Captain America: Civil War may be the biggest movie of the year so far, but it doesn’t do much for its female characters. The women in the film barely communicate with each other. During one of the very first scenes, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) speaks directly to Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) about surveillance. Even though there are three named female characters in the movie, this is the only clear scene in which they speak to each other about something other than a dude. Believe it or not, Captain America: Civil War still represents its women better than a third of other blockbusters this year.
We are halfway through 2016 and it’s about time we gave Hollywood a little checkup. The movie industry is notoriously bad at equality. There aren’t nearly enough films starring people of color. Women are vastly underpaid, and sometimes women aren’t even represented as full characters on the silver screen.
In fact, 32% of this year’s biggest films fail the Bechdel Test. Got that? 32%. (Captain America passed, but only barely.)
The Bechdel Test is one of the simplest measures of sexism in narratives was created by Alison Bechdel in her famous comic series Dykes to Watch Out For. It has only three requirements, and they’re pretty much the bare minimum for establishing humanity in female characters. To pass the test, a story must be able to answer yes to all three of these questions:
- Are there more than two named female characters?
- Do those two named characters have a conversation at any point?
- Is that conversation about literally anything other than a man?
All a film has to do to pass is have a single moment where two characters talk about anything that’s not a man. The Bechdel Test doesn’t measure whether or not a film portrays women in a negative light, or is openly sexist. All it does is tell us whether or not women are treated as humans in a narrative space dominated by men. Should be easy, right? Yet so many movies this year failed.
FiveThirtyEight’s Walter Hickey did a study last year of 1,794 movies produced from 1970 to 2013 and found that just over half of them managed to pass the test. At this time last year, more than a third of movies failed the Bechdel Test. 2016 doesn’t look any better.
I looked at movies that were released January through June of 2016, double-checking them against bechdeltest.com. Of the 50 highest-grossing domestic movies this year (as determined by Boxofficemojo), 33 of them pass all three of the Bechdel Test standards. God’s Not Dead 2 threw me into a moral conundrum over whether two women speaking to/about God (who isn’t explicitly gendered in the movie, but given that the story is told through a Christian lens, is almost certainly male) counted as passing the test. But with the exception of God’s Not Dead 2 —which I marked as “unclear”—the remaining 16 movies fail the test.
Again, that means that 32% of this year’s biggest films fail the Bechdel Test.
Deadpool, for example, only passes one of the three tests. Two of its named female characters (Angel Dust and Teenage) fight each other and are fairly strong characters on their own, but never actually speak. A third female character (Deadpool’s girlfriend, Vanessa) has only one conversation not about or with men, and that’s with an unnamed female doctor.
The numbers from this year’s top 50 movies show progress from the results of same evaluation that I did in 2014. In the first half of 2014, 52.5% of movies passed the test. In the first half of 2015, 58% of movies pass. This year, 66% of movies pass! So we are getting somewhere!
In theory, this is not a test that should even have to be measured. Women exist as named people all around us in the world and (shockingly) they speak to one another. Women have to negotiate trade deals, they have to decide what they will eat for breakfast, they have to pay bills, make decisions, and watch movies. The fact that even one movie can fail this test (especially any movie with female characters in it) demonstrates a form of deeply engrained sexism that allows writers and directors and producers to believe that the only conversations women are having that matter are the ones they are having about men.
On top of that, more of 2016’s top 10 grossing movies so far fail the test than they did last year:
Unlike 2015’s top 10 grossing movies, which included Pitch Perfect 2, Fifty Shades of Grey, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Cinderella, 2016’s top 10 movies relied much more heavily on action films and films aimed at children. The four top 10 movies that failed to pass the test this year are Deadpool, The Jungle Book, Kung Fu Panda 3, and The Angry Birds Movie.
Equality isn’t easily measured in any form, and the Bechdel Test is by no means a perfect gauge of how Hollywood portrays women on the screen. That said, the fact that more of the top 50 movies have passed the Bechdel Test in 2016 than in recent years is encouraging. It’s also worth noting that the study done by FiveThirtyEight last year found that movies that passed the Bechdel Test performed just as well at the box office as their failing counterparts.
Maybe this is the beginning of the shift that will one day make the Bechdel Test obsolete, when every movie as a matter of course portrays women as full characters with desires and inner lives of their own. Maybe, in a few years, women on the screen can count on being as nuanced and complicated as their male counterparts. But not yet.