April 17, 2024

COLUMN: More representation please

In 1985, artist Alison Bechdel drew a comic portraying two queer women debating whether or not to go see a movie. One woman says she only sees movies that satisfy three requirements — it has to have two women in it, they have to speak to each other at least once and it has to be about something other than a man.

This seems like a pretty simple test, but upon inspection, many pieces of entertainment fail to meet this basic measure of representation.

The premise is now known as the Bechdel Test, and it’s widely used in critiquing both books and movies. For those wondering, yes, there is a Reverse Bechdel Test about men, but you’ll find a lot less in this category.

Some critics have revised and updated the Bechdel Test to suggest the female characters should be named, say more than five words to each other and share more than a minute of screen time. However, the three original rules continue to be commonly used to test gender representation.

Let’s talk about some popular films that fail the test, even if they do have strong female characters.

“The Avengers” from 2013 features Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill. Despite these female fighters, the film doesn’t feature a single moment where two women converse about something other than a man.

Throughout the movie, their conversations consist exclusively of male characters including Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Hulk.

“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. That’s right; not just one movie, the entire trilogy has not one moment where two women speak to each other. The film only features three female main characters — Arwen played by Liv Tyler, Eowyn played by Miranda Otto and Galadriel played by Cate Blanchett.

Despite the obvious lack of representation, they are at least all strong, audacious women. Yet, they fail to have even a single conversation — about men or not. In nine hours of film, not one moment arose.

Princess Leia isn’t enough for “Star Wars” to pass the test. The only female conversations consist briefly between unnamed slaves.

“Avatar,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” are all other examples of entertainment failing to pass the test.

It comes as no surprise that many classic novels fail this test. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Bridge to Terabithia” and “The Princess Bride” are just a few.

Even though it technically fails, I gave “Robinson Crusoe” a pass since he doesn’t talk to anyone. That’s kind of the whole premise.

Now let’s be clear — this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consume these works or they aren’t entertaining. I’m a huge fan of “Lord of the Rings,” and that’s not going to change.

However, having the test is important to frame our perspective on the world and what we deem “normal.”

I did find a few movies failing the Reverse Bechdel Test, including “Juno,” “Coraline” and “Maleficent.” Most of the movies failing are targeted for children.

There are some surprising films to pass the Bechdel Test.

“Twilight” easily passes the test with Bella Swan, portrayed by Kristen Stewart, talking to several of her girl friends and her mom about school, life and more.

In “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” Kate Hudson’s character speaks with her friends about work and sports.

“Remember the Titans,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” also pass the test.

The test isn’t a perfect measure of diversity by any means. Sometimes the conversations women are having are demeaning, sexualized or simply exaggerated.

I would like to see a similar measure done for people of color. Does the movie have two non-white characters who speak to each other? Now this only works for some movies. In a movie set in the United States in 2023, it should be simple.

However, movies in other parts of the world or in other time periods may not be historically accurate. Similarly to “Robinson Crusoe,” I’m OK with that.

It’s been nearly 40 years since the comic creating the Bechdel Test, and we’re still struggling to pass.

Cheyenne Roche


Originally from Wisconsin, Cheyenne has a journalism and political science degree from UW-Eau Claire and a passion for reading and learning. She lives in Creston with her husband and their two little dogs.