Why Passing The Bechdel Test Isn’t Enough

Five years ago, cultural conversation around The Bechdel Test reached a peak, as numerous voices called for a reckoning in the overwhelmingly inadequate way women were portrayed onscreen. But it became the focus of so much debate because, even in the 2010s, a shocking number of films were failing it. So what about now? Did the Me-Too era resurgence of interest and attention around the Bechdel Test and female representation make a difference in what we’ve seen since?


Is female representation in film and TV actually getting any better? Five years ago, cultural conversation around The Bechdel Test reached a peak, as numerous voices called for a reckoning in the overwhelmingly inadequate way women were portrayed onscreen. The Bechdel test itself is a fairly low bar: it demands only that a fictional work feature two women, who talk to each other, about something other than a man. But it became the focus of so much debate because, even in the 2010s, a shocking number of films were failing it. In 2017, a staggering 40% of all Hollywood movies didn’t pass the full three criteria. A 2014 study by FiveThirtyEight showed that while the proportion of passing films in Hollywood rose steadily between 1970 and the mid-90s after that, progress stalled. So what about now? Did the Me-Too era resurgence of interest and attention around the Bechdel Test and female representation make a difference in what we’ve seen since? Before we get into the answer, it’s important to note that the Bechdel test itself was introduced as… kind of a joke. In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel took a conversation she had with a friend and turned it into a comic strip, where she deemed it “The Rule”. Years later, the Internet discovered that strip and was shook by how far we hadn’t come. But just because the Bechdel Test is a good indication of the problem and a starting point for looking at trends, that doesn’t mean simply passing its rules equals good writing of female characters. Here’s our take on where female representation is at now.

“How does it happen that four smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?”

- Sex and the City: Season 1, Episode 1


If you took a cursory glance at the film and TV landscape over the past few years, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the quantity of featured female characters is higher than ever and our female representation problems are being swiftly fixed. High-profile, acclaimed shows like Fleabag, Killing Eve and I May Destroy You have dominated cultural conversations. Mainstream blockbusters like Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, She-Hulk and Black Widow have centered female superheroes at the box office, while established franchises have added pioneering characters like Star Wars’ Rey, or Lashana Lynch becoming the first black, female 007

And indeed, the proportion of films passing the Bechdel Test has increased over the past few years with around 60% passing in 2021. However, this statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. As of 2021, men still outnumber women onscreen by around two to one–a whopping 85% of films had more male characters than female. And while the percentage of female protagonists in top-grossing films did increase slightly to a historical high of 31%, the percentage of female “major characters” and females with speaking roles actually went slightly down. It’s a long-standing problem that men get to do most of the talking onscreen. A study from 2016 found that of the top 2500 highest-grossing films in Hollywood history, actresses had the most dialogue in only 22% of them. Even in genres that feel female-centric, like romantic comedies or Disney films, men still get the majority of the lines.

We’re so used to this as the normal onscreen, that any shift toward featuring women more in stories can be perceived by audiences as a huge change. Some may see this as positive proof that things are evolving the better, so we don’t need to worry about it as much. On the other end of the spectrum, some audiences frame it as an alarming trend that’s going too far. We’ve seen huge backlashes to the all-female Ghostbusters, Rey in Star Wars, or more recently She-Hulk, which seem driven by the fear that female roles are overtaking male ones. But this couldn’t really be further from the reality. In 2014, film industry analyst Stephen Follows turned up some uncomfortable data–films that failed the Bechdel Test were consistently rated higher by critics and audiences than films that passed. In addition to reflecting cultural biases, this could also be a reflection of the money that’s put into these films. Stunningly, in 2014, FiveThirtyEight found that the median budget of films that failed the Bechdel Test was 35% higher than the medium budget of films that passed. Hollywood executives were intentionally funding films with worse female representation because they believed that films passing the Bechdel Test performed worse (especially in international markets)–even though this wasn’t the case. FiveThirtyEight’s data proved passing the Bechdel Test had no negative effect on a film’s gross profits.


Meanwhile, all this conversation about quantity overlooks the more important question of quality. And this is the biggest problem with turning the Bechdel Test into a definitive measure of good representation: it doesn’t take into account how well-written or rich characters are. Film critic Manohla Dargis tried to correct this issue when she introduced The Duvernay Test in 2016. Essentially a remix of the Bechdel Test tailored toward people of color, it requires not only that there are at least two characters of color, but also that these characters must be complex: they can’t be a relationship together, and must not exist only in relation to white characters.

“Y’all sitting up here comfortable, must feel good. There’s about two billion people all over the world that looks like us, but their lives are a lot harder.”

- Black Panther

If a story’s writers actively make sure it passes the Bechdel Test’s three rules, this isn’t in itself going to lead to interesting, nuanced female characters–it’s just going to ensure a form of box-checking tokenism. A female character can easily talk to another about plot exposition or technical jargon without this furthering either of the women’s stories or fleshing out their character development. That’s probably worse than a story where women do mainly talk about men but in a way that illuminates their personalities and outlooks.

The films that do and don’t pass the Bechdel test don’t necessarily tell a very clear picture about the female-oriented value of these stories. Examples like American Pie 2, Scary Movie, Jurassic World: Dominion do pass the Bechdel; while films like Fargo, Before Sunrise, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Silence of the Lambs, and Nightmare Alley don’t, even though they feature nuanced female characters who have agency and drive their stories.Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 500 Days of Summer contain feminist critiques, told through a male-centric story–so they’re not structured in a way that would make them pass. The same goes for relationship stories that are equally centered on the woman like A Star is Born and A Marriage Story.

