The same mantra is constantly farted out by people – “We need more strong female characters.” As far as I can tell, erectile ‘strong female characters’ often end up wearing a catsuit, pharm are blow-dried between fight scenes, and trotted out on Marvel panels at ComicCon.
I don’t think we do need ‘strong female characters’, and I don’t think it’s a particularly feminist sentiment when you look at it a little bit deeper. We need believable female characters, sympathetic female characters, female characters who aren’t what you expect from a particular situation, and female characters who ideally don’t fall into any of the following categories:
These worn blueprints for female film and TV characters seem to be rolled out by most film directors when they start a new project. There are even some independents that try to break ground on new, controversial topics, yet fail to write any decent female characters into their scripts.
The Bechdel Test is a pretty simple way to see how well-developed and realistic a film’s female characters are. To pass it, a film needs to have two female characters (ideally named characters) who have a conversation about something other than a male character in the film.
I decided to take my five favourite films and see if they pass the Bechdel Test and if this would change my opinion of them. I was mainly quite disappointed.
The Godfather (1972) – FAIL
This ultimate mafia classic, which makes virtually everyone’s favourite film list, centres around a very Catholic patriarchal family. Already, this is not promising for the Bechdel Test. The main characters are all men who deal universally with other men in business and in life. The only women are Michael Corleone’s abused sister, his fairly passive wife (Hi, Diane Keaton, what are you doing here?), and his mother who appears maybe twice?
It’s set in the 1950s, but that’s not a Get Out of Creating Believable Female Characters Free card. Women may have been perceived and represented differently in a society where abortions were done above newsagents, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have conversations with each other, stand up for themselves, question things.
I’m still going to be watching The Godfather at least three times a year for the rest of my life, but I really wish Talia Shire and Diane Keaton would just sit and have a chat about something. Bullet proof vests, pasta sauce recipes, whatever.
Scarface (1983) – FAIL
Brian De Palma directed it, Oliver Stone wrote it, Al Pacino stars in it, and the women are slapped about and generally on a lot of cocaine. (The women who appear in the background are shot largely from the arse down or are probably listed in the credits as ‘Snobby Rich Bitch #4’)
There are three main female characters, and much like The Godfather they’re a mother – sister – wife trifecta. The mother disapproves of her drug-dealing son and doesn’t feature much after she’s made that clear, the sister is the subject of constant patriarchal control and gets to nearly have sex in a toilet cubicle (she can’t have any fun basically), and Michelle Pfeiffer plays a disinterested gangsters’ moll who follows the money. Yes, she is the main inspiration for my hair cut but that doesn’t make her well-rounded.
The only two women who talk to each other are the mother and sister (obvs), and they only ever discuss Al Pacino’s character and how he either is or isn’t a dangerous crime boss. (Spoiler Alert: He is).
You’ve Got Mail (1998) – PASS
The late and great Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail is without a doubt the best rom com of all time. I will fight anyone who says different. Following an online, anonymous relationship between two New Yorkers who don’t realise they’re running competing book shops, it passes the Bechdel Test with deep, glossy, flying colours. It’s full of female characters who discuss their work, their 90s understanding of the internet, the future of their book business, and Meg Ryan’s really sweet-sounding dead mum.
There are actually female characters coming in from every angle with things to say, even just little walk-on parts. There are even a few who are written to be deliberately unlikeable, and there’s nothing more believable than someone unlikeable. Snaps for Nora Ephron.
Sunset Boulevard (1950) – FAIL
This is a classic film noir which centres around an isolated former silent film star who’s really pissed that her career is over. When a struggling writer in a lot of debt stumbles into her driveway, she lures him into her tired, old-fashioned mansion in the Hollywood Hills and makes him a kept man. Again, it doesn’t bode well for the ol’ Bechdel Test. She’s a complex figure in her own right though, so this one is almost forgivable. She’s tormented, deluded, jealous, clearly very difficult to get on with, and one of few older female characters to hook up with a younger guy. She may not be relatable, but she’s got enough about her to be believable.
If I’m splitting hairs, it would be nice to see a wealthy female character have a kept man and not be severely mentally ill, but I feel like I should take what I can get with this one.
Clueless (1995) – PASS
Emmeline Pankhurst, Simone de Beauvoir, Beyoncé, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless – all icons of feminism. A year of my life does not go by without me watching Clueless, and I am overjoyed that it passes the Bechdel Test because I’m not up for my life being a lie right now.
Clueless focuses on wealthy teenage girls in Beverly Hills and their extremely well-dressed friendship group. On the surface, it sounds like any other pointless teen movie, but it actually makes clever menstruation jokes, gives female characters the best lines, contains nods to Jane Austen, and shows the main female character improving herself as a person and doing important stuff with her life before she hooks up with Paul Rudd.
It’s also worth noting that Clueless and You’ve Got Mail, the only two of my favourite films to pass the Bechdel Test, are the only ones on this list directed by women. That’s not a coincidence. Not even a little bit. I don’t even need to drop the mic, I’m just going to put it gently on this table over here.
Written by Helen McCarthy
Loved your article for its uncompromsing take on this largely non-existent, invariably hyper-sexualized “thing” called Women In Film. (….even writing that makes me laugh, as there is actually more truth to that statement in the breach than otherwise).
One other Truth I always ensure to add to my own musings on this matter, is this: the substance or plot of films are usually no secret before opening night. Therefore the women who – armed with the foreknowledge that their gender will (…as usual…) either be comparatively non-represented, or if they are, then relegated (….as usual…) to Bloody, Naked (…always Naked…) Bodies panned by the camera on Cold, Stained, Bathroom Tiles (…always plunked down in either Bathroom, Bedroom or Kitchen…) if – despite being fully aware of these Facts women STILL teeter tittering and arm-in-arm with their boyfriends to basically WITNESS THEMSELVES BEING HUMANLY DEGRADED AND SEXUALLY DEHUMANIZED INTO PERPETUITY….then Women need to glance away from the grinnin’ cellphone selfies and self-exploitative instagram gym-body shots, AND REALLY TAKE A HARD, LONG LOOK AT *THEMSELVES*