’t seem to imagine a world where women have much involvement other than as a princess/sister/love interest. Since the original, some effort has been made to include a few more female characters, but his heart doesn’t really seem to be in it. He has made a better effort of including African-American actors, which is great. And he’s a hero to stuffed bears.

    As far as Star Wars is concerned, what’s done is done. But if you’re a new film maker, and you want to write your own big Joseph Campbell inspired space opera, why not try to make half the characters female? Why couldn’t the Han Solo like rogue be a woman? Why couldn’t his wookie like companion? If you switch the sex of those two roles, and the wookie talks, test passed. They talk about the ship many times. The rest of the story could remain the same. Don’t want to change those characters into women? Okay, have three or four female villains on the Death Star and you would pass. It’s really hard to imagine why any sci-fi film, or superhero/fantasy, should fail other than the film maker is too lazy to consider opening up the supporting roles for women characters. I’ll bet after the fuss about the last Star Trek, J. J. Abrams and company will make sure the new Star Wars sequel passes the test. And you know what, it will take them about five minutes of thought and half of an hour of writing.

    Beyond sci-fi, the argument can be that the “reality” of the story being told doesn’t include any women in significant ways. Okay. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe it isn’t.

    For example, the Social Network famously fails. Is Aaron Sorkin a sexist? There’s been a lot of chatter about that in regard to his television work. But in the case of the Social Network, he was telling a real story. So why blame him? Well, for some reason he left out the fact that Mark Zuckerberg met his future wife and began dating her in 2003, a year before he started Facebook. So why not include that fact? Why not include that this guy met a girl before he started Facebook, and then married her after it became successful? Was the real life Zuckerburg more interested in all the sexy women hanging around in tech sponsored parties, or was Sorkin?

    “But what about war stories!” Okay. Well, these days, women are pretty damned integrated into the the American Military. There are female fighter pilots. So it shouldn’t be an issue if you’re telling a modern war story.

    But what about historical war movies? Okay, Lawrence of Arabia fails the test, zero out of three. It’s an all male love feast with a big heap of homoerotiscm. It’s a great film, but it does seem a little odd that women are completely excluded other than some eyes peeking out of burkas and a nurse or two.

    But that’s just reality right? There weren’t any women involved in desert warfare! Why should film makers have to be politically correct and change history just to pass some stupid feminist test? Well, if you feel that way, I suggest you do some research in Gertrude Bell who rode alongside Lawrence during many of his desert adventures and who ultimately had a far greater political impact on the war and aftermath than he did. Why was such an amazingly interesting woman excluded from this “true” story?

    Not only do I think that trying to include more female characters is simply politically correct, and also smart business, but I suspect in the long run, most writers will find it improves their stories and is more truthful to the reality of the world.

    I get that some films, like Run Lola Run, seem to fail the test for arbitrary reasons. (In Lola’s case, there simply aren’t that many characters.) And that’s what I mean by reading too much into the test. It doesn’t always reflect sexism. And it certainly says nothing about the quality of films.

    On the other hand, I think it does say something that Avatar fails. Even though Cameron included several great women roles, he seemed overly in love with the male lead to the point that all the women spend most of their time gushing about him. I suspect, however, that Cameron is more than smart enough to easily solve this in future sequels, and I’ll bet he does.

    Would it be terrible if J.J. Abrams goes out of his way in the next Star Wars to write a scene just to pass the Bechdel test? Horrible if James Cameron does that in the next couple Avatars? Would it ruin Aaron Sorkin’s artistic integrity if he throws in an extra woman character or two in in his next project to escape charges of sexism?

    In the long run, I think the Bechdel Test will have a positive impact in getting film makers to consider adding more female characters and having them more integrated into the story. Some of it may be half-hearted, or forced. But it can’t be any worse than all the Save the Cat junk screenwriting advice.

    Oh, and if you’ve gotten this far, let me plug my own sci-fi story (which just barely pass the test):

  • Thanks. I get what you’re saying better now and I like a lot of it.

    I get your point that in some cases, it’s actually possible for a script to accommodate for the requirements of the Bechdel test without the resulting story becoming unrealistic or far fetched.

    In that case, I say go for it. More believable, “three-dimensional” women in movies sounds great. Important too.

