Link roundup: more on film industry’s reluctance to promote female characters

The response to my article about my experiences with the film industry’s refusal to allow movies to pass the Bechdel test has been fascinating, so a link roundup is in order!

Response from writer/film types:

Charles Stross announced that from now on his books and any film adaptations of them will pass the Bechdel test. He also made a follow up post listing articles that spurred the decision.

Aspiring screenwriter Misty Flores lists some great recommendations of films that pass the test.

Alex Epstein, a screenwriter, show runner and author, had this to say:

Fascinating post on Jennifer Kesler’s blog The Hathor Legacy about an unwritten rule that I never heard of, but which, come to think of it, I almost certainly have followed instinctively in my screenplays:women can’t talk to other women about anything other than men.

He and his readers are trying to compile a list of successful mainstream movies that pass the test.

While I avoided naming any of the professors or industry professionals I encountered who advised me against passing the Bechdel test, Miss-Anthropy – a current UCLA film student – had no trouble making one accurate guess.

And Extraneous Particles talks about this as a “trap” writers fall into:

It’s easy to define the characters you don’t understand by attaching them to a character you do understand. But it’s a disservice to the character, and ultimately, a disservice to yourself as a writer.

What bloggers had to say

Fleet-Streetese breaks down several 2008 movies into a three-point Bechdel-based scale. There’s some very interesting analysis here.

Seeking Avalon talks about how the comic book industry does the same thing as film, relegating women to the position of “exotic others” from the perspective of adolescent white boys.

Silverblue digs into some of the outlinks and backlinks and posts some very cogent analysis – hitting, incidentally, on one of the exact arguments I used to have with industry pros: “Maybe chick flicks do not do very well because they usually suck, not because women are an insanely hard demographic to reach.” But that’s just the beginning – read the whole thing, and the comments, too.

Yonmei at Feminist SF – The Blog! said:

What I found interesting about Betacandy’s posts is that they outline in convincing detail why it is that the movie/TV industry in California is still stuck in the 1960s – and why Joss Whedon comes across as such a rebel just because he did, some time ago, manage to write a TV series in which two women sometimes talked to each other about something other than a man.

And, on a side note, this is why the frequently under-appreciated Xena: Warrior Princess was revolutionary, too.

Ideologically Impure draws a very appropos contrast between Sex & The City and The Golden Girls.

Gold-Plated Witch on Wheels notes the irony of Hollywood making so many movies about evil government and big business screwing the little guy, then screwing over women.

Crazy on Tap has an interesting discussion about such things as how men can be uninteresting or obnoxious in ways women aren’t, thus proving not all men operate on some hive mind which fears girl-cooties above all else.

This comment thread at the F-word makes for really interesting reading as they discuss examples of movies that do and don’t pass the test and share anecdotes about audience responses.

Seth Roberts, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, suggested a new show you might want to check out in response:

I came across this test after spending a pleasant morning analyzing data while listening to the first six episodes of Denise Richards: It’s Complicated which I found on YouTube. (Such as part 1 of Episode 1.) The show consisted mainly of two named female characters — Denise and sister, Denise and friend, Denise and daughter — talking to each other about something other than a man.

I was surprised how much I liked it.

And apparently this blog full of silly females you should just ignore (someone tell our 18-49 year old male audience about that, ‘kay?) is also capable of sending a bit of traffic to your website: “Impressive spike in hits yesterday. Welcome, new readers from The Hathor Legacy! (I love Project Wonderful sometimes).” That spike was due to the Bechdel post hitting the front page of Reddit, despite the extremely male-dominated audience on that site. Hmm.


  1. says

    Interestingly, I was just involved in a discussion about the Bechdel test a week or two ago, on the Media sideforum of a RPG site. I was able to link your articles to excellent effect. Interestingly enough, while many forumgoers were deeply resistant to the Bechdel test when first proposed to them (especially as it was soon pointed out that The Dark Knight fails the test) but almost everyone eventually agreed that, whatever the test may say about an individual movie, the scarcity of movies that pass it industry-wide is a bad thing that should be fixed.

    It was rather pleasant :) Thanks for writing this stuff so I can link it when people say “Do you really imagine people in the movie industry are sitting around saying, ‘too many women talking!’?” and “Why would they not fix the problem if it could make them money?”

  2. says

    P.S. I found it interesting and nifty that Charles Stross expanded part 3 of the test to “babies and marriage”, and one of the commenters suggested adding ‘fashion’, which is along the lines I’ve always thought. I have bitten my tongue before as people congratulate Knocked Up for passing the test, when the non-man-mentioning conversation, to my recollection, was about aging and having babies making you less sexy. Oh yeah, beauty standards for straight women! This conversation is totally not about men! It’s particularly good that Stross expanded #3 because he is mostly applying the rule to novels, which tend to have more scenes and pages in which to let your characters gab.

