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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: What makes a film “female-friendly”?

Sigourney Weaver Carrie Henn Aliens

One of the links I posted recently, about how cinema is still a boys’ club, prompted one of my Twitter followers to object to something in the article. @stoneagelove:

I’m not convinced by Bechdel’s claims that a film has to be centered around women to be ‘female-friendly’

“Bechdel” refers to the Bechdel Test, which cartoonist Alison Bechdel did not create to determine which movies are “female-friendly” — that’s a misinterpretation by the writer of the linked article — but how women are depicted onscreen.

The Bechdel Test is simple and easy. To pass, a movie must:

1. Have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

(It has been recently suggested that a No. 4 be added: “For longer than 30 seconds.”)
An astonishing number of movies fail this test. Like, typically, the vast majority of films playing in wide release in North America at any given time, including movies that are supposed to be “for women.” (Check out Bechdel Test Movie List for a look at how some current and classic films fare.) The only point of the Bechdel Test is to highlight how poorly, in the aggregate, women are treated by The Movies, in that women are almost always depicted as little more than adjuncts to men who think about nothing but men and do nothing but pursue romance with men. The Test does not decide which films are or are not “female-friendly.” A film that passes the test is not necessarily feminist, and one that fails is not necessary unfeminist. The Test does not condemn any individual film for failing the test, nor does it suggest that there is no room in the world for movies that do not pass the test.

All that said, in our current entertainment environment, in which most films fail this test, I think measuring a film against the Bechdel Test is the beginning of a good way to determine if a film is “female-friendly.” Because, you know, once in a damn while, I like to see women doing the cool shit and saving the world and catching the villain instead of just standing around watching a male hero adoringly from the sidelines.

What do you think? What makes a film “female-friendly”? Bonus points if you can figure out why no one worries about films being “male-friendly.”

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • RogerBW

    Not being female, I don’t feel qualified to judge whether a film is “female-friendly” – and nor am I going to assume that there’s a single female mindset that can be adequately served by pressing the right buttons on the Script-o-Matic, any more than there’s a single male mindset ditto.

    That out of the way, I look for female characters who are full-on characters rather than set dressing – woman as protagonist, or at the very least deuteragonist, rather than as reward, push, or other plot device. If the woman could be replaced by a shiny new car or by a slavering monster and still serve the same role, I don’t regard her as an interesting character.

  • PJK

    Disclaimer: I’m not a woman, so any statements made in the following posting are made from a male perspective.

    The problem that I have with the Bechdel Test is that it just isn’t a very good test. Invert the properties of the test and you get:

    A movie is unfriendly to women if:

    It has fewer than two female characters or they don’t talk to each other or they only talk about a man.

    I don’t think this is necessarily true. Two women having a discussion on the evils wrought by Adolf Hitler would fail the Bechdel test, which I don’t think makes that movie female-unfriendly.

    The Bechdel Test basically tests if a movie doesn’t conforms to one of the most common tropes used by Hollywood. As Maryann states this doesn’t make a movie female-friendly.

    I do think that there is a group of people who seem to think that the Bechdel test is the ultimate criterium for determining if a movie is female-friendly (see http://bechdeltest.com/ for examples of this) 

    And how do you define Female-Friendly? Isn’t this one of those terms that each woman defines for herself?

  • NorthernStar

    Since women are as individual as men (shocking as that revelation may be to some in the movie industry) we all have different criteria on what makes a movie “female friendly.”

    For me, proper character progression, for female roles definately but also for the male, is key.  I like to watch a movie and know whoever wrote it actually thought from the view point of the characters.  With male roles, this happens quite a lot and while the choices made by the character on screen might not be one you agree with or like, it still feels organic.  But not for women.

    As an aside, I’ve recently introduced my 12 year old daughter to the Bechdel test.  I don’t think she quite understands yet the importance of asking those 3 little questions but she’s been very surprised by the low pass rate of the films we watch.

  • RogerBW

    Yes, I’d extend my analysis to say that I don’t want the men to be plot tokens either…

  • LaSargenta

    I don’t have an answer to the question; but, I want to witter on about something anyhow: The Bechdel test (which Bechdel said she stole/borrowed/appropriated from Liz Wallace) is, even at it’s best, a bare minimum sort of analysis. It wasn’t intended as some be-all-and-end-all. It was intended as sarcasm. The fact that it hit so close to the bone is what made it become part of the [relative] mainstream of pop culture movie chat.