    You go further than I would though, to the point of seemingly ignoring inherent gender differences. Work place death statistics should explain a thing or two about the willingness of men and women to take risks.

    On a space ship going to some distant, possibly dangerous corner of the galaxy, there is bound to be more men than women, simply because they are more willing to take risks and be away from home for a long time.

    In the most progressive societies – where feminism exerts strong influence – there is a paradox: The more freedom and encouragement women have to choose more traditionally “male” occupations, the more “female” they choose.

    In other words, given a choice, women choose traditional jobs even in the world’s most progressive societies.

    A lot of what you describe would run counter to this and basically misrepresent reality.

    It seems like you are OK with misrepresenting reality as long as it can lead to positive cultural results. I get that point – to an extent.

    But in the long run, I believe the only thing that fundamentally works is truth, reality, nature. Abstracting and deconstructing nature in order to affect reality in a way that has us feel more comfortable from our cultural perspective is an instant gratification methodology. It’s not sustainable, simply because it’s not aligned with nature.

    To the extent that introducing more women into movies is aligned with nature and not ideology, I applaud the efforts.

    But misrepresenting reality in order to make some small cultural gains is an approach I fundamentally disagree with. That is how the Bechdel test seems to be used these days – more in service of ideology than nature – and that is what I’m committed to challenging.

  • I don’t think a film like Star Trek: Into the Darkness has much to do with reality, nor do I think the film makers think about reality when writing it. And as I said, most of the time you scratch reality a little bit, you’ll find there are some women around.

    If you’re talking about a film like Lone Survivor, sure, it would be silly to inject fictitious women Navy SEALs. But there are plenty of wives referenced, and to pass the test one of them would just have to talk to another about their daughter. It would take 30 seconds of screen time and hardly hurt the story. So the test is no huge burden. Certainly less than say Hollywood’s latest efforts to inject Chinese content into American superhero films in order to get Chinese funding and distribution.

    On the other hand, Zero Dark Thirty is apparently very much based on true stories, and there are plenty of women in it. And it happens to be a better film to my taste because it shows a more rounded view of the world.

    Society is changing very rapidly, and women are rising fast in the world of the military and the CIA and law enforcement, three areas films frequently cover. It’s not a stretch to include women in modern versions of these stories, and in fact, is more truthful to do so.

    But the vast majority of films are pretty much straight out fantasy, picking characters who are smarter, more interesting, and better looking than reality. The stories are about things that rarely happen to real people. So no, I don’t think putting more women in the next version of Lord of the Rings hurts truthfulness. Maybe if you’re doing a very realistic film about ice truckers or oil rig workers. But there’s aren’t that many of those. How real are westerns, or horror films or detective stories?

    Passing the Bechdel Test simply requires having your Indiana Jones like character meet up with a female version of Sallah the digger in Cairo, rather than a male. Why not make her a black woman while you’re at it? Yes, perhaps a much larger percentage of archeological diggers during that time in history were men. But is it really untruthful to have, say, a Somali woman? Odds are, if you did a little research, you’d find there were plenty of women who did male oriented jobs like that, even during that time period and even for the Nazi’s. It certainly would be more interesting that the stereotype of a vaguely English supporting character. And certainly no bigger stretch than a magic ark. Likewise, there are some very interesting books lately on how involved women were with the Nazi’s atrocities. A couple women villains would solve the test too.

    Also, don’t discount the huge influence of censorship during Hollywood’s golden age, where Church affiliated groups defined the kinds of films that could be made, and the roles of men and women in them. Or the huge push after WWII to convince women that their place was in the home so they would give up jobs for returning GI’s. It was a massive experiment in social engineering that pretty much failed, except in bad 50’s films with women in tight skirts and bullet bras happily playing subservient roles to men. Those films hardly represented truth.

    I’m very sympathetic to the idea that many men are getting a raw deal, in terms of having to take jobs where they risk their lives, while the stereotypical female jobs have advantages to women that sometimes get over looked. But I don’t think that has much to do with films, and less to do with the Bechdel Test.

    Of course, supporting male actors should be pissed off about the Bechdel Test, because if Hollywood starts to respond, they might be out of jobs that will go to actresses. But since men prefer to risk their lives, maybe they’ll find something else.

