BY: SUJIN OH | APRIL 06, 2014
I recently stumbled upon an article discussing gender disparities in Hollywood movies. In his article, “The Dollar-And-Cents Case Against Hollywood’s Exclusion of Women,” Walt Hickey examines gender dynamics in Hollywood movies. Using data consisting of 1,615 Hollywood movies from 1990-2013, Hickey argues the opposite of the Hollywood belief and suggests that meaningful interactions between female characters may in fact have an overall higher gross median return on investment than films that don’t.
Hickey uses the Bechdel test as his tool of choice for measuring gender bias in a movie. The Bechdel test was originally created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel a 1985 strip of in her cartoon strip series, “Dykes To Watch Out For.” The test consists of three criteria:
(1) There are at least two named women in the picture
(2) They have a conversation with each other at some point, and
(3) That conversation is not about a male character
While the Bechdel test is a simple and crude measure due to movie reviewer subjectivity, we can still observe an interesting trend through Hickey’s analysis, which primarily utilizes this test.
Here are some things Walt Hickey found through his research:
1. There is an inherent gender bias in the movie business. “There has been a disproportionate representation in leading movie roles, confining women into predefined roles, or the lack of serious character development for women on screen compared to their male counterparts.”
3. The median budget of movies that passed the Bechdel test was substantially lower than the median budget of all films in the sample. When considering the relationship between Bechdel test results and the film’s budget and gross profits, the median budget of a film that failed the test was $48.4 million, whereas the median budget of a film that passed was $31.7 million. Smaller budgets often constrain production, providing an additional disadvantage to films that pass the Bechdel test.
Today, we have a diverse range of movies to watch. Anything from based-on-a-true story to zombie apocalypse science fiction, Hollywood movies seem to increasingly improve production to cater to a progressively wider audience. Movies capture imagined societies in a chosen timeframe, whether it is in the past, present or future. As movie watchers and active observers of society, we must consider how the movies we watch—particularly Hollywood movies—attempt to depict the society we live in today. What aspects of society do they emphasize, and which do they deliberately choose to underplay, or neglect? Despite the fact that women make up half the world’s population, women are still underrepresented in Hollywood, and often in ways that we don’t suspect. Simply having female presence in a film doesn’t necessarily mean that female presence is actually valued, and using the Bechdel test allows us to better evaluate the often-overlooked roles women play in the media.
You can try this out yourself the next time you watch a movie, or even a TV show. See if the film meets the three conditions of the Bechdel test. Consider what roles the prevalent women play. Do they talk to each other? Does the plot develop their characters over the course of the movie? You can also check to see which movies pass the Bechdel Test here.
In the words of Cate Blanchett during her 2014 Oscar’s acceptance speech, “[To those of us] in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them, and in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.”