The Bechdel Test Proves Hollywood is a Boys’ Town

Women buy half of tickets, make less than 10 percent of movies.

Bombshell

Before launching into a feminist rant, I must confess I would rather watch Daniel Craig wiping a Monte Carlo hotel lobby floor with a villain, or Robert Downey Jr.’s wry visage being snapped into a metal mask than sit through 90 minutes of two lovely actresses talking to each other about any of the vicissitudes of female life.

That makes me the ideal consumer of Hollywood movies.

I prefer dumb and action at the multiplex, although these days, I hardly ever go to the theater since I can watch them from the comfort of my own bed.
There is another reason why I don’t waste money at the multiplex, though. For most of my life, I’ve walked out of movies with a slightly deflated sense of my place in the world. It’s not that I want to look like Angelina Jolie. It’s that it’s depressing to sit through a two-hour spectacle depicting a world without female protagonists doing anything but supporting or trying to have sex with men.

Cue the feminist Swedes and their latest endeavor: installing the so-called Bechdel rating in some of their movie houses. Named for American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who invented it in the 1980s, the rating is a standard applied to movies. To get an A, two named female characters must speak to each other about something other than a man.

That sounds like a pretty low bar, but the vast majority of Hollywood hits don’t come close. Among those that fail: the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Social Network, Star Wars and all but one of the Harry Potter films. I had to look up “chick flicks” to bring to mind movies that might pass the test. Among them: Mean Girls, Clueless, Freaky Friday and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

According to an IMDb list of movies that pass the Bechdel test, only two made it in 2013: a Swedish (naturally) movie about a girl punk band called We Are the Best and The Heat.

Hollywood has long been idling in a gender model that can be summarized in movie terms as Jason Bourne versus Terms of Endearment. Who wants to see women emoting over their gooey, lactating, resiliently surviving little lives when you can watch a man ski the Alps and become a heroic global fugitive?

“We want to see things blow up. That’s more valid in our culture than to hear women talk about gardening or buying a car,” says Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood and artistic director and co-founder of the Athena Film Festival. “Is seeing a gunfight any more valid than seeing women struggling with their lives?”

Possibly no more valid, but certainly more diverting. In the world of available movies, action with guns and cars is simply more satisfying to that part of our brains that wants to be entertained.

According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, the percentage of female protagonists in the top 100 grossing films declined from 16 percent to 12 percent between 2002 and 2011. A 2013 study from the USC Annenberg Center found that girls and women were grossly underrepresented on screen in 2012 films, with less than a third of the speaking roles going to female characters.

Maybe if more women wrote and directed movies we’d have more interesting women doing more interesting things onscreen. Women comprised 18 percent of all executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2012. Only 9 percent of directors are female, a measly 1 percentage point increase from 1998.

The phallocentric dinosaurs of the 1970s are, thankfully, soon fading into senescence. Child-woman fanciers Woody and Polanski, and Scorsese and Coppola, with their bred-in-the-bone Italian Catholic attitudes about a woman’s place (bring the bed into the kitchen and fix me some meatballs), will retreat to vineyards and nursing homes soon enough.
Regrettably, all signs indicate we can expect another generation of men foisting a boob-filled but womanless world onto the big screen. For every 10 Judd Apatows, Quentin Tarantinos and Wes Andersons, there is one Tina Fey, Lena Dunham and Kathryn Bigelow.

We know writers and directors can make interesting women for the screen. On TV, one finds actresses like Robin Wright Penn and Kerry Washington (black too!) playing full-blooded characters. Is that because advertisers believe TV consumers—the people who buy stuff—are primarily women?

The movie industry is not beholden to advertisers, and its economic model is based on the Neolithic premise that movie ticket buyers are pimple-faced, hormone-saturated boys, dragging their girls on dates to the drive-in in the Chevy truck. It doesn’t matter that said model died with Buddy Holly. It lives on in the fantasies of the titans of Hollywood, who cannot care less that 50 percent of movie ticket buyers are women.

Can creatives conceive a movie with named female characters talking about things that one doesn’t need to wear a Maxi pad to appreciate? Would Iron Man be as good, witty and sexy-silly as Iron Woman? And yes, I know Angelina and Scarlett have had their boobs packed into superhero costumes, but those exceptions just prove the rule.

“These are the dominant movies, this is our culture, and we are all guilty of this,” Ms. Silverstein said. “I also want to go see a big movie. People are like, let’s go see Spider-Man. I need alternatives. Of course, Spider-Woman doesn’t exist.”

Movies are among our nation’s greatest exports. Seventy percent of the film industry’s profits now come from overseas. It comes down to dollar signs, of course. Sweden’s 8 million are small potatoes, and Hollywood can blow it off. If the Chinese and their billions demanded the standard, it would be a different story, but no one in man-centric Beijing wants women talking to each other about anything besides men.

The Bechdel test is, of course, a feminist joke; even though a handful of Swedish theater chains have deployed it, the standard would never survive the multiplexes of America. Americans have an aversion to forced parity, whether in corporate offices, politics or film, as well they should. Forced equality is red meat to bait the tea party and libertarians, offering cartoon politicians like Ted Cruz something to fulminate over, while in the long term giving conservative constitutional lawyers infinite hours of billable work.

But a gal can dream. I wouldn’t mind a warning affixed to our movie listings, just advising our daughters, sisters, moms and girlfriends to expect as little as we are going to get when we step into a movie theater.