Hollywood and the Bechdel Test

In his article “The Dollar-and-Cents Case against Hollywood’s Exclusion of Women,” Walt Hickey of Five Thirty-Eight looks into the numbers behind films that feature prominent roles for women. His team researched 1,615 films released over the past twenty-three years that passed the famous Bechdel Test, which determines whether a movie’s female roles are substantial or not based on the following criteria:

  • There are at least two female characters with names
  • The two female characters talk to one another
  • They talk about any subject besides a man

The results make a surprisingly clear economic argument for making more films that meet these criteria.

We found that the median budget of movies that passed the test… was substantially lower than the median budget of all films in the sample. What’s more, we found that the data doesn’t appear to support the persistent Hollywood belief that films featuring women do worse at the box office. Instead, we found evidence that films that feature meaningful interactions between women may in fact have a better return on investment, overall, than films that don’t.

The Bechdel Test originated in 1985 in an installment of Alison Bechdel’s comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Its simplicity has proven consistently powerful over the years; even people I have known with no sympathy for feminism take note when these criteria are suggested to them. Still, I would be in favor of adding one more rule, one that addresses an aspect of feminine ideals that I have become acutely aware of as a parent of a young daughter:

  • Neither of the two female characters are princesses

In fact, Hickey cites the recent blockbuster “Frozen” as an example of a movie that passes the Bechdel Test. That one does feature strong, well-written female leads, and I suppose we should be grateful for that — but they are also princesses. Where others might find it innocuous, I find the ideal of a princess — generally, in fiction, a female who can only either be born or married into her character attributes — to be pretty retrograde and not all that healthy.


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