Missing: cinema’s leading ladies


In case you’re not already acquainted with the concept, the Bechdel test is a measure to assess the portrayal – or lack – of women in any work of fiction, although most commonly in films.

Introduced by Alison Bechdel’s cartoon strip ‘Dykes to watch out for’, the Bechdel test has become a tool for assessing gender bias through three criteria:

  • There must be at least two women in the film, who…
  • Hold a conversation with each other, about…
  • Something other than their fellow male characters.

Although the test may not sound particularly demanding, there are considerably fewer films than you’d think that meet this seemingly unchallenging criteria.

Critically acclaimed masterpieces from Avatar to the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy fail to script a half-decent conversation between their female characters. Shocking as this may be, upon close examination you do begin to notice the transparent nature of a disturbing number of women in films.

Their character development and identities rarely extend beyond their relation to their male counterparts. After putting on your Bechdel-tinted-glasses, much of today’s cinema becomes a parade of men’s escapades, with the brief contribution of their mothers, daughters, sisters or girlfriends.

Another issue is the physical portrayal of women. Recently, a Tumblr user  managed to draw social media attention to the fact that although male animated characters have a range of different facial features, females are restricted to a cute buttoned nose, big round eyes and peachy cheeks. Not only does attractiveness come in just one form, but beauty seems to be a ‘must’ for female characters.

It isn’t entirely bad news however, as there has been an emergence of stronger female roles, particularly in animated films. Take Frozen for example: although one of the two main female characters does have a love interest, the key theme of the award-winning animation – and the fifth largest grossing film ever – is the bond between two sisters. It has been acclaimed for its empowering implications for young girls, who can be influenced by the damsel-in-distress characters that films often offer.

The Bechdel test merely highlights the call for films to offer stronger, more independent female roles that aren’t contingent on the existence of a man.

Some argue that the test is limited in its purpose. Whilst films such as Legally Blonde pass because Reese Witherspoon and her co-star have a discussion about their dogs, Gravity, where Sandra Bullock plays an astronaut, doesn’t pass the test because she is stuck in space and can’t communicate with other women.

However, it doesn’t detract from the value of the measure in highlighting today’s cinematic representation of women. Until passing the Bechdel test becomes the norm, not an exception, it will continue to be essential to the discerning film viewer.

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Post Author

Kesta Mcleish
A first year student at the University of Leeds studying politics and philosophy, I am very passionate about the fight for gender equality, alongside increasing both youth and female representation in politics