A few years ago, I came across a thing called the Bechdel test. In case you haven’t heard of this, this test measures how well a film represents women by asking if:
1) Does it have at least two (named) women in it?
2) Do they talk to each other?
3) Do they talk about something besides a man?
And this is a pretty good way of measuring whether a film has enough women in it and whether they are characters in their own right or just there to support the men. However it’s not perfect because it’s too brief. It doesn’t tell you if there are women in the background. And sometimes you’ll have two women who are allowed to chat, but when push comes to shove they’re only there to back up the male protagonist. (In case you’re curious, visit bechdeltest.com for an incomplete list of the films that pass/fail). So, being the arrogant sod I am, I decided to come up with my own test of how well a film represents women. And, being a maths nerd, I wanted it to be quantitative. So, I ask 5 questions each of which I feel contribute an important role to how a film shows its women and mark them out of 2 (0 = you failed, 1 = you did OK, but not great, 2 = you passed!) to give a total out of 10. Below, I have a list of the questions I ask, and why I’ve included them.
How many female characters are there?
a) Does it pass the Bechdel test?
OK, so I did just say it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. In particularly, it’s good at telling you how many major speaking women there are in a film. So it counts for something.
b) Background women
One thing that really bugs me about a lot of films (especially action movies) is that, sure, there’s a woman or two to tick off the ‘Keep the feminists quiet’ box (Ha! We’re not keeping quiet you fools) but all the extras are male. Or there are female extras, but they only get to take on “suitable” roles like ‘Drunk girl at party #1’ or, if you’re really lucky, a scientist. The number of women getting to be bodyguards or soldiers is pitifully low. For a film to be truly feminist, let’s have some women kicking butt in the background too.
Are the women allowed to not look good?
Everyone knows how terrible Hollywood is for this, for both men and women. But what bugs me is not that only good-looking people can be cast in movies, but that women are asked to wear certain clothes or make-up when it’s unnecessary or doesn’t even make any sense. Why does that woman from a post-apocalyptic world still have perfect hair and make-up? Why does Carol Marcus flash us all her underwear in Star Trek: Into Darkness in a totally pointless scene? Why does a man come out of a fight sweaty and covered in gore, while the woman has only a teeny tiny scratch and a strategically ripped shirt? It’s infuriating. And don’t even get me started on the ridiculous outfits the women get given. Of course, if the man is wearing equally little clothing then by all means go ahead, but sadly this doesn’t happen that often (look, I found stats!).
What roles do the women have and how did they get there?
This questions is here to ask what the women are doing in the film. Are they the hero? Are they in positions of power? Are they in not-typically female roles? Are the women just love interests? This is important from a representation point of view – if girls never see girls on TV running a country or going to the moon, they won’t think they could do that too. Anyone with two brain cells knows this. And films are getting much better at showing women in a range of roles. What they don’t seem able to manage is the idea that a woman might achieve something on her own and not because a man handed it to her. Or worse, why a woman would be in a film at all without being related in some way to a man. A classic example of this is Ant-Man. There are three females in this film: Scott’s daughter Cassie, Scott’s ex-wife Maggie and Hank Pym’s daughter Hope. And oh look: I defined both those women to you by their relationship to a male character (I had to look up Maggie’s name because all I could remember was that she was Scott’s ex). Admittedly, Hope is awesome and gets to run a business, but she inherited that business off her father. And this irritates the hell out of me.
Are the women awesome?
People consistently misconstrue the term Strong Female Character, so I won’t use that. What I’m asking instead is, are the women 3D characters? Do they have their own thoughts and feelings, their own fears and their own goals. And more importantly, are they so awesome that I want to be them? (Side note: you’re allowed to have women who are annoying or feeble, just as long as they are fully formed characters and there are some annoying/feeble men around as well).
Does it make a big deal about its representation of women?
I will say, this question is not as important to me as some of the other things I’ve talked about here, but it really really winds me up that for a man to be smart or kick-ass is a given, but a woman has to prove it. What I mean is: woman enters room full of Tough Guys. One of said Guys says something along the lines of ‘Are you sure you know how to punch, darling?’. Woman proceeds to punch the guy in the face. And as much as I love to see misogynists getting beaten up, the fact that this cliche turns up in movies all the time gets on my nerves. Another variation on this is: We’ve created a TV show/movie with lots of awesome women in it so now we have to go on about it repeatedly. And again, I love to see feminism on the screen, but it gets so tiring that the idea of an awesome girl who can take care of herself is so abnormal that we have to go on about it all the time.
Suprise! I lied, you can get more than ten points. These are some things that I wouldn’t expect every film to have to include, but if they do then that’s great!
At some point, I will write a full post on my search for a Perfect Female Villain. But basically, I’d like films to allow bad girls. So 1 bonus point for a film with a woman on the bad side and 2 points if she:
- Is the main villain,
- Her MO isn’t sex and
- She was never on the good side and has never been tempted by it
Lesbians! Trans girls! Women of colour! There’s a shockingly low number of LGBT+ and/or non-white characters on screen at the moment, and even fewer women belonging to these groups.