In 1985, Fun Home graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel changed film criticism—or at least feminist film criticism—as we now know it when two of the characters in her long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For tried to go to the movies. In the strip, titled “The Rule,” one woman explains to another her movie-going rule—the three basic requirements a movie must meet before she’ll go see it:
- It has to have at least two women in it;
- who talk to each other;
- about something other than a man.
Thus, the Bechdel test—or the Bechdel-Wallace test—was born. (Bechdel credits her friend Liz Wallace and Virginia Woolf for coming up with the idea.) It doesn’t seem, at a glance, that it’s a hard test to pass; after all, in real life, women talk to each other all the time, mostly about things other than men. And it’s been over 30 years since the test was originally created (though it’s risen to pop culture fame in the 21st century).
Over the years, some Bechdel test devotees have added the additional qualification that the female characters must be named or that the conversation must total at least 60 seconds. In 2013, four Swedish movie theatres announced that they would give “A” ratings to movies that pass the test; today, 20 theatres in Sweden feature the rating, which also appears on DVD covers. It’s also inspired other “tests” of movies, including the Chavez Perez test (do two non-white characters speak about something other than crime?) and the Vito Russo test (is there a significant LGBT character?).
So how did the movies nominated for Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards do on the Bechdel test? With Fun Home onstage at the Ahmanson through April 1, 2017, and a historic Best Picture win by Moonlight, we’ve listed the nominees in order, from the ones we see as passing the Bechdel test with flying colors to those that don’t even come close…
Three great female characters anchor Hidden Figures, and we get to sit in on their conversations about space, science, race, and more…and in a scene or two, the men in their lives.
With Amy Adams in the lead and an only very subtle (spoiler alert!) romantic subplot, Arrival feels like it should be a no-brainer pass. But Adams’ scientist character mostly talks to men, except her unnamed mother (by phone) and her daughter, whose name we eventually learn, eking out a full pass for Arrival.
Thanks to one conversation between Viola Davis’ Rose and Saniyya Sidney’s Raynell about shoes, Fences earns a Bechdel test pass. Otherwise, they talk to and about men. (But as a bonus, Viola Davis is a Center Theatre Group alumna who has performed at the Taper!)
'La La Land'
La La Land squeaks by thanks to one number where the female lead, Mia, played by Emma Stone, gets talked into (or rather sung into) going to a party by her friends. Her friends don’t seem to have names, though (except in the credits), and a big motivation for attending the party? To meet guys.
Despite two excellent performances by Naomie Harris and Janelle Monáe (playing important, named characters), Moonlight is a miss. Presumably these characters—a mother and a mother figure to the main male character, Chiron—talk…but it’s off-camera, and probably about Chiron anyway.
Alas, Lion centers too heavily on a male character (Saroo, played by Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel) to pass all three requirements. Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara (who play his mom and girlfriend, respectively) do share one scene.
'Manchester by the Sea'
Manchester by the Sea, a movie all about the relationship between an uncle and nephew doesn’t have much of a shot, and though two named female characters have a conversation…it’s about one of the men.
Hacksaw Ridge is a World War II movie with a poster depicting one man carrying another on a battlefield. Need we say more? (Fine, it does have two named female characters, though they don’t interact in any meaningful way.)
'Hell or High Water'
Hell of High Water is a heist movie, so we’ve got female bank tellers, waitresses, ex-wives…and that’s about it.