  3. says

    Felicity, I didn’t see your link or I would have included it. I did see several on forums I was unable to access. In any case, I’m glad it provided a talking point. It really isn’t that every movie should pass the test; it’s that so few don’t, and what that reveals about insidious sexism.

    Stross’ two posts and most of the comments on them provided great food for thought.

  4. says

    Recent alum, actually. Now I am free. Free!

    I entered UCLA as a screenwriting major. I left as a new media researcher. There were several reasons for this, but chief among them was that I could see clearly that I was not going to be too happy in the screenwriting track. While I might argue that UCLA Film is full of fine, even wonderful instructors (I could name many more that I liked than ones I didn’t like), any school that prides itself on being “indie” and then champions all their graduates’ shoddy Hollywood successes is… well, a little suspect. And I definitely ran aground with “you can’t do that in a script” a bit too much to feel at ease with their perspective on storytelling.

    On another note, I’ve made it a personal mission that all of my stories pass the Bechdel test too, even the fanfiction. Since we’re entering an era where a lot of young people get a good deal or even the bulk of their reading material in fandom, setting good personal standards has the potential to change perspectives from the ground up. I know I owe much of my own liberal bent to growing up reading environmentalist, feminist, gay-friendly fanfiction, not to mention stories which weren’t afraid of trying different strategies and plot structures… There are several reasons you often find people in fandom contending that fan content is actually better than the source material, and I believe one major one is that fandom taps into all those unconventional perspectives so taboo in commercial product. Making a conscious effort to evolve the discourse further can only be beneficial.

  5. says

    Congratulations on your freedom!

    You know, I’d never thought about the power of fanfiction to spread new points of view to young readers, but you’re definitely onto something there. And maybe in a few years, we’ll have a generation of people entering the industry with a real understanding of fanfiction and how it can be decoded to tell you what the audience would like to see that mainstream media isn’t providing. But even if the mainstream never changes, fanfiction lets people know they’re not alone in wanting something TV and film don’t quite provide.

  6. says

    I’m not sure that Mononoke Hime technically passes the test, but if you substitute “swordfight” for “conversation”…in spirit it does far more than most Hollywood productions, because the rivalry between San and Eboshi is entirely political, not “over a man” at all, and part of the Tragic Conflict at the center of the story is that Lady Eboshi is trying to set up a human Liberaltopia at the cost of the environment, one where women have the opportunity to be more than chattel and social outcasts can escape from society’s abuse and neglect, so you have female characters talking about industry and politics and social justice. Also, while the conversation between San and her mother does get around to Ashitaka at the very end, after all the politics, it’s more of a plot-driving, politics-related thing than a Traditional Gender Roles thing, so again, spirit of the Bechdel-Wallace Test if not the technicality.

    I guess that’s why Miyazaki’s film did so poorly…

  7. Audra says

    Thanks for mentioning Xena. A decade later, and there has still never been another show, in my opinion, that comes close to Xena in “Bechdel” terms. It was truly revolutionary, though unfortunately the revolution it could have started didn’t really catch on. I remember in an early episode of the series Gabrielle tries to strike up a conversation about men with Xena and is quickly shut down. Her response, “You’re not much for girl talk, are you?” really sums up that show.

  8. says

    I guess that’s why Miyazaki’s film did so poorly…

    I take you to mean Mononoke-hime did poorly in the US, since it was a runaway smash in Japan. I believe that at the time of its theatre run, it was the highest-grossing film ever in the country– not just of animated film, but all film. Not bad considering the amount of violence, ambivalence about technological progress, and the feminist overtones of Iron Town, I would say.

    And even though it was not as financially successful in the US –something I attribute more to the West still having difficulty with “cartoons that are not for kids”/”anime that can be taken seriously” than the issues it plays with– it still remains the default pick whenever film enthusiasts discuss anime, taking over the spot that Akira had held since the early 90s (which doesn’t pass the Bechdel test even remotely). Yay for progress in small chunks, I guess?

  9. says

    Actually, I was being sarcastic – I know it did stupendously in Japan (despite Japan always being held up as the NABA excuse by US fanboys drooling over some upskirt lolita anime) and just about everyone I know in fandom has seen it and regards it as an animation classic, despite Disney’s poor promotion of it, so that was mostly snark.

