A Screen Test for the Academy Awards

JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Joker in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “JOKER.”

I was happily watching a British murder get solved by two smart female detectives when my husband pointed out that every conversation that was not about murder was about men. Neither of us realized that he was applying the Bechdel test; I learned only later about Alison Bechdel’s deliberately, ridiculously low standard for movies. Announced in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For back in 1985 but reaching popular awareness only in the 2010s, it simply requires that there be two female characters who talk, to each other, about something other than a man. A later tweak suggests that the women have names.

The bar is so low, only a basset hound could wiggle beneath it. Yet a BBC analysis of Oscar Best Picture winners between 1929 and 2017 found that less than half passed the Bechdel Test.

This year, entire categories of the Academy Awards fail.

When Issa Rae announced the nominees for best director, she quipped, “Congratulations to those men.” They gave us The Irishman (about a hitman for the mob), 1917 (World War I), Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (an actor and his stunt double in Golden Age Hollywood), Parasite (about a con man), and The Joker (about a man one online wit termed “the incel clown”).

That list repeats in the Best Picture nominations, joined by Ford v Ferrari, JoJo Rabbit, Marriage Story, The Joker and, the only obvious test-passer, Little Women.

“Not surprised that Hustlers was totally shut out from the Oscars tbh,” tweeted @women_direct. “It stars two woc over 30, emphasizes their friendship and mutual respect, and passes the Bechdel test.”

Did the others? I looked them up on bechdeltest.com and mediaversityreviews.com. Not surprisingly, Ford v. Ferrari failed. So did Marriage Story, and so do a lot of marriages, for similar reasons. The Irishman failed bigtime: “Women and Black characters are even more diminished in The Irishman than in Martin Scorcese’s previous gangster films,” notes Mediaversity.

The others passed, Jojo Rabbit just squeaking by. But how did they pass? One reviewer on bechdeltest.com wrote of The Joker, “Arthur’s neighbor Sophie briefly interacts with her daughter GiGi about how their bad their building is. This is technically a pass, but it is dubious for various reasons,” among them the fact that Sophie is focused on Arthur and “is more trying to shut her daughter up than actually talk to her,” and “we don’t even know their names from the movie itself, only the credits.”

All my old favorites unspool before my eyes: Casablanca? Surely a fail. All the President’s Men. Nick and Nora. Fargo, even. The new Mister Rogers. Nearly all of Hitchcock’s oeuvre.

Thelma and Louise passes, though. They sail right off that cliff together.

There is a mitigating factor, though. According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, in 120 films made worldwide from 2010 to 2013, only 31 percent of the named characters were female. A 2016 analysis of the screenplays for more than 2,000 commercially successful films found that in 82 percent of the films, men had two of the top three speaking roles. So it would be harder for women to be talking to each other about, well, anything.

Even lists of movies that pass are depressing: Bridesmaids. The Virgin Suicides. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. On Bustle’s list for 2018, the two films that most easily aced the test were all-female heist movies, Oceans’ 8 and Widows. Then you had Suspiria (witches), Can You Ever Forgive Me? (a female forger), Dumplin (a woman entering a beauty pageant), Rampage (a doomed scientist), The Favourite (two women vying for the favor of the queen), The Spy Who Dumped Me (two women trying to survive), Annihilation (a team of women scientists trying to survive), Apostle (women trying to escape a cult town). Only mother-daughter conversations saved Halloween, Hereditary, Blockers, The Meg, and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!

What all this tells us, I suppose, is the way men imagine women talking to each other about something other than men: schooling their daughters, conspiring either to survive or overthrow, or chatting about beauty or pregnancy (which I would argue is talking about men).

Something tickles the back of my neck, and I click on Bustle’s list one more time. Sure enough, I missed the obvious: Even the Bechdel winners are undercut by their graphics. For The Meg, the giphy image that represents the film is two men talking. For Rampage, the giphy is a man; for BlacKKKlansmen, two men; for Apostle, a man holding men down. For five more winners, the image includes a man. Practically any time a film includes a man, he is pictured in the selected still.

Nobody talks much about the Bechdel test anymore. For those pushing for inclusion, it is not enough; for those satisfied with the status quo, it probably seems silly. But it has done its job. Now people are paying attention to other, more telling measures, like talking for at least sixty seconds. Or talking, period. You know how often the male actors got the lines in Game of Thrones? Research group Ceretai checked: across the entire eight-season, men took three-fourths of the speaking time.

The DuVernay test asks whether African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives, rather than serving as scenery in white stories. The Mako Mori test asks whether a fictional female character has a narrative arc that is not about supporting a man’s story. Comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick poses the “sexy lamp test”: If you replace your female character with a sexy lamp, does the story still work? London’s Sphinx theater company asks how proactive or passive a play’s female characters are. The Vito Russo test asks if a film contains an identifiably LGBT character, if that character is defined by something other than their sexual orientation or gender identity, and if that character is integral to the plot (and not just a sexy lamp).

Entertainment is starting to feel like homework—and it ought to, if what we create is going to pass the test of time.