By Maddy Rutowski
A common role assumed by a female character in a Hollywood picture is one that can be characterized by her pursuance of a male lead, either romantically or otherwise, which ultimately concludes, ever so satisfyingly, with a predictably cinematic kiss (bonus points if it’s raining) just moments before the credits role. Another exhausting trend is the traditional damsel-in-distress waiting for her knight in shining armor to save her from the evils of society, the fear of becoming a cat-lady enshrined in her own solitude, or perhaps even a fire breathing dragon. Cases may vary, but the end is always the same: the proverbial “ride off into the sunset.” One final, tired Hollywood trope that has been on the rise in the past few years is the idea of the ever-adored “manic pixie dream girl,” a character who is “different from other girls” due to her endless, now cliched, quirks and love for The Smiths a la “(500) Days of Summer.” All three of these roles are created and beta-tested for women, by men. Often times, these roles are hidden under the guise of feminism or female independence, but when it comes down to it, most films, even those possessing a strong female lead, do not accurately represent the fundamental aspects of what it means to act like and live in the world as a female.
In the three previously mentioned cinematic scenarios, there is the existence of an ever-present common denominator: men. These female characters exist solely for the continuance of the male character’s narrative. I am not making the claim that there are no female-driven cinematic plot lines; rather, I am simply stating that even films that are female-centric do not always pass the Bechdel Test.
The Bechdel Test was created by Alison Bechdel in 1985 as a way to uncover the inherent sexism and subsequent typecasting of female actresses in Hollywood. The test is simple and comprised of only three criteria: (1) that the film contains two named female characters; (2) that those characters carry on a dialogue; and (3) that their dialogue be about something other than a man. This sounds simple, but it is shocking to find out how few films actually pass this test.
The best way to understand this is through an example. The film “Gravity” does not pass the Bechdel Test, while “Legally Blonde” does. This is slightly baffling, because the former is a serious drama centralized on a woman’s epic journey through space, while the latter focuses on a pink-clad sorority girl who makes her way through Harvard Law School, feather pen in hand. The reason “Legally Blonde” passes while “Gravity” does not is because in “Legally Blonde,” Elle Woods and her sorority sisters have a brief conversation about a dog. This seems to be trivial and unimportant when faced with the cinematic and cosmic prowess of its Bechdel competitor, especially because the only reason “Gravity” failed was due to its possession of only one named female character. The fact that a movie like this can fail and one like “Legally Blonde” can pass begs the question of whether or not the Bechdel Test is really that effective as a means to separate positive female-centric films from others that pander to a traditional audience.
The Bechdel Test has been passed by surprising candidates such as “Weird Science,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and “American Pie 2.” This proves the relative futileness and apparent imperfections of the Bechdel Test. It was created as a way to bring attention to intrinsic sexism within America’s most beloved medium and to cultivate an effort to prevent further wrongdoings. Now it has become just another box to tick off. The Bechdel Test is feminism in its most diluted form; movies that do pass usually do so with the inclusion of a cursory scene in which two named female characters happen to shift their conversation from a man to something else that is characteristically feminine. Just because a film passes the Bechdel Test does not mean it becomes a feminist triumph worthy of recognition, and those that do not pass the test do not need to be vilified or tossed aside.
I am disappointed in Hollywood. I am sad that the female image is still so one-dimensional that directors and writers can employ feminine cliches as a cheap way to characterize female leads, while male characters are rewarded individuality and proper character development. The fact that the Bechdel Test needed to be created in the first place is proof of the apathy that is shown towards genuine female participation in cinema.
I’ll conclude with a final example: “Hidden Figures.” This movie sheds light on three amazingly erudite women who assisted NASA in getting a man into space. One would think that a film centered around strong women would pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors, and it does, but the truly unsettling aspect of this film occurs when the title of “hero” is stripped from each of the individual central female leads and assigned to men like John Glenn, the handsome astronaut who was so bold as to have the decency to walk over to the black workers and greet them in addition to white workers, and Al Harrison, the NASA task force head who literally attacked segregation with a sledge hammer. Both characters are admirable, yes, but why must we reward the white male characters for their capacity for human decency when the movie should be focusing solely on the three amazing women whom history forgot due to America’s deadly inclination for racism and sexism?
Ultimately, the white male characters in “Hidden Figures” conclude their narratives just as heroically as the females who fight oppression around which the film is centered. If that is not a telling representation of Hollywood and its inability to produce a film entirely composed of women without at the same time glossing over their accomplishments so as to focus on the white men who were kind enough to overcome society’s ills, I do not know what is.