For those unfamiliar with the Bechdel Test, it examines the portrayal of women in film based on three criteria: (1) there are two [named] female characters,  who converse,  about something other than a man. It’s low-hanging fruit, but when you consider exactly how many movies don’t pass—everything from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Lord of the Rings to all but four Pixar movies… ouch.
As we discussed Star Wars, though, my friends raised criticism. The Bechdel Test is very subjective, like giving art a standardized test. Even if two female characters pass the test, but only have six minutes of screen time, how can we praise that as the pinnacle of feminism?
Well, I agree with my friends—we can’t. Sometimes we blow the Bechdel Test out of proportion. Though BechdelTest.com is handy for posts like this, glorifying it turns the test into a goal instead of a wake-up call. The test isn’t meant to be passed, but exceeded. Unfortunately, sometimes that isn’t easy to see behind the action, action, action, and also sex, and the Strong Female Characters whom we know and love.
I thought it would be interesting to look at the advantages and limitations of the Bechdel Test by examining female portrayals against their test ratings. We’ll start with what is depressing—because that means things can only get better from here. I hope.
Poor Female Portrayal, Bechdel Test Fail
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (source)
Seeing as there were no female characters in the book, it’s a surprise the second movie passes at all. But this is the first Hobbit movie. Bilbo is a dude. Gandalf is a dude. The twelve dwarves are dudes. They meet a lot of dudes on their journeys. In fact, the only lady in the film is Galadriel, who, while awesome, is only significant to the film because she gives Gandalf a mental pat on the back at the White Council.
Not only does this film fail to pass even the first criterion, but Galadriel doesn’t serve a particularly significant purpose. The story would have ended the same way without her short contribution. Of course, I can appreciate Peter Jackson’s effort, he was working with what he had… But, in the end, the value of women in this world is reduced to whatever Galadriel can offer, and that isn’t much.
Pretty fancy lady doesn’t make up for female experience. Representation FAIL.
Everyone goes gooshy about Up’s first ten minutes, but I remind you that Ellie is the only named female who speaks, limited within those ten minutes. Almost everyone of any significance afterwards is a guy. Of course, Ellie never ceases to be significant to the plot because her death motivates Carl to the end, but Ellie is still dead. Dead women don’t talk in this film (though alive people talk to her). The only other significant women are Russell’s mom, who waves at him at his Wilderness Explorer ceremony, and Kevin the bird. Kevin is also significant to the plot in relationship to Charles Muntz, but birds still don’t talk.
Up is a cute story, focusing on dealing after death, paternal bonds, and the meaning of heroism. That’s good, but Ellie is dead. Kevin is a bird. Russell’s mom smiles and waves at him at his ceremony like it somehow DOESN’T BOTHER HER THAT HER CHILD RANDOMLY DISAPPEARED FOR DAYS ON THE WHIM OF AN ELDERLY, GRIEF-STRICKEN HERMIT BEFORE TURNING UP A CONTINENT AWAY IN VENEZUELA. I get that this film isn’t structured for female bonding, but for Pete’s sake. Even if they had offered up one other female character—even a female dog, if it came to that—in the end motherhood is characterized by two men saving a helpless lady bird so that she can go take care of her chicks. Thank God for boys and their adventures, otherwise those chicks never would have gotten their mom back. Also, thank God human mothers—who aren’t known for worrying after their kids or concerning themselves when they disappear, and can only fake pride under the most dire of conditions—aren’t nearly so active in their children’s lives. Because if Russell’s mom had had a personality? The whole movie would have been ruined.
Women? Women together? Women experiencing motherhood? What? Representation FAIL.