    Clearly it was one of those Mystical Phenomenon that can’t be comprehended and therefore can’t be repeated, like Jennifer posted about earlier – the alternative would be that it’s possible to make an epic film full of strong female characters whose major concerns have nothing to do with romance and who are all badass in different, believable ways. And according to Hollywood, that’s just crazy talk. Crouching Tiger and Buffy and Phoenix Sagas to the contrary, American fanboys have ZERO INTEREST in seeing swordswomen and female martial artists of different sorts taking on each other and baddies to Save The World As We Know It (or destroy it, depending on the scenario.) None Whatsoever.

  10. says

    Bellatrys, I see your snark button is still engaged. Want me to send out a team of engineers to install a pleasantly vacant toothpaste commercial smile on your face and get you singing “Good Morning, Sunshine”?

    No, wait… no one wants to see that. 😀

  11. says

    Jennifer, LOL! (and also pthpppt!)

    –I did, at one sad point in time, consider that I would be *happier* if I had been able to be successfully Stepfordized (tho’ I didn’t know about the film at the time, that’s what it was) like a proper conservative Catholic girl to become a proper conservative Catholic housewife, and not have all this angst and cognitive dissonance and struggle.

    Fortunately, shortly thereafter I discovered the dangerously radical Mr. Mill and it’s been better ever since! (I still want my John Stuart Mill action figure, dammit!)

  12. SunlessNick says

    Crouching Tiger and Buffy and Phoenix Sagas to the contrary, American fanboys have ZERO INTEREST in seeing swordswomen and female martial artists of different sorts taking on each other and baddies to Save The World As We Know It (or destroy it, depending on the scenario.) – bellatrys

    There’s one caveat there: we’re allowed to think they’re hot, and watch them for hotness. So it’s assumed that if we (as in males/fanboys) do like Buffy, or Xena, or Shu Lien, or Aeryn Sun, or Sydney Bristow, or Sarah Connor, or Athena, or Storm, it’s because we fancy them. It can’t be because they’re brave, strong, or dedicated, and we want to watch stories about brave, strong, and dedicated people without much concern as to their sex – or for that matter, if we do find them hot, it couldn’t possibly be [i]because[/i] they are brave, strong, and dedicated.

    Because character qualities never figure into a female character’s appeal; or when they do it’s an exception. Every time. Yes, every time. Even that one. And that one. And that one… And so on.

  13. Mecha says

    Having to have gone an hour to an arthouse theater to see Princess Mononoke when it was released while living in a city of perhaps 50-75K, I think that certainly helps explain why the ‘serious’ anime doesn’t get very far in the mainstream: they’re basically like any ‘released in select cities’ movie: nobody gets to care but twonks. (GitS 2 had an even more annoying release that I didn’t make it to.)

    I think the fandom stuff is a great point, especially when you consider things like the origin of slash. Expressing and exploring things which the original text didn’t get around to, for whatever writer/director/actor/social/money reason would, hopefully, give at least no _narrower_ view of humanity than the source.


    P.S. Also, amusingly, in regards to ‘fan material’, I have to relate that I had an RP campaign once which was 3 guys and 2 women, and it was the 3 guys who never talked about anything but women if they talked at all. The women had much more important things on their minds. It reminds me of Beta–er, Jennifer’s old post on Xena being about women through and through.

  14. says

    I’m so pleased to see the Bechdel test finally getting some traction in the minds of men.

    “Stargate: Atlantis” is IMHO an important example of a show that passes the Bechdel test with surprising regularity. It’s important because the show isn’t all that well-written, up-market, or aimed at women — SGA proves by example that passing the test doesn’t require scriptwriters to leave their comfort zone. It’s mostly a matter of setting up women as major or recurring characters, and letting the nature of TV take its course. You can still write the crap that is your bread & butter, you just do it with female characters, too.

    But the race issues on SGA, omg …

  15. says

    Because character qualities never figure into a female character’s appeal; or when they do it’s an exception. Every time. Yes, every time. Even that one. And that one. And that one… And so on.

    Nick, it’s almost like they think you guys are watching these shows in spite of the fact that Aeryn and Xena and Trinity and Teyla et al are kicking ass – not because of! There’s some sort of strange disconnect going on in the minds of the studios, like they really don’t get the idea of Action Heroines, at all, but they’re trying b/c for some mysterious reason it keeps making money, but since they don’t Get it, they always screw it up terribly.

