Where are the women?


Have you heard about the Bechdel Test? It came from a comic strip in the 80s by Alison Bechdel called Dykes to Watch Out For and tests a work of fiction as to whether it has two female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man. Perhaps unsurprisingly to all women who are used to seeing films predominantly about men, not many more than half of all mainstream films pass this test.

Passing the test doesn’t mean a film has non-stereotypical gender roles, has significant female characters or doesn’t have other gender-bias issues but failing the test does tend to highlight a lack of, or very few, significant female characters who exist as anything more than a support for male characters. Some recent films that have failed the test – Minions, Fantastic Four, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nations, Papertowns, Ted 2 and Terminator Genisys. Some that have passed – Cinderella, Fifty Shades of Grey, Far From the Madding Crowd, Inside Out, Jurassic World and Mad Max Fury Road.

There is also the Smurfette Principle, a term coined by Katha Pollitt in 1991 that refers to a theme found in many TV series and movies where there is only one female in an all male ensemble. Think The Muppets, Star Wars, Winnie-the-Pooh, The Imitation Game, every Bond film and The Smurfs, of course.

I’m a bit interested in whether the films I saw at MIFF had a good balance of gender roles. I would suspect they might, as I am more inclined to choose films that are about women, but thinking back over some of the films I saw, I remember that there were films with only one female character and I am not sure there were any, or many, with only a single male character.

So lets do a bit of a review. From my creaky memory, how many passed the Bechdel Test:

  1. Mustang
  2. My Skinny Sister
  3. Tales
  4. Magical Girl
  5. Red Amnesia
  6. Speed Sisters
  7. Gayby Baby
  8. Phoenix
  9. Being 14
  10. The Silences
  11. The Witch
  12. Trainwreck
  13. Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere
  14. Sworn Virgin
  15. Graceful Girls
  16. The Maid
  17. Body
  18. Tehran Taxi
  19. The Assassin
  20. Me Romantic Romani
  21. Pioneer Heroes
  22. Wonderful World End
  23. Journey to the Shore
  24. The Chosen Ones
  25. Don’t Tell Me the Boy Was Mad
  26. Grey Gardens
  27. Magic Magic
  28. Melbourne

And how many didn’t:

  1. Under Electric Clouds
  2. Red Army
  3. Prophet’s Prey
  4. Welcome to Leith
  5. My Love, Don’t Cross That River
  6. Corn Island
  7. Snow Monkey
  8. Fassbinder
  9. The Ground We Won
  10. Tales of the Grim Sleeper
  11. Sherpa
  12. In the Crosswind
  13. The Club
  14. Louder Than Bombs
  15. Mediterranea
  16. Love
  17. Putuparri and the Rainmakers
  18. Eisenstein in Guanajuato

That’s 61% that passed. I thought perhaps it would be higher because of my deliberate choices. It seems a rather low bar to set but still 39% didn’t pass. Of course there are some films that don’t apply because of something particular about them – In The Crosswind has only one voice speaking so technically doesn’t have two women having a conversation. It is all about a woman though. The Ground We Won is deliberately all about men.

Do any fit the Smurfette Principle? The Club, Sherpa, Mediterranea, Putuparri and Corn Island perhaps, not many. Did any have only one male character? Graceful Girls and Grey Gardens.

Next time you see a film, think about the Bechdel Test.

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