The Bechdel Test and science fiction and fantasy
You’re at the newest science fiction movie watching the screen, thinking Where are all the women?
It’s not uncommon. It’s also not uncommon when one finally wanders on screen to wonder Is she going to talk or just stand there?
The representation of women in fiction has a long road to climb and several dark holes to jump over. The Bechdel Test demonstrates just how far we have to go.
To pass the Bechdel Test, a work of fiction must:
- Have two women talking to each other
- About something other than a man
- And also those women should have names
It doesn’t seem like that’s too much to ask for, but apparently it is. There are estimates that around half of all films never make it through all three tiny stages of the test.
There’s a lot of interesting data on the Bechdel Test and general film (between 2010 and 2013, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender estimated that only 31% of named film characters were female), but I was curious how movies within science fiction and fantasy genres stand up, and, more specifically, whether there’s a difference when comparing a list of movies based on books to movies with original scripts.
Before applying the test against some of my favorite movies, I guessed that SFF would do slightly worse than the general field. After all, it’s a male-dominated industry that still struggles with basic representation of women and acceptance of female authors, characters, and aliens. Female protagonists often fall into the check box categories of “women to be saved” and “women to bone”.
However, I hoped to see a significant difference in movies based on books. I think books take the time to get to know characters better and are generally more representative. Authors also make individual decisions. If they don’t have realistic female characters, then that’s all on them, and hopefully a strong female character would be impossible for a script writer to ax. (And applying the Bechdel Test to SFF books? That’s another blog post.)
Where does the Bechdel Test come from?
First, I wanted to learn more about the test itself. Alison Bechdel is credited with creating the test in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.
However, Bechdel credits her inspiration to Virginia Wolf who wrote in A Room of One’s Own:
“All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple….And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends….They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men.”
Yeah, I really hoped SFF could fulfill this small requirement too.
To run my little test, I used the responses on BechdelTest.com and only included movies from 2014-2019 that have some fantastical or sci element in them.
I started first with SFF movies not based on books:
The Cloverfield Paradox – Pass
The Meg – Pass
Pacific Rim: Uprising – Pass
Tomb Raider – Pass
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – Fail
Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Pass
10 Cloverfield Lane – Pass
Assassin’s Creed – Fail
Ghostbusters (2016) – Pass
Independence Day: Resurgence – Pass
Rogue One – Pass
Ex Machina – Fail
The Last Witch Hunter – Pass
Mad Max – Fury Road – Pass
Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Pass
Hercules (2014) – Fail
Interstellar – Pass
Maleficent – Pass
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb – Fail
Then, SFF movies based on books:*
*Note: I considered comic-based movies in this category as well as series if the first movie was based off a book
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – Fail
Avengers: Endgame – Pass
Spider-Man: Far from Home – Fail
A Wrinkle in Time – Pass
Annihilation – Pass (watch our review of the book and movie on YouTube)
Bird Box – Pass
Black Panther – Pass
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – Fail
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – Pass
Maze Runner: The Death Cure – Pass
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Fail
Blade Runner 2049 – Pass
The Dark Tower – Fail
Spider-Man: Homecoming – Pass
War for the Planet of the Apes – Fail
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 – Pass
Wonder Woman – Pass
The 5th Wave – Fail
Captain America: Civil War – Pass
Deadpool – Fail
Doctor Strange -Fail
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Pass
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Pass
Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 – Pass
Insurgent – Pass
Jurassic World – Pass
The Martian – Pass
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials – Pass
Pan (2015) – Fail
Amazing Spider Man 2 – Fail
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Fail
Divergent – Pass
The Giver – Pass
Guardians of the Galaxy – Pass
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Fail
How to Train Your Dragon 2 – Fail
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 – Pass
I, Frankenstein – Fail
The Maze Runner – Fail
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For – Fail
Before we talk numbers, let me just say, I’m only pretending to be scientific. There’s a strong bias because as I went down the list, I only included movies…that I had heard of. The list was general, so deciding if they were SFF was entirely based on whether I had previously heard of it. Also, it’s entirely possible I miscategorized some or did basic math wrong.
Regardless, while my research was no where near exhaustive, I felt I got a sample size big enough to draw some conclusions. 26% of original SFF movies failed the Bechdel Test. 42% of book-based SFF movies failed the test.
42% of the movie type I go to the theater to see DON’T EVEN HAVE WOMEN TALKING TO EACH OTHER.
Half the world just unaccounted for in film.
Though my data is basically the smallest bit of data ever created, it still may signal that original movies in fact do pass the Bechdal Test more than book-based sff movies. I have a few theories on that:
- Original movie plot lines are being developed now, in a time when move makers realize that women also want to have fun at the movies, whereas many of the films in the book-based list are based of off books written long ago, like The Hobbit.
- The comic-based movies could have skewed the data. Comics—specifically superhero comics—are still thought of as a guy thing. However, when I went back to look specifically at comic-based movies, 41% of them don’t pass, directly in line with the percentage of general SFF book-based movies that failed. Though this theory was immediately debunked, I have to keep it on the list so I have more than one real theory.
No matter how you look at it, we need more movies with women in them doing more than propping up male characters.