Out of the hundreds of major motion pictures that release each year, few depict female conversations with other women. In society women tend to talk with other women often, but in feature films it’s hard to find. That is unless they are talking about men.
In 1985 the Bechdel Test was created to benchmark movies concerning the female gender. For a movie to pass, it must contain one scene in which two or more named female characters have a conversation about anything besides men. Two women tossing out one liners does not pass the test, as it must be a conversation with back and forth dialog.
Alison Bechdel created the test after reviewing over 2,500 films and realizing that none of them passed her simple test. Most high profile films all fail the test like The Social Network, the original Star Wars trilogy, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar and The Avengers to name a few.
This test was not created to point out films that are anti-women or to beef up the feminist movement, but just to bring awareness to the public about how gender is presented in film.
I quickly reviewed my Tried & True screenplay and was happy to find six scenes with a woman talking to another woman, but was shocked to find that all of the scenes except for one had the women talking about the male lead character or another man. And, the one scene that included a woman-to-woman conversation without any discussion about men was cut from the story to sharpen the focus on the male lead. My screenplay failed the Bechdel Test.
After reviewing many of my other screenplays, I was relieved to know that 80% of them passed the Bechdel Test, but wondered how those films will do at the box office compared to the 20% that failed the test. Hollywood has conducted surveys over several decades and learned that women will watch both a male and female lead, but men are prone to watch only male leads.
Therefore, to create a box office hit the lead must be male, which will further shift the story focus to develop the male character, most likely cutting or omitting those women-to-women scenes. The end result may be a stronger story about the man, but over all, it will be less realistic.
The question that comes to mind is whether or not our shorter attention spans would allow for expanded dialog, which could help facilitate a woman-to-woman conversation. My curiosity stems from men-to-men conversations being extremely short and men-to-women conversations being greatly truncated as well. It’s only the woman-to-woman conversation that explores greater depth of topic, a variety of perspectives and potential rabbit trails of extraneous information. None of which will be given screen time in an action or adventure film.
There is certainly no right or wrong about how much any given character needs to speak with other characters of the same gender, but the Bechdel Test does bring a fresh perspective to the screenplay editing process. After all, I’d like my dramas to be as close to reality as possible.
Outstanding post, Mr. Powers! Thank you! I was unaware of the Bechdel Test but agree with your observations regarding the reasons conversations between women (when not related to the male lead) are often lacking in films. This is a fascinating topic that I would like further to explore.
MaryAnn Diorio, PhD, MFA
Novelist & Poet
Thank you, MaryAnn. The topic is indeed fascinating and really gave me a new perspective, not to mention that it altered my rewriting process.
Very interesting! It seems like the test of a writer who loves to write scenes where women are talking with other women (like me), is to write it in such a way that people feel as if the story isn’t halting. It can be easy to write these scenes while action is happening, but we have to learn to tell the difference between something just happening on camera and including those discussions in a way that alters the story somehow. People get away with really bad male to male dialogue all the time, so it’s interesting that culture has fought having grace when women are doing the same thing on screen. I think one of the best things to do is to keep creating powerful female leads, and believing culture will change if those with influence choose to step out of the norm. Not easy, but I’m glad to see it slowly changing.
Thanks for sharing this, and thanks for your awareness of the gender issues and working to combat them.