Even classics like The Passion of Joan of Arc and Chantal Ackerman’s feminist masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, don’t seem to fit the bill.

All this leads to a strange situation where we’re judging something like Wedding Crashers better than Gravity. Alison Bechdel herself has acknowledged that these rules shouldn’t be applied blindly or overzealously to dismiss valuable movies–while Jackie Brown fails the Bechdel Test, Bechdel called it an “amazing feminist text.” And when film critic Hanna Rosin criticized queer rom-com Fire Island for failing the Bechdel Test. Bechdel defended the film with a “corollary,” saying: “Two men talking to each other about the female protagonist of an Alice Munro story in a screenplay structured on a Jane Austen novel = pass.” The point isn’t to quibble so much over technical details as to remember the underlying important problem the Bechdel test signals: how our stories generally view women solely in relation to men, or through the eyes of men. This is well-documented in how cinema is dominated by the male gaze, and long predates cinema itself. Virginia Woolf wrote in 1929’s A Room of One’s Own:

“It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that ...[4]”

Meanwhile, the Center For The Study Of Women and Television in Film found that there are still recognizably gendered differences in the kinds of stories that get told about men and women. Male characters’ stories are more likely to revolve around work, while female characters tend to be younger with stories that revolve more around their personal lives. And even though there’s been a perception in the past few years that we’re seeing a heyday for messier, unlikeable female characters–like Ozark’s Ruth and Wendy, Not Okay’s Danni, or Mare from Mare of Easttown these are outliers; males are still more likely to get the juicy bad guy roles, involved in “antisocial” activities like fighting or crime.

All this led to Marvel writer Kelly Sue DeConnick inventing an even more simplistic version of the Bechdel Test–the Sexy Lamp test: “if you can remove a female character from your plot and replace her with a sexy lamp and your story still works, you’re a hack.”


Obviously, female writers and directors are a lot less likely to make “sexy lamps” of their women characters–and our continuing lack of complex, female characters with interesting interior worlds stems clearly from the dearth of female creators at the top of the industry. Recently, there have been huge strides made in terms of celebrating women behind the camera, with Chloe Zhao becoming the first woman of color to win the Best Director Oscar for Nomadland in 2021, and other high-profile directors like Celine Sciamma, Regina King and Emerald Fennell rising to prominence. But The Celluloid Ceiling report from 2021 revealed that the percentage of 2021’s top 100 grossing films with female directors was at a measly 12%–down from 16% in 2020. The bias against funding films that pass the Bechdel Test similarly extends to an unfounded industry fear of funding films made by women.

“If you hear about a film that’s made by a woman go and see it, regardless of whether you’re interested or not, so it makes some money, because it’s only money that’s gonna change.”

- Carey Mulligan, The Hollywood Reporter

Only focusing on the Bechdel Test and what’s going on in front of the camera fails to address this deeper problem–and for that, we can look to other, perhaps more important, tests and measures. In 2014, Bath Film Festival introduced the F-Rating, given to films written and / or directed by a woman, with a Triple F-Rating awarded if there are “significant women on screen in their own right.”In 2017, FiveThirtyEight spoke to industry professionals to try and come up with ‘the next Bechdel Test” which would peer behind the camera. Out of that project came The Uphold Test, which a movie passes if the on-set crew is 50 percent women; The Rees Davies Test, which a movie passes if every department has two or more women; and The White Test, which a movie passes if half department heads are women, half crew members are women, and half members of each department are women. Of the top 50 movies of 2016, none passed the Uphold Test or The White Test, and only 15 passed The Rees-Davies Test.

On the bright side, the picture is getting better when it comes to TV. Between 2010 and 2020, the percentage of employed female TV writers grew from 29.3% to 45.3%. These stats are backed up by personal experiences, too: Deep Impact director Mimi Leder claims the commercial failure of her follow-up movie Pay It Forward led her to be put in “movie jail”, but had no impact on her making big TV shows like The Leftovers and The Morning Show, saying:

“my television career was flourishing, but I couldn’t get arrested in features…It’s very different for women filmmakers than it is for male filmmakers.”

In Frances McDormand’s Oscar speech in 2018, she publicized the call for “inclusion riders” to be adopted in film productions. This concept, introduced by Stacy Smith, stipulates that the cast and crew of a film meet a certain level of diversity, and that the A-list actors who star in films could be doing more to push these riders through. Since then, high-profile creators like Paul Feig, Brie Larson, Michael B. Jordan, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have all committed to using these inclusion riders on future productions.


Ironically, the film industry hasn’t always been male-dominated. The silent era was dominated by women behind the camera in a variety of roles but as the industry became more commercially fruitful—and because the people investing were men—these women were pushed out.

But while this story is pretty depressing, it can also be instructional. Industries don’t have to just respond to culture; they can direct it. Introducing things like inclusion riders, and ensuring a level of representation on all sides, could restore a balance that’s been missing for over a century. And creating a better and more diverse culture would lead to more diverse–and better–stories. The point isn’t just making a performance of checking off boring token boxes–because when did that ever lead to an interesting story? Putting a genuine variety of voices and minds into the creator’s seat opens up more worlds and perspectives to us all–and that’s what good storytelling is all about.

“Look at this trajectory, either you have to accept women are 5% as talented as men.” // “Or you have to accept there are serious systemic issues preventing us getting from here to there.”

- Naomi McDougall, TED