    Honestly, when DTWOF came out, I never would have thought that it would become part of the mainstream. It was underground and only available at places like anarchist and queer bookstores. Now, B&N! In malls! That’s pretty cool.

  • cal

    I don’t consciously run the Bechdel test while viewing entertainment, or at least not that often. It’s not how I determine if something is entertaining to me. But it does come up from time to time.  I remember seeing a scene from the show ‘Eureka’ (I don’t get out to the movies that often) and was delighted to see two female scientists (both women of color, no less) collaborating to solve the problem of the week, using their collective smarts to figure out what to do. It hit me immediately that this was something unusual, and made something I enjoy even more enjoyable.

  • Cautia

    You seem to have missed the part where the point of the Bechdel test is *not* to determine whether a film is ‘female friendly’ or not.

    The point of the Bechdel test is that very, very few movies can pass it.

    Of course a movie that doesn’t pass the test is not necessarily unfriendly to females. And a movie can pass the test and be very unfriendly to females.

    But the fact that so few movies can pass it is a problem.

    The point is that females are real, living, breathing, three dimensional human beings with their own lives, and they make up about half of the world’s population, but they very rarely see themselves reflected onscreen as anything more than minor satellites orbiting around men. They are not the people in movies, they are accessories in them.

    The Bechdel test is there to make this point. The test was not designed to approve or disapprove of individual movies, but to illustrate an *overall* truth about movies in general.

  • Bassygalore

    If film makers focus on making movies that have interesting stories and characters (both male and female), then they don’t need to worry about what constitutes as ‘friendly’ for a certain set of the population. I don’t care if the hero is male or female – I care about good story telling.  I don’t *want* to watch a movie that is targeted toward me as a woman, quite honestly, because it makes me feel like I *have* been separated out and treated as though I need to have something specially created for me (as a woman) to enjoy – it’s demeaning.Tangent…I generally don’t focus on gender unless someone has made *my* gender an issue for *them*. I try and look at everyone as gender neutrally as possible because  I don’t know anyone else’s point of view and it would be foolish to assume that I do, particularly the assumption that just because someone is a man that they believe that women are subserviant and should be treated accordingly.  Basically, if someone makes gender an issue, it will be an issue (for them); therefore, I try not to make it an issue for me.

  • LaSargenta

    Agreed that good storytelling is primary; however, many, many years ago I ran a little experiment. I had quite short hair and I dressed gender-ID’ed as a boy and went a bunch of places and then gender-ID’ed as a girl and went to the same places, very careful to have all other things equal as possible (time of day, apparent class status, not trying to change my appearance as far as age, etc.).

    My experiences interacting with the people around me were pretty different as a boy and as a girl. (I was in my early teens, believable as a beardless boy and, of course, believable as a girl.) I find it impossible to look at people as gender neutral. I definitely try to treat people as evenly as possible and I try not to make assumptions anyhow, but the perception of our gender is a huge factor in our experience of the world, so I feel that if I ignore it I’m actually doing the other person a disservice. But, true, focusing on it can create a whole other set of problems, too.

  • LaSargenta

    Have u introduced her to the comic, too? It is great.

  • I find a lot of people who talk about the bechdel test often have not seen the context of the test (this is for some of the commenters here, not you, MAJ). So here is how it appeared, in this now 27-year-old strip.

    A lot of the arguments against it are so reachy and specious it really amazes me.


  • Bassygalore

    Out of (genuine) curiosity, what were the differences between the interactions you had as a male vs. a female? Did you talk to both males and females while you presented as male and then again as female? Do you think that your perception as a female, knowing that you are a female, but dressed as a male could have possibly influenced how you interpreted the differences in the way you were treated by each sex? Also, were you able to approach each of the same people as a male and later as a female?  That would be really interesting – to see if on an individual level if the same person you talked to as a male treated you the same as when you presented as a female and/or what the differences were…

  • LaSargenta

     Hey! I found the strip on line! I think it is Ginger who has the Rule…but it has been a while. I gotta go dig out my copy from the upper reaches of my bookshelves. That first collection was a looooong time ago.


    AB no longer has it on her site in the archives.

  • LaSargenta

    There were lots of things, too many to sum up, and I wasn’t doing this as a perfect experiment. I wasn’t in any academic frame of mind, I think it was from a sense of anger and needing to prove to myself that I wasn’t nuts. I was 13 at the time and it was San Francisco in the late 70’s.

