Why only film?
There are certainly many other areas of society where women are underrepresented, but film is one medium that reaches people far and wide across the globe. It seems a good place to start.
As Geena Davis (founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media) says: "You can't snap your fingers and suddenly half of Congress is women. But there's one category where the underrepresentation of women can be fixed tomorrow: onscreen." It can be a pretty easy fix too.
Why the Bechdel Test? It’s not a good indicator of decent female characters.
This is true. Passing the Bechdel Test is just a starting point. The idea is that great filmmakers will not want to shoehorn in two inconsequential female characters who don't have any bearing on the plot of their film, but will start to consider what gender they are making all of their characters, and look at creating more of them as women.
Some films with excellent, fully formed, well-written female characters fail to meet the test, and some films with terrible, stereotyped and sexualised female characters pass on all three points. But as a blanket rule, this is about seeing more of all kinds of female characters on screen, and recognising that women do exist outside of their relationships to men.
What about the reverse Bechdel Test?
When the underrepresentation of men on film is a problem, we can talk about this. At the moment a reverse test is not relevant or useful.
That said, there is some very limited research on the reverse stats available. Some imprecise calculations were done here by Reddit user celacanto, and even with simplified assumptions over 90% of films are estimated to pass the reverse test.
Whilst male character types can also be limiting, the Bechdel Test is about seeing more women talking to each other on film, and is not about what type of female character they are. That is not to say that conversations about gender stereotyping on film are not conversations worth having. They definitely are. The Representation Project is doing some great work on this topic.
Here's a blog looking at the reverse Bechdel Test if that's what you're interested in.
What about a test for racial, LGBT and/or disability representation?
Absolutely. While this campaign is limiting itself to gender, racial, LGBT and disability representations on film are also a huge issue. We would encourage all filmmakers to take this into account, and hope that passing the Bechdel Test kicks off a more detailed thought process about the diversity of characters in their films from the early writing and pre-production stages.
Here's a blog on the Racial Bechdel Test that's looking for contributors, and here's one looking at the possibilities for a Disability Bechdel Test. The Vito Russo test is a good one to look at regarding LGBT characters in film – and be sure to check out GLAAD's 2014 Studio Responsibility Index.
Does it really matter?
Yes. While there are many areas of concern for women's rights across the world, that doesn't mean that this one is unimportant or doesn't need addressing. As stated by the United Nations: "Gender equality is a fundamental condition for the full enjoyment of human rights".
This video from the UK #RedrawTheBalance campaign is a great example of how children are influenced by gender stereotypes in the world around them.
To quote Geena Davis again, "We are in effect enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space. Couldn't it be that the percentage of women in leadership positions in many areas of society — Congress, law partners, Fortune 500 board members, military officers, tenured professors and many more — stall out at around 17 percent because that's the ratio we've come to see as the norm?"
What about stories that are just about men? Don’t they deserve to be told as well?
Well, sure! But how many men do you know who don't have any women in their lives? And why would those women never talk to any other women?
Pass the Bechdel Test is not about holding filmmakers to ransom, and that's why there are many recognised instances where the test will not be passed. This campaign is about passing the test wherever there isn't a specific reason not to, and starting to get film to reflect life a little better. Maybe even improve on it. It's film after all – the possibilities are endless!
Isn't this because most screenwriters are male?
That's definitely a part of the problem. But if we can imagine superheroes, psychotic villains, talking fish and robots, let's not underestimate male writers' ability to imagine conversations between women. This is also exactly why it needs a concerted effort to correct the imbalance, which isn't correcting itself. Writing only male conversations is a very easy pattern to fall into without much thought.
For the screenwriters having trouble writing female characters, why not write a male character then change it to a female later? This can have the added bonus of avoiding many gender stereotypes too. Monsters University would have had zero major female characters had it not done this – a pretty depressing thought for children's film experiences, particularly when male students are outnumbered by females at most UK universities and in almost all US states.
Hasn't Sweden already done something about this?
Last year four Swedish cinemas launched an 'A' rating for films that pass the Bechdel Test, to draw attention to how few movies pass. While this is a great tool to highlight the problem, for anything to change the onus would be on filmgoers not to watch the films that fail – even though they might be excellent films.
Pass the Bechdel Test is about putting the onus on filmmakers to create more films that pass, and is only appealing to filmgoers to demonstrate their support for seeing more and better representations of women on film.
If it's what sells, why change?
In fact, reporter Versha Sharma and data analyst Hanna Sender at Vocativ did a breakdown of the US top grossing movies of 2013, and found that "The grand total domestic box office number for the movies that passed is significantly higher than the domestic box office total for the movies that didn’t. We’re talking billions."
In April 2014 Walt Hickey for FiveThirtyEight analysed a set of 1,615 films released between 1990 and 2013, and found that the "films that pass the Bechdel test tend to do better dollar for dollar than those that don’t — even internationally."
Bruce Handy in Vanity Fair came to a similar conclusion on 16 March 2014: "Actress-centered movies out-grossed actor-centered movies by almost exactly one third!", as did Louisa Booth for Way to Blue in the UK on 5 March: "As Vocativ concluded, the secret to box office and buzz success? Strong female characters. Simple!"
Handy breakdown from Vocativ below.