What do La La Land, Toy Story, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Avatar have in common? Apart from being all top-grossing Hollywood films of course. Yes. They fail the Bechdel-Wallace Test.
A now popular measure of representation of women in fiction, this test is named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her friend Liz Wallace. In 1958, one of Bechdel’s comic strips mentioned for the first time the three “basic requirements” that make a film worth watching:
1. The movie has to have at least two named women in it
2. These women have a conversation with each other
3. That conversation is not about a man
Simple right? Not so much. Those who are acquainted with the Bechdel-Wallace test are aware of how these simple “rules” are ignored by some of the most popular films at the box office, both past and present.
In 2015 only 54% of top grossing films passed the Bechdel-Wallace test. Although things improved dramatically by 2019, where the number rose to 80%, it is important to note that those simple “rules” really are the most basic requirement for women’s representation on the silver screen. In plainer terms, to have two women with identifiable names meeting at some point in a film to talk about something that revolves around their own storyline, is really what can be considered bare minimum character development in a film.
What is particularly interesting about questioning film narratives in light of the Bechdel-Wallace test is that it exposes the extent to which the existence of female characters in Hollywood cinema has been traditionally dictated by their looks and by the influence of the almost inevitable male protagonist over them. Perhaps this is even more concerning when the central character of the film is a woman herself. A Star is Born, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Arrival, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind… the list of films that fail the test is long, proving that it takes more than a few more lines or a bit more screen time to give true representation to women in film.
What do we see on screen? And how? Those questions should always drive how we approach cinema. To advocate for stronger representation of women in film is important, however we must look out for traps in our rush for female-leads. Tarantino’s latest film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was recently criticised because of Margot Robbie’s character’s lack of lines, even if her role in the film and its impact clearly transcends the amount of words she speaks. Isn’t silence at times more effective than words? Is the impact of a character on a film necessarily dictated by how much they speak? Isn’t Holly Hunter’s performance in The Piano majestic despite her being a mute?
It is also important to remember that not all stories are born with many subplots or require the same amount of character interactions. Filmmakers should always retain the freedom to tell their stories and use a tool like the Bechdel-Wallace test as a means to interrogate their narratives, considering whether their decision not to focus on a role or give a character a name is a conscious choice dictated by the cohesion of their film or is just inattentive, limited storytelling. Many times, when looking at Hollywood cinema, we realise that the latter is true.
Many voices have risen in recent years to surpass and expand the provocation of the Bechdel-Wallace test. One of them is the Mako-Mori test, which poses the challenge of creating female characters who must have their own narrative arc that does not support a man’s story. Famous films that pass both tests are Persona, the Wizard Of Oz and Mary Poppins.
In the current landscape, where audiences loudly call for more diverse and inclusive stories, these tests are an important means of understanding narrative in films at a deeper level and they invite filmmakers and producers to interrogate further the material in front of them. The search for multidimensional characters on screen is also an invaluable invitation to expand our knowledge of film beyond generic Hollywood and into the rich, traditionally diverse and vibrant realm of World Cinema.
Words: Chiara Viale
Image: Alison Bechdel