Researching Media Inequalities: Beyond Bechdel

While the Bechdel Test – does a film contain two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than men? – is a useful way of highlighting broad gender inequalities in the media, it wasn’t designed to capture anything but the most basic forms of gender inequality, particularly and most-notably in Hollywood films.

Nearly 40 years after its invention, however, things have arguably moved on – not just in the sense that The Test is an exceptionally low bar that a surprisingly large percentage of films still fail miserably to clear – but more that we now recognise many more dimensions of inequality (from CAGE downward…) than in even the recent past.

While not denying the most basic forms of gender inequality are still prevalent in many forms of media – up to and including newer forms of media such as video gamingHickey et al (2017) argue we need to rethink our ideas by introducing a range of tests designed to capture some slightly-different forms of media inequality using the 50 top-grossing films at the North American box office for 2016 as our measuring stick. These cover:

  • Working behind the camera:

Although this includes things like the age, sex and ethnicity of major roles such as director, producer, cinematographer and the like it also involves looking at the composition of those who perform less high-profile roles.

For the Uphold Test, for example, a film passes if at least 50% of the on-set crew are female.

None of the 50 films in 2016 passed.

  • Non-white women:

While women generally are underrepresented in Hollywood, the position for non-white women is substantially-worse. To put that another way “When women do get a break in Hollywood, they tend to be white“. Smith et al (2017), for example, found that of the top-100 films of 2016 only “3 lead and co-lead female actors were from underrepresented racial / ethnic groups“.

For the Waithe Test, a film passes if:

  • It features a black woman,
  • who’s in a position of power,
  • in a healthy, non-abusive, relationship.
  • 10% of the 2016 films managed to clear this hurdle.

    There was, however, a singular lack of success for those same films taking the Villalobos Test:

  • The film has a Latina lead
  • The lead or another Latina character is shown as professional or college educated, speaks in unaccented English and is not sexualised.
  • None of the 50 films passed, you probably won’t be surprised to learn.

    • Female protagonists:

    While it’s one thing to count the number of men / women in leading / supporting roles, it’s quite another to consider who does what in those films. And, in particular, who is tasked with driving the narrative or even developing as a character throughout the course of the film. As Hickey et al note:

    The original MDPG: Kirstan Dunst in Elizabethtown

    Often, women are reduced to stereotypes or tropes as soon as they’re introduced and then don’t get developed any further. And female characters frequently serve little purpose beyond causing plot problems for male protagonists, or having a baby with a male protagonist, or dying to raise the stakes for a male protagonist“.

    A classic example here is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a quirky adult female with highly-accentuated “girlish” qualities (the way she cuts or does her hair is always a big giveaway…) who exists only to provide a romantic interest for the male protagonist in a way that invariably lifts him out of a brooding or depressed state.

    For the Pierce Test, a film passes if:

  • It has a female protagonist / antagonist with her own story.
  • The female lead exists authentically and has goals she pursues through dramatic action.
  • The audience is encouraged to understand the female lead’s desires and actions.
  • A very healthy 80% of the 2016 films passed this test, which may indicate changing attitudes – among both audience and filmmakers – to women performing similar types of role and purpose to men.

    On the flipside, however, in the Landau Test a film fails if a main female character does one of the following:

  • dies.
  • gets pregnant.
  • causes a plot problem for a male protagonist.
  • 66% of the 2016 films fail this basic test.

    • The supporting cast:

    One of the many curious things about Hollywood films is the extent to which the supporting cast  – those characters who appear fleetingly, have no major say in how the film develops and may have only one or two lines – are male. As Hickey et al put it:

    Does your protagonist report a crime to a cop? Cop’s probably a man. Do they get stitched up? Doctor’s probably a man. Their president’s probably a man, and the soldiers that he commands are likely men, too“.

    For the Hagan Test, therefore, a film passes if:

  • Half of one-scene roles go to women.
  • The first crowd scene features at least 50 percent women.
  • 90% of the 2016 films, for some unfathomable reason, failed this test.

    For the Koeze-Dottle Test  things are a little simpler: a film passes if 50% of the supporting cast are female (like, y’know, to reflect the fact 50% of the general population are female).

    Three-quarters (66%) of the 2016 films still managed to fail this less-than-demanding test…

    And finally…

    The purpose of highlighting these different types of test (and there are plenty more we could have proposed, such as one focused on gender and age: a film fails if it doesn’t include at least one female over the age of 45: 72% of the 2016 films failed to jump that low hurdle) is not to suggest that teachers and students should be trying to apply them wholesale to media representations. That would be both overkill and counter-productive.

    Rather, what the tests provide is an awareness of the different dimensions to inequality – class, age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability…- when considering media representations: not just in the rarefied atmosphere of Hollywood movies but across the mass media generally.


    Walt Hickey, Ella Koeze, Rachael Dottle and Gus Wezerek: “We pitted 50 movies against 12 new ways of measuring Hollywood’s gender imbalance” (2017)

    Stacy Smith, Marc Choueiti and Katherine Pieper “Inequality in 900 popular films” (2017)

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