As was suggested by a reader, I have checked whether the 365 movies on my list for the experiment, pass the Bechdel-test.
The Bechdel test is a simple test for any work of fiction that looks for the active presence of women, and calls attention to gender inequality. There are three parts to the test.
A work of fiction:
- Must have at least two (named) female characters
- that speak to one another
- about something other then men.
The Bechdel website has a long list of already tested movies, and most of the movies on my list were already there.
And these are the test results for those movies.
Only 328 of the 365 movies on my list had the Bechdel test already performed and put on the Bechdel website, so the remainder I will try to test as year moves along. The test is not something usable for documentaries, so they will forever remain out of my statistics. For the rest, I will update my numbers near the end of the year.
The movies on my list are picked from the most critically acclaimed and the ones that audiences herald to be the best. And a significantly lower percentage of these 328 movies pass the Bechdel test, than the more general selection of all the movies tested on the Bechdel-site. I am quite sure my sample is too small for any certain conclusions, and the movies on the Bechdel-site might not be a representative selection of all movies, but there is definitely a trend.
If a movie is a favorite of critics or audiences or both, it is less likely to pass the Bechdel test.
I also checked whether one of my movies is more or less likely to pass the test if it is in English, or if it is a foreign language movie. And while there is a difference in the percentages, this difference is not significant. The number of foreign language movies that were on my list and already had the test performed, was quite low, so this might mean nothing in general.
It is however not so surprising that movies from Hollywood don’t pass the Bechdel test, if you read about how writers learn to make a script.
It seems we still might not have moved past this:
As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.
-Virginia Wolf in Orlando (1928)
There are several sources for errors in these numbers and one of them is to treat movies from different times in the same manner. Simply lumping all the movies into one group could give the wrong impression, which is why I divided the movies into decades as well. However, one thing that is not reflected in these numbers even then, is that Hollywood movies from before 1934 and after were made under very different circumstances.
First there were the silent movies, where it seems that talent was the driving factor in casting decisions, even if looks always will be a factor in a visual media. Here women could be stars and their stories were told. Of course this did happen in a society where women many places didn’t even have the right to vote yet.
Photo of Marie Dressler (on the right) with Mabel Normand and Charles Chaplin in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance”. Photo by Mack Sennett – PD-US, Original photo
And Hollywood was off to a decent start. The first full length Hollywood comedy (a silent movie) was called “Tillie’s punctured romance” (1914) and it came out six years before women had the right to vote in the US. It starred Marie Dressler, a 44 year old wonderfully funny and rotund woman. Tillie is undoubtedly the star of this story and Charles Chaplin and the rest of the cast are supporting characters. This does seem like a different approach than what we see in current Hollywood. It should be noted that Charles Chaplin was not familiar to most audiences yet, and the lovable Tramp character debuted the same year as this movie.
If you should happen to be curious about this movie – here it is. It might be worth a look just for Tillie’s hats. It is a slapstick comedy, complete with bumbling and falling down cops and a car chase (well, there is a chase and there is a car taking part in it).
Fun fact: Marie Dressler claimed she cast Charles Chaplin in this movie and was glad to give him his first big break.
While this movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, it does seem to tell the story of a woman, and considering the time it was made, I think it is kind of OK, gender wise.
Next came the talkies. It was a gradual shift, but generally they started being shown in 1927, and until 1934, times were good for women in movies.
These years are called the pre-code era, and while not all movies from this time are pre-code movies, all those who would have broken later censorship rules, are given this moniker. These rules that became enforced from 1934 and onwards, regulated a lot of the behavior and appearance of women on screen.
1932 promotional photo of Joan Blondell for the movie “Three on a match” (1932). This photo was later banned.
Pre-code movies dealt with divorce, some of the reality of women during the depression, infidelity, homosexuality, sexually liberated women and they showed both nudity and different states of partial undress. All this went away when the censorship rules entered the stage in 1934, and would not return for a long time.
While female characters from the pre-code movies may not have been liberated or independent by our standards, they were women that got some parts of their stories told and the on-screen roles were often more liberated than what most women could hope for in their real lives.
One example of realism that probably should be seen in the context of the time when it was made, is the musical number below. It looks at some unusual material for a musical, which is often a more escapism type of movie. The song is from the 1933 movie “Gold diggers of 1933” and the is called “Remember my forgotten man”, performed by Joan Blondell and Etta Moten. (This movie also has other quite brilliant musical numbers. Maybe especially “We’re in the money”.)
This longing for the men who they probably held dear, but whom they also needed to provide for their families, was quite real during the depression. Women could not easily provide for their families. If they were lucky enough to get a job, it did not pay very well, and a lot less than a man holding the same position. In addition it was difficult to find childcare that did not eat up all the woman’s wages. Independence was next to impossible for the less than wealthy.
The term “forgotten man” was coined in a speech by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1932:
These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power, for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
On a side note to the gender issues, homosexuals were portrayed in pre-code movies, but generally not in a very positive manner. Although movies after the censorship took effect, did not portray them at all. Not sure which is better.
The movies of the pre-code era often showed women that took initiative to sexual encounters, divorce and infidelity, and were active in other ways as well.
In “Design for living” (1933) a woman can not decide between two men who love her, so all three end up living together, presumably platonically.
Betty Boop in 1933 and 1939.
Then came the censors and female characters in movies became passive, covered up and in all honesty, quite boring. They were often infantilized and reduced to props for male characters.
I tried to see if there were any difference in the portion of movies that passed the Bechdel test in the movies on my list before and after 1934. The movies from the pre-code part of the 30’s had 51% pass, while the remainder had 46% pass. However this is the list where it has already been established (above) that the movies are less likely to pass the test, due to the critical acclaim or popularity of the movies.
Everyone’s stories in movies
After 1934 is seems we entered a long period where movies tell the stories of white men, but the last six or seven years have luckily seen quite positive trends (see statistics above) towards a different approach in Hollywood, although there is far from equality yet.
Jessica Chastain put this very well:
We need more diversity. We’re not telling the stories of many, we’re telling the stories of few. There’s a problem with the storytelling, with the protagonists…it’s in front of the camera, it’s behind the camera…This is not how we want to be working and we need to tell the stories of all.
Until next time,
live long and prosper.
P.S. Have I already started to sound more like a critic?
Photo at the top of the post shows a scene from the musical “42nd Street” (1933), in which auditioning women show their legs for the director.