For those who don’t know, The Bechdel Test came about because of a comic strip in the 1980s. The basic rule is that to pass The Bechdel Test a movie must 1) Have Two Female Characters Who 2) Both have a name and 3) have a conversation about something other than a man. It seems like a fairly simply test, and yet you would be surprised how many movies fail this test. When you look at the vast numbers of films that fail the test, you have to conclude that female characters are grossly underrepresented in Hollywood movies. That is undeniable - and is something that needs to change.
What I do not think is that every movie needs to pass the Bechdel Test. There are perfectly good reasons why a film may fail the test. All is Lost last year would fail the test – as it’s just Robert Redford on a boat by himself for two hours - and he doesn’t even have a name. Gravity would fail the test as well – even though Sandra Bullock is in practically every frame of that film and is a positive female character – because, again, there are only two characters in the movie – and the other is George Clooney.
But even with movies with larger casts, there could be a good reason why the film fails the test. The only film directed by a woman to ever win the Best Picture Oscar – The Hurt Locker by Kathryn Bigelow – who also won the Best Director Oscar for the film – would fail the test. It’s about men at war, and continues Bigelow’s fascination with wounded masculinity that has run through her entire career. A film like the Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis has a male character at the center of every scene – and involved in every conversation in the film – so it’s kind of hard for the film to pass it. The Godfather has a very big cast, but again it focuses on male characters.
I don’t think the problem is movies that focus on male characters – and the fact that they may fail the Bechdel Test. As individual movies, many fail the test because it is about its male characters, and not their female ones - which isn't necessarily sexist. How could Taxi Driver, There Will Be Blood or Citizen Kane be made to pass the test? The answer – they couldn’t. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
The problem, I think, is that there are far too few movies from the other point of view made. Too few movies focused on female characters first and foremost. And that’s really what Hollywood needs to change – not just throw in a conversation between two women in every production, but rather make whole movies about female characters. To do that, I think it’s clear we need more female directors and more female writers working – and making movies that matter to them – whether they pass the Bechdel Test or not.
I got to thinking about female directors this past weekend because I re-watched Mary Harron’s American Psycho (I’ll write a review later this week) for the first time in years over the weekend because it will be this week’s Movie of the Week on the great website The Dissolve. (American Psycho, by the way, would also flunk the Bechdel Test, as it focuses on Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in every scene). But the movie is also quite clearly from a female point of view, and not the male one of Brett Easton Ellis’ book – and I think the movie is richer for that perspective. American Psycho may not have set box office records when it was released in 2000 – but it’s become a sizable cult hit. It’s even, apparently, spawned a stage musical and a possible upcoming TV show. The movie was also highly acclaimed (albeit controversial) when it came out.
But Harron’s career never really took off, even when the popularity of her movie did. It took her five years to make a follow-up film – the very good The Notorious Bettie Page – and another six years to follow that one up (the not very good The Moth Diaries). In between, she’s kept busy directing TV episodes, a few shorts, and most recently – in 2013 – a made for TV movie about Anna Nicole Smith.
If Harron was an isolated case, we could dismiss it. But she’s not. Kimberly Pierce directed the hugely acclaimed (and Oscar winning) Boys Don’t Cry in 1999 – and only two films since. Patty Jenkins directed the Oscar winning Monster in 2004 – and hasn’t made a theatrical film since. Nicole Kassell wrote and directed the excellent The Woodsman in 2004 – and only one film since. Later this year, Debra Granik will release her first film since the Oscar nominated Winter’s Bone in 2010 – and it’s a documentary. Lisa Cholodenko has been slightly busier, but her follow-up project to her Oscar nominated 2010 film The Kids Are All Right is a TV miniseries (it’s for HBO, and based on a Pulitzer Prize winning book, but still). Kasi Lemmons made the terrific Eve’s Bayou back in 1997 – and only three films since. Karyn Kusama made Girlfight back in 2000 – and only two films since. Rebecca Miller routinely has four or five years gaps in her directing career. Jill Sprecher has only made one film since her acclaimed 2001 film 13 Conversations About One Thing. Julie Taymor may be forever marred by the taint of the failure of the Spider-Man musical on Broadway – despite being an extremely gifted director she has no upcoming projects since 2010’s The Tempest. Lynne Ramsay may be my favorite female director currently working – and she took 9 years to follow-up Movern Callar with We Need to Talk About Kevin – and when she backed out of her last film at the last minute, she got heavily criticized in the media with language that would never be applied to a male director who did the same thing (i.e. hysterical). Andrea Arnold was working at a good clip – with films in 2006, 2009 and 2011 – but nothing since. Jane Campion became only the second female director nominated for an Oscar in 1993 – and has only made four theatrical films in the last 21 years, to go along with a highly acclaimed TV miniseries. Bigelow herself had a six year gap between K-19: The Widowmaker and The Hurt Locker – and had fallen out of fashion in between – so much so that when I saw The Hurt Locker at TIFF more than a year before it won the Best Picture Oscar, it had no distribution deal in place.
Perhaps some of these directors just work slowly and that is what has held up their next films. And the film landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade – making it harder to make any film that isn’t a blockbuster, which helps to explain it as well. And there are some female directors who work steadily – Sofia Coppola jumps to mind, as does Sarah Polley and Nicole Holofcener (although she too does TV work in between her features). Still I cannot but think that some of these women have had their career stalled because studio executives, for whatever reason, do not want to make a lot of movies about women.
I don’t really see a problem with male filmmakers making films that are about male characters – just like I don’t think there’s anything wrong with African American filmmakers making movies about African American characters. It makes a certain degree of sense – filmmakers explore areas they are interested in, and have some experience with. This means if we want more quality films about female characters, then we need more films made by female filmmakers.
So instead of complaining about the number of films that fail The Bechdel Test let’s concentrate our efforts on getting Hollywood to fund more films by female filmmakers. That way, the number of films that pass the Bechdel Test will increase – which is good – but we’ll also get more meaningful films made about female characters. Isn’t that much more important than ensuring Scarlett Johansson and Colbie Smulders ask about each other’s weekend in the next Avengers movie just so it can pass the Bechdel Test? I think so.