  • Linda M

    I don’t deny that there are fundamental differences between men and women as groups. In my opinion, the perceived lack of representation of women in media is a red herring, as a single female character will command more attention than an entire entourage of men, and there is plenty of media produced uniquely for women by women about women. Generally it sucks. The Bechdel test “problem” is symptomatic of how many women want to be seen (as the centre of attention) rather than of men oppressing them.

    For example, I’ve been told that Cosmo’s fascination with “how to please your man” is just another symptom that society is male dominated and women’s desires are ignored. I think it reflects an unhealthy narcissism instead: it implies that a man’s feelings in a relationship are entirely defined by his spouse, and if he’s unhappy, the solution has to come from her, not him. Too many women see their boyfriends as projects rather than people in their own right, and the fact that maybe he’s feeling bummed out about his own life and his own goals is not even considered. No, it ‘must’ be because of something she’s doing.

    Even more, if you’re a woman going her own way, buying a house by yourself, focusing on your career rather than a boyfriend and not wanting children, you are made to feel like something’s wrong with you by the time you hit 30, and it’s not men doing it. Men generally like and admire real independent women. What women’s magazines promote however is a woman who is only independent right up until the cheque arrives, when the man has to graciously pony up. It is considered normal for you to have someone around whom you can offload your burdens to, after all, you can’t be expected to deal with all of them, you’re a woman, and society hates you. It is imperative that you keep believing this, so that you don’t ruin the gig for other women.

  • Linda M

    Just imagine a world where half the garbage collectors are women. Where half the oil rig workers are women. Half the janitors, half the crab fishers, half the loggers, half the coal miners. So easy! Just imagine!

  • Wow :) I see where you’re coming from, Linda. And I’m curious how prevalent your view is among women out there.

  • I think I’m getting your perspectives by now, UncleBell, and it seems we are in a somewhat circular dialogue.

    Some of what you write makes sense to me, but there’s something about your desire to be politically correct for the sake of it that doesn’t gel with me at all.

    In my world, political correctness in favour of some group is tantamount to disrespecting that group. Mollycoddling them as opposed to treating them as adults.

    And to repeat, when the PC contributes to something that seems plausible and natural as opposed to weird and artificial, then why not. That sounds good to me.

  • Great post, Eivind!
    I have adapted & translated part of it in my blog
    Deserves to be spread

  • When half of the audience for movies is women, being “politically correct” to not offend or not be perceived as offending women is simply good business.

    If a film maker passionately and truly wants to tell a certain kind of story that has no female characters, that’s fine with me. No need to drag in women for women’s sake. I have no problem with Reservoir Dogs.

    But since most film makers simply want to entertain, and make money, keeping in mind the Bechdel test is good common sense. Especially if you want to appeal to a broad audience.

    The majority films that fail the Bechdel test do if for no reason other than simple sexism or plain laziness. And they are less real, truthful and entertaining because of it.

  • thanks, Eric :)

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  • GoldenBoy

    It’s a really great post, but I just can’t share anything critical of feminism without being labeled as a misogynist or a brute.

  • Yes, I’m aware of that situation, GoldenBoy. It’s unfortunate. A lot of pain out there. Don’t let it get to you. You know your heart and it’s possible to be for love and the good in the world and be against feminism. For most types of feminism, it’s actually necessary.

  • Janet Lewis

    Thanks for this post. I laughed out loud at your presentation of the male equivalent of the Bechdel test (and the dilemma we’re all in if we mindlessly encourage exclusively postmodern values in men.) I really appreciate your appreciation of the complexity we deal with in gendered images. And I agree with your refocus on the essential question of what serves to make us all most fully and authentically alive. Perhaps something like the Bechdel test could benefit from thinking in terms of the four quadrants (of integral theory.) The Lower Right Quadrant issues are real – if the organization of the industry is such that few women become extremely successful as actors then fewer are in that particular pipeline to become directors etc and we lose that input. The Upper Left Quadrant issues at play in our being exposed to so many more images of male than female heroics are alleviated somewhat by writers like you who recognize that masculine archetypes function in the psyches of women as well as men. I find my strong feminist sensibilities not at all offended by your focus on men. It seems to me that men are postmodernism’s canaries in the mine (and you’ve found a source of oxygen.)

