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Is it time for a new Bechdel Test?

Writer/director Greta Gerwig on the set of her 2017 film
Writer/director Greta Gerwig on the set of her 2017 film "Lady Bird." A new USC study analyzed the 1,100 top-grossing films released between 2007 and 2017, and found that barely 4% of directors were female.
Photo by Merie Wallace, courtesy of A24

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Researchers at the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative have released a new study that reinforces a sad fact: Hollywood prefers hiring white men to direct almost all its movies.

Looking at the 1,100 top-grossing films released between 2007 and 2017, researchers found that barely 4% of directors were female. And of the more than 1,200 directors hired in the past decade, just eight were women of color.

While this USC data is critical, it got us thinking about how moviegoers who are unfamiliar with this kind of data can measure how women are represented in film. One way has been the Bechdel Test (also called the Bechdel-Wallace Test), conceived in the mid-1980s by cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her friend, Liz Wallace. 

The Bechdel-Wallace Test:

  • Does a movie have at least two named female characters?
  • Do the women talk to each other?
  • Do they talk about something other than a man?

It's a simple test that's easy to grasp, but journalists at the FiveThirtyEight website decided to evaluate some updates. The result is a project called The Next Bechdel Test.

The team at FiveThirtyEight, including visual journalist Ella Koeze and culture writer Walt Hickey, asked several women working in the entertainment industry to come up with their own ways of measuring Hollywood's representation imbalance. They then used the new tests to assess the 50 top-grossing films at the domestic box office in 2016.

Koeze, Hickey and writer/actor Naomi Ko (who contributed "The Ko Test") spoke with The Frame host John Horn about their ideas for a new Bechdel Test.

Interview highlights:

On the new criteria that women included in their own tests:

Walt Hickey: I loved a few of these tests. I had two favorites that I really wanted to highlight. One of them is The Ko Test. This is by Naomi Ko, she's a terrific writer [and] an actress in "Dear White People." And her test is: a movie passes if there's a non-white, female-identifying person in the film who speaks in five or more scenes and speaks in English. And the reality is that 29 films failed. More than half of films didn't have a single non-white female character who speaks in five or more scenes. And that was really just shocking. One of my other favorite ones came from Kate Hagan. She's the director of community at The Blacklist. Her test is: a movie passes if half of one-scene roles go to women, and the first crowd scene is 50% women. And only five movies passed this test. And I believe two of them passed because they didn't actually have any crowd scenes in them. 

On the inevitable limitations of any test:

Naomi Ko: To be honest, I'm actually kind of surprised that 21 films passed my test. I thought the number would be lower. Which made me think I did not make it hard enough. I didn't want it to purposely fail, but I realized the limitations of my own metrics on the test like, yes, they're speaking in five or more scenes, but what does that mean? Are they just saying yes or no

On which of the 50 films earned overwhelmingly good and bad scores:

Ella Koeze: I think the film that passed the most tests was "Bad Moms." The whole movie is pretty much just about women, even though antagonists and all supporting characters are women. It also gives women some space to behave in ways they don't often do in other movies — it's kind of crass. That being said, it also failed all of the behind the camera tests. And it's not without its own issues. "Hidden Figures" also did really well, which is probably not that surprising. The films that did the worst — the last three on our list, which each only passed one test — were "Deadpool," "Doctor Strange" and "The Secret Life of Pets." 

On why so many films that passed the Bechdel Test failed the new tests submitted to FiveThirtyEight:

Ella Koeze: One of our goals with this project was not only to highlight how dismal the picture is for women and women of color in Hollywood. And certainly we didn't even scratch the surface in some other areas of representation — disability, or LGBTQ characters, or getting deeper into questions of race. There's all these elements that Hollywood is failing on and needs to do better. But we also wanted to get at this question of how it's hard to create an easy test [with] a checklist, and filmmakers or the people of power in Hollywood can just say, Yup, did that, did that — we're all set. It's not really that easy. It's sort of a whole system that needs to be reworked and thought about. And we want this project to be food for thought. 


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