    I guess if you just totally ignore the fans – ignore all the guys talking about how disappointed they are with the absence, depowering, poor-writing, & other sorts of marginalization of their favorite heroines then you can come to this conclusion. You also have to ignore the fact that the “she’s hot!” conversations are revolving around actresses/characters with radically different appearances, many if not most of whom don’t fit the Blonde Beestung Bikini Bimbo archetype at all, which means that no, it’s not just some generic “sex sells” thing going on, not when guys are talking about how wiry bony brunette Aeryn Sun is hot, and so is petite, small-busted redhaired Willow, and petite, wiry brunette Trinity, and buxom brunette Xena, and scaly, cobalt-blue serpent-eyed Mystique is hot, and statuesque African-American Lt. Uhura is hot, and hottest of all is the Eternal Ripley – all of which means that no, really, it’s not about the T&A, especially given that there’s quite a variation in the amount of skin & figure these characters display, along with the presence or absence of traditional attributes of “beauty” – I *know* from board chatter that it was the fatigues and combat boots and general hard-working sweatiness and lack of “femininity” that slayed het male ‘Scapers in the aisles, frex.

    Maybe they’ll eventually figure it out – though I am not optimistic, not after the fanboy outrage over Catwoman and the generic “sexy” pandering therein failed to clue them in.

    I’m waiting for machinima to reach maturity as an art form, sooner.

  16. Patrick says

    Exactly. Clearly, the fact that The Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorite movies is not because Clarice Starling is smart, brave, driven, and tenacious, but because she’s pretty. Gak.

    A pre-outline screenplay that I’ve got in mind is a horror film about a group of young women that have just graduated high school and are on a road trip together. It’s not a splatter film, and is more about their friendships being tested and emerging stronger, as they manage to survive by working together to kill the moster. And if it gets made and does well with male audiences we’ll be told it was only because guys like hot chicks and hoped to see some boobs.

  17. says

    Nick, it’s almost like they think you guys are watching these shows in spite of the fact that Aeryn and Xena and Trinity and Teyla et al are kicking ass – not because of!

    That’s exactly it! Every time we pointed out examples of the target male audience watching shows with interesting female leads or co-leads, or evidence that male viewers really loved watching female ass-kickers, we were told that it was really some other element the guys were interested in. They were tolerating the female characters, not enjoying them.

  18. SunlessNick says

    They were tolerating the female characters, not enjoying them.

    Especially absurd in the case of Xena, where female characters made up the entire main cast; that’s a lot of tolerance. Thing is, comparing it to its nearest relative, Hercules:

    Xena’s committed appalling crimes, and those are never obfuscated – her biggest nemesis, Callisto, while definitely a villain, is one of Xena’s making – every time Callisto appears, every evil thing she does, is a reminder of Xena’s own sins. And there are times when she has to dip back into darkness, or thinks she does, in order to walk the road she does now. Herc isn’t entirely lily-white, but he lacks that kind of dark side and past.

    At the same time, Gabrielle starts as a pacifist, becomes a chronicler of Xena’s life – later becomes a warrior and leader in her own right, finding her own way to become hero without falling into the darkness that Xena does – and never losing her respect for peaceful ideals. Not to say that she doesn’t learn from Xena. But Xena also learns from her; she credits Gabrielle with saving her soul on more than one occasion. Two quite different hero’s journeys – that complement, conflict, and emerge stronger for each other. Herc doesn’t have that with his sidekick.

    Thing is, the rest of the series is somewhat engaging popcorn, historically and mythologically naff, but not really deep. [i]All[/i] the depth comes from Xena and Gabrielle; they are all it has going for it. Yet somehow, this is not a reason why men watched it?

    It’s the male equivalent of how Titanic’s romance “attracted” so many more women than other romance films of that year, or any other films starring Leonardo DiCaprio; female viewers couldn’t possibly have been attracted by the story of the Titanic itself, the tragedy and heroism, and adrenaline pounding struggle for survival of it all. They couldn’t possibly have expected to see sinking ships, people running for their lives, and other people dying horribly; not at all what any woman would look for in a film about the Titanic.

  19. Audra says

    Especially absurd in the case of Xena, where female characters made up the entire main cast; that’s a lot of tolerance.

    Great point. This conversation reminds me of a sort of touching Xena experience I had a few weeks ago. I teach an SAT prep course, and one of my students noticed my Xena keychain (a chakram). He said he loved that show “when he was a kid.” I was a little shocked, because here I am a 36-year-old woman and feminist sharing the same taste in TV shows with a 17-year-old boy. To me the show was a great revelation; for him it was a show he grew up on. When he saw I was surprised, he seemed a little embarrassed, and said, “What? Xena is really cool.” Cool. Not hot. Not sexy. He just thought she was cool.


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