The Bechdel Test Revisited: Women in a Hero’s Journey

Alison Bechdel’s famous test–one canny gag in an indie comic strip from 1985–has been embraced by entertainment critics, theorists, and journalists as the gold standard for determining whether a film has, as Feminist Frequency describes in its excellent primer, “significant female presence.” Three obvious reasons why:

  • It’s dead simple.
  • It quantifies the vague.
  • It hilariously indicts movies that can’t jump the first bar.

The rule itself is offered by one character sick of macho “Barbarian”/”Vigilante” movie BS, and received by the other as “pretty strict, but a good idea.” At the time of its introduction, the rule was not presented as more than the preference of one woman tired of supporting an industry happy to exclude her (Bechdel’s friend, Liz Wallace.)

The Bechdel Test does not bother with shades of agency, complexity, or quality. It is simple. It is elegant. It is brass tacks.

So why do so few Hollywood movies pass it? And how can this be fixed?

(Final act spoilers ahead for movies released in 2014.)

Hollywood Doesn’t Care About Quality

Moviemaking is a business. That’s not cynicism; that’s reality. As Gale Anne Hurd put it in EW’s ‘The Terminator’ at 30: An oral history:

Success for us meant being able to make another movie. It didn’t mean box-office success or critical success—our goal was to be able to do it again. Anyone who doesn’t feel that way should not be in the business.

Or, to paraphrase alternate-reality-game co-creator Elan Lee at a recent talk, no one in this business cares about telling a story. They care about having their job tomorrow.

Hence franchises, sequels, reboots, and rip-offs. Hence seeing the thing that worked and doing it again, regardless of whether it reflects the culture, satisfies the audience, or is any good at all. (This strategy makes money: of the fifty top-grossing movies, only 14 are not sequels, reboots, or later installments of an established franchise–hang in there, Star Wars.)

Hence “if Marvel makes Thor 3 before it makes Black Panther, it will have made ten movies headlined by blond white men named Chris before it makes one movie headlined by someone who isn’t even white.”

If a PoC woman wants a piece of the pie, God forbid, she better polish up her katas, get painted green, or mill around somberly disapproving of Harrison Ford.

If anyone QUILTBAG wants in, that person better be prepared for sassy friendship or early fridging.

(Also, of the top-grossing fifty, only five have a female lead, yet two out of the top five do–Titanic and Frozen. Come on, Hollywood, do you hate money?)

In the Hero’s Journey, it’s All About the Main Character

Feature-length storytelling is highly regimented. One need only consult Blake Snyder’s beat sheet to see the irrefutable rules of the three-act structure. Following the structure doesn’t mean a movie will be good, but deviating from it is an outstanding way to alienate audiences: when there’s no first-act debate, the stakes are unclear. When there’s no clear break into Act II, investment is lost. When an act runs too long, momentum is spoiled. When there’s no Act II reversal, progress is monotonous.

Anything out of place ends up on the cutting-room floor.

Thus in any movie with a single lead, it’s uncommon for two supporting characters to discuss anything BUT the lead and the lead’s needs. The best chances for two supporting characters to get a word in are Boardroom Exposition and Baddie Confides The Scheme, both abundant in the second act.

Titanic, Frozen, Alice in Wonderland, the Hunger Games franchise, the Twilight franchise and Tangled, wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test if the lead were male, even if the love-interest were gender-swapped. Elsa and Primrose never talk to their moms. Effie Trinket never warns Peeta about the mahogany. And Bella–well, nothing happens in Forks that’s not all about Bella.

(Tellingly, if Hans were gender-swapped instead of true love-interest Kristof, the theoretical-male-lead-Bechdel would be passed when Baddie Confides The Scheme to Elsa.)

So audiences are doomed? No.

How to Make a Hero’s Journey Pass the Bechdel Test

Cast the Lead as Female, Plus Any Other Named Character She Interacts With

That’s how Alien passed muster: deliberately unisex writing and ground-breaking casting. A female lead is great, but it’s not enough to get over The Smurfette Principle.

The other female character can be anything: spooky kid, sassy granny, brain surgeon, wicked queen, Lance Corporal, Supreme Court Justice. She can even be a romantic rival (ugh) so long as she has another hobby–knitting, Krav Maga, anything–relevant enough to the lead to make the final cut.

Cast Half of the Supporting Roles as Female

It’s not so crazy. Women are just everywhere nowadays–Congress, Afghanistan, Asgard. There’s plenty of flavor and exposition two women could share, if there were just enough of them running around. Come on, James Cameron, Kenneth Branagh, and Tim Gunn–when your unisex space army goes and fights another unisex space army, it just seems a little… mundane.

If you can’t stand the thought of ladies getting 50% of the exosuits, may I suggest my personal favorite…

Cast the Antagonist as Female

Who in a story definitively has a goal apart from the hero’s? Who gets abundant screen time and great lines? The antagonist, that’s who. There is no movie that can’t be improved by a showdown with Sigourney Weaver.

Afraid a female baddie can’t hold her own physically in the final fight? Or that audiences will rightly squirm to see the hero sock her in the face? Good news–of the current ten top-grossing movies of 2014 (plus Guardians of the Galaxy, which may yet make it), half those final fights used only strategy, talking it out, and/or superhuman force. All of those could have cast a woman as the antagonist with no further complications.

Title Protagonist Antagonist How Final Fight is Resolved Bechdel Rules Passed
Transformers: Age of Extinction Optimus Prime (male) Galvatron (male) Kick-punching 0
X-Men: Days of Future Past Professor X (male) Mystique (female) Superhuman force* 3 (brief exchange between Blink and Kitty Pryde regarding combat)
Maleficent  Maleficent (female) King Stefan (male) Superhuman force, Hubris 3 (throughout)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier Cap (male) The Winter Soldier (male) Kick-punching (B-plot resolved with strategy, firearms) 3 (brief exchange between Black Widow and Maria Hill regarding ballistics)
The Amazing Spiderman 2 Spiderman (male) The Green Goblin (male) Kick-punching plus superhuman force 1
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Caesar (male) Koba (male) Kick-punching 0
How to Train Your Dragon 2 Hiccup (male) Drago (male) Superhuman force 1
Godzilla (2014) Ford Brody (male) or Godzilla, depending on how you look at it MUTOs (male and female!) Superhuman force 2 (brief exchange between Elle and Head Nurse, briefly IDed as “Laura”, about Ford and their son)
Rio 2 Blu (male) Nigel (male) Kick-punching and hijinks 3 (multiple exchanges between Jewel and the daughters)
The Lego Movie Emmet (male) Vitruvius (male) Strategy and talking it out 3 (brief exchange between Wyldstyle and Unikitty about rules)

*Interesting that Mystique does most of the kick-punching in X-Men: DOFP, and her superpower is not combat-related.

(Thanks to the Bechdel Test Movie List for many verifications.)

Afraid the general male-goodie, female-baddie scenario will read as sexist? No problem. Consider the Willow solution–cast a woman as the mentor. She and the baddie will have plenty to talk about while they’re fighting to the death.

Can’t stomach a female baddie at all? A female henchman can provide an excellent character arc, with third act death (Guardians of the Galaxy, at least apparently) or reconciliation (Rio 2, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2.)

Yes, many of these established the antagonist as male in source material. Therefore I extend this proposal to source material.

There’s no need for Hollywood to risk its neck for more female presence. It just needs to swap some pronouns.