From the baffling nudity of Star Trek to the inadvertent sexism of Frozen’s head animator, 2013 might seem like a bad year for women on screen. But The Mary Sue still found reason to celebrate, with a chart compiled by Vocativ that demonstrates a possible connection between a strong female presence in a film and its box office success.
Vocativ took the year’s 50 highest-grossing films and analyzed them using the Bechdel Test, a simple set of parameters to gauge how a movie portrays women. It originated in Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For (my personal choice for the title of Frozen II). You can see the relevant page over on her Flickr account. To pass the test, a movie simply has to have two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.
Since the test’s inception in the comic it’s developed a following as a shorthand to judge how a movie handles female representation. It’s also developed some other parameters, such as the requirement that the women have names. It’s far from a perfect system, but it’s one way to look at female representation in film.
As Vocativ’s chart demonstrates, 2013 movies that were able to meet these standards grossed significantly more than their Bechdel-challenged competition, possibly because women are more willing to back movies in which they see themselves represented or because, as The Mary Sue posits, realistic representation of female characters may be an indicator of strong writing overall. Though maybe not. Sharknado passed the Bechdel test this year with flying
sharks colors, while the critically celebrated Captain Phillips did not.
But too much celebration of or emphasis on this graph is premature. As readers of Vocativ and The Mary Sue have been quick to point out, the Bechdel isn’t a perfect test. Although a movie like Gravity is groundbreaking in its casual depiction of a female astronaut, it’s considered an exception on the chart, since Sandra Bullock is too focused on survival to talk to another woman about anything, man-related or otherwise. Iron Man III was one of several notable films from 2013 that also fell into a Bechdel gray area–female characters talked to each other solely about men, but were more concerned with saving the day than finding a date.
For 2014, using the Bechdel test to monitor the progress of womens’ depiction in media is overly simple and distracts from larger issues. It would be amazing if Vocativ’s findings accurately represented audiences’ interest in three-dimensional female characters, but any conclusions that could be drawn from the graph are largely a result of coincidence and conjecture. What we do know for sure is that each of 2013′s top-50 films was directed or co-directed by a man.
For 2014, let’s resolve to be more open-minded and ambitious about what it means for women to be represented realistically in art, and to stop celebrating successes prematurely. And, of course, keep the sharkpocalypse movies with positive female messages coming. We might be edging towards progress, one chomp at a time.
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