  • Fredrik Weisethaunet

    The problem is that we keep talking past each other, feminists shouldn’t be so afraid of engaging with other points of view, but sadly they seem to prefer to shield themselves from critisism by labeling any attempt to engage their ideas or values as an example of sexism and misogyny. There are exeptions to this rule, but especially the american feminist movement do need to realize that if they want to have any relevance in the world, they need to engage others while playing by the same rules that everybody else does.

    And to think, I sympathize with quite a few traditional “feminist” issues, but their lack of will to be confronted or their lack of will to engage with society at large makes it impossible for me to take the movement seriously. If your goto response to criticism is to shout “misogyny” your doing it wrong.

  • Agreed, Fredrik.

    It seems to be a prevailing feature of the human psyche that once you arrive at the belief that the world is full of evil and wrongdoing and that you are the only one who sees things clearly, then everyone who confronts you is judged as being “trapped in the matrix” and therefore not to be trusted.

    It’s good old deluded arrogance. Shame, because as you say, several of their causes are ones I support, if approached with nuance and balance.

    They do have relevance in the world, though. They are one of the main driving forces of law-making out there. For better or for (mostly) worse

  • Fredrik Weisethaunet

    I do think it has something to do with your culture, I say that as an outsider. In Norway, where I live, feminists and critics of feminism exchange opinion pieces on different topics all the time, often in the same newspaper. It’s quite rare to see participants who doesn’t respect each other, and while the debate can be heavy, it’s never tainted by profanities or labels.

    It seems like the media in the US is different, alot more confrontational, a lot more spite. Fox openly mocks liberals, while liberal media mocks republicans and conservatives. There is little dialogue, and the loudest voices gets the most attention.

  • I’m actually Norwegian as well, Fredrik, but I agree that there is a strong polarization happening in the US media. It’s dehumanizing.

    And I’m encouraged by increasing tolerance for real debate around real issues in Norway. The situation in Sweden, however, is not as good.

  • Thanks, Janet, I really appreciate your feedback. And to frame everything in an Integral context is certainly helpful!

    “It seems to me that men are postmodernism’s canaries in the mine (and you’ve found a source of oxygen” – nice!

  • Fredrik Weisethaunet

    I’m not to familiar with the gender debate in sweden, but it has come to my attention recently that the situation seems to be quite the opposite of what it is here in Norway.

    What we do share with Sweden though, that seems absent in the US, is the culture of “kronikk” where people with different opinions are allowed to write opinion pieces in news papers, where people who disagree can write responses.

    It’s one of the things that makes me proud of being Norwegian. We have people as far from politically correct as Hanne Nabintu Herland writing and being published by major news papers, along with people far from her point of view being published in the same paper. Personally, I am sympathetic to most feminist causes, but this new trend of labeling any opposition as “sexist” or “mysogynist” scares me. It only aids alienating and dividing people. We have enough hatred across political divisions, we do not need more.

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  • Caio Gutzwiller

    Great read! Thank you.

  • Julie Gabrielli

    The dance of opposites – yes! It’s the yin-yang symbol, it’s night-day, winter-summer, the cycle of life. When awareness moves into the territory of political correctness, we run the risk of sucking all the juice out of life. Thanks for what you’re doing and writing and teaching. I’m fascinated. I’ve been exploring a lot of similar territory of the “both/and” on my blog – Thriving on the Threshold Stop by for a visit.

  • You’re welcome!

  • “When awareness moves into the territory of political correctness, we run the risk of sucking all the juice out of life.”

    Couldn’t agree more. Will have a look :)

  • Nathan J Dennis

    I am only commenting to say that Lone Survivor is a bad example and I disagree cutting back to the wives/partners of the Seals would have been a good idea.

    That film has a particular ‘male camaraderie’ element to it. It spends almost the entirety of the film around those navy seals. You are meant to feel the isolation. Cutting to a scene of their partners would have broken that, taking the viewer out of the narrative.

    Furthermore, I am of the opinion that the Bechdel test shouldn’t matter if the movie is aimed at a male audience, which it obviously is.

  • Truls Gartland

    I must protest in relation to LOTR. The women communicate, on a spiritual level. For a movie that high in the spirit (the book calibrates in the 7K’s LoC), this would qualify as passing the test.

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