What Is the Bechdel Test and What Is Its Relevance to Today’s Film Industry?

The film industry is one of the most impactful sectors in our society and it has been influencing our values and opinions for decades now. Many key roles in the industry have been dominated by men. As a consequence, women have been underrepresented in films. They are usually portrayed in stereotyped feminine roles such as wives, parents, and sexual gatekeepers. In this article, I will share numbers, analyses, and inferences to understand where gender representation stands right now, how it has improved, and where opportunities remain.

The Bechdel Test is one of the most commonly-used measures for female representation in films. The test was first featured in the 1985 comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” by Alison Bechdel. A work of art passes the test if it has:

  1. two named women in the film,
  2. who talk to each other, 
  3. about something other than a man. 
The Comic Strip featuring the test

Pretty simple, right? Now let’s see how movies have performed on this test over the years.

Distribution of movies from 1986 to 2016 and their test results

Here’s the problem: 40 percent of movies still fail the test out, and among those, 10 percent fail to satisfy even one of the three conditions above as observed from the analysis. From my analysis, gender, genre, and budgets are found to influence the results of the test. Now let’s deep dive into each one of these factors.

Here are a few examples of movies that have failed the test.

What role does gender play with respect to a movie passing the test?

Percentage of movies passed visualized across gender and role in the film industry

Although the first American movie star was a woman named Florence Lawrence during the early 20th century, as of 2000, the percentage of female actors was only 19 percent. This percentage stands at 47 percent now and the gender parity movement has also led to an increase in the number of movies with female leads. Movies that have a female lead are more likely to pass the test compared to the ones that don’t. However, 10 percent of those movies have still failed the test. Similarly, movies directed and written by females are more likely to pass the test, but close to 15 percent of these movies still fail. For example, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, directed by Andrea Arnold, and starring Kaya Scodelario has failed the test even though the writer, director, and protagonist were all females.

How does the percentage of movies that pass differ with respect to genres?

Action and Crime are genres with a higher number of movies that fail the test.

A tornado chart to visualize the number of movies that passed across genres

These two genres are known for underrepresenting women and this gap was brilliantly exposed by the Belgium filmmaker Chantal Akerman in her 1975 classic Jeanne Dielman “23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” where the protagonist is not only a widowed housewife and a mother to a teenage son, but also, not coincidentally, a part-time prostitute. She plays all the roles open to women in films and this is depicted in real time.

This gap is slowly decreasing now and, as of 2016, all genres have more movies that have passed the test.

How do production houses influence the industry?

Production houses help a movie come to life and thus hold an important role in this test. I’ve analyzed production houses that have been in business for more than 10 years. Each production house’s percentage of movies passed is compared with the year’s average to arrive at the chart below.

This scatter plots visualizes where each production house stands in terms of number of years in business versus the number of years they’ve performed better than industry average on the Bechdel Test.

If a production house lies above the line, it indicates that the production house has been performing better than the industry number for at least half of the number of years they’ve been in business. Unfortunately, none of the production houses in the dataset appear above the line. 

Summit Entertainment and Fox 2000 Pictures are the only production houses that are close to this line, but both of these have been in business for less than 14 years.

This stacked bar chart visualizes the number of production houses that allocate higher budgets for movies that fail the Bechdel Test.

Even if they produce movies that would probably pass the test, 67-90 percent of production houses allocate lower budgets for action and crime-genre movies that would pass the test.

How do movies that pass the test perform compared to the ones that don’t?

To explain these patterns and behaviors, I decided to deep dive into the ratings and reviews. For the analysis, I kept one factor constant — the writer/director/producer. I picked the set of creators who had created movies that have passed and movies that have failed the test and compared each of their Tomatometer ratings and return on investment (ROI).

Interestingly, movies that pass the Bechdel Test receive higher ratings and ROI when compared across writers, directors, and producers. This suggests that people prefer to watch movies that pass the test.

From the above, you can see the incentive to driving change in the industry and ensure equity in representation and inculcate a mindset of progressive growth that will benefit all of us in the years to come.

Distribution of movies from 1986 to 2016 and their test results

Good news is, we’ve already started to improve and it’s only a matter of time before this test becomes obsolete!

Check out the entire dataviz here and create your own fan fiction!

I’m an analyst with close to two years of experience at TheMathCompany, a data science services and consultancy company. In this time, I’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to dashboarding principles and concepts and naturally, I gained a lot of interest in creating datavizzes and I enjoy vizzing for competitions and social causes now.

CategoriesData Journalism