Recently a group of movie theaters in Sweden have started grading films based on the “Bechdel Test.” The test is a set of guidelines popularized by cartoonist Alison Bechdel that is often used to evaluate the representation of women in media. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and pretty much all of the Harry Potter movies fail the test, which says you have to have at least two (named) women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Depending on your point of view I imagine this seems like either a ridiculously low bar or a pointless exercise in trying to layer some measure of gender equality over an industry that is notoriously blind to how they treat women.
The test is far from perfect but when used as a guideline it can provide an interesting perspective on the portrayal of women in popular culture. I have always known that the Star Wars universe is packed with bizarre aliens but seriously lacking in the number of women necessary to maintain a viable human population. What I was not aware of was how movies like The Little Mermaid, Up, The Jungle Book, and Toy Story all fail this simple rule.
Children’s movies present an interesting challenge and opportunity when you’re dealing with a large number of non-human characters. Bambi doesn’t pass the test but it’s a cute animal cartoon (excepting that business with Bambi’s mother), does it really offer an opportunity to judge? Is Flower a boy or a girl? Does it matter?
A film like The Princess and the Frog is more problematic. It does pass the test but is it really that bad for the “no man” conversational rule when Tianna and her mother mention her father in the context of her dream? And even though it passes the test can we be satisfied with the fact that Tianna’s ultimate happiness is contingent on her relationship with the wastrel prince Naveen?
Mulan is probably the best Disney PrincessTM role model but much of her story revolves around her excelling in a male-dominated military environment. Does the context, which doesn’t provide much opportunity for interaction between significant female characters, make the film any less important as an object lesson on the strength and value of women in society?
The next time you hear an actress complaining about the lack of good roles for women in Hollywood take a moment to consider the Bechdel Test, or Virginia Woolf who expressed a similar idea about literature almost 60 years earlier, and think about how many women you’re seeing on screen as well as what they get to do when they’re up there.
Then think about your daughter, and what you want for her.