    There were a couple of people who I got to interact with in both guises. They were adults and service-industry people, so there were slight differences, but not any long conversations.

    The thumbnail conclusion was females always have to have justification for taking up space: Having lunch or coffee/tea, reading a book, waiting for a friend/family member, shopping…just doing something. As a male, I could just sit on a bench and people watch without having to explain myself. No one came up to me as a boy and tried to ingratiate themselves with me and then slut-shame (not that I used that phrase then). But, both were potential targets of violence or harrassment, it took different forms though. I also figured that would be different if I had been a lot older. Teens actually live in a more physically dangerous world.

    Ooops, Edited to add answer to one of your questions: Of course I can’t remove my perceptions of myself and my presentation, but, some of the responses were unmistakably different. For one, it was a good thing that I had been such a jock and was not only solid muscle but that I knew (and know) how to fight. And it ain’t Marquis of Queensbury rules that I know! lol.

  • Jack Deth

    1/:  Hunky, well muscled men exposed from the waist up?
    2/:  Hunky, well muscled men in Speedos?
    3/:  Hunky, well muscled men in a duel of swords over their lady’s love?
    4/:  Hunky, well muscled men aiding their wife’s/fiance’s/girlfriend’s Lamaze class?
    5/:  Hunky, well muscled men taking out the garbage on a weeknight?
    6/:  Hunky, well muscled men exposed from the waist up changing the car’s oil?
    7:/  Hunky, well muscled men preparing dinner and not ruining it?
    8/:  Hunky, well muscled men who prefer cats to dogs?
    9/:  Hunky, well muscled men who don’t follow sports and enjoy cleaning?
    10:/ Hunky, well muscled men who aid and assist with the wife’s/fiance’s/girlfriend’s shopping?

    Yes, I’m going to Hell for being a sexist, but you asked.

  • LaSargenta

    Hunky well-muscled man with some well-groomed and attractively placed body hair in a speedo washing my floor on his hands and knees.

  • Jack Deth

     Hi, LaSargenta:

    I’d not thought of that one, but it’s a good one!

  • bronxbee

    i enjoyed that episode too…

  • mortadella

    Well, if you mean straight women like looking at attractive men, then I guess you have something there. Watching a non-Rom-Com film that assumes some members of their audience are not straight dudes is always a kick.
    As for what this hypothetical man needs to be doing on screen to make the film “women-friendly,” your list is a little weak. Who likes to clean? Why does he need to not enjoy sports? Errr, I don’t need help shopping. And I personally don’t daydream about attending Lamaze class…..or getting pregnant….or having kids. Do women have fantasies about dudes getting into sword fights (I mean, above the age of 8) over them? Just saying.

  • Bassygalore

    I’m quite sure that you were not nuts – particularly given the time period (for reference, I was born in ’74, so I’m not quite so young that I haven’t experienced my fair share of gender slights). It’s admirable that you went out to test it, though it really s*cks that you were harrassed and it got violent. :/  Looking at the world today, I think that the general attitude has changed though (or at the very least what’s socially acceptable to present to others). It’s not perfect, but I think it has changed and that *is* thanks to feminists (both male and female) and the fight for gender equality. Just so that you understand my perspective – I work in the financial industry, which is still dominated by males and *a lot* of older males. Everytime I meet someone new (particularly male), I have the instinct to get defensive and think that they will not take me seriously because I am female or that they will dumb-down their presentation of ideas because I am of inferior intellect due to my gender, but that assumption is not fair to them or to myself. I have to correct myself and try to be as neutral as possible, because I don’t want to cloud the experience with *my* biases either. If that person does have a problem with me because of my gender, then that’s their issue and I have to leave it as their issue as it’s nothing I can change. Difficult as it is to think gender neutrally, my point is or at least what I strive to do is to think of myself as equal; to be gender neutral and think of myself as an equal human being that just has different bits than the person I’m interacting with (assuming they are male) and think of that person as an equal to me. Tying that back in to the movies, I think the industry should strive to make movies that are equally enjoyable by all, not gender specific.

  • Jack Deth

     Well, if you mean straight women like looking at attractive men, then I guess you have something there.

    That was my point.

    Any of my original suggestions would work well in any Rom~Com.
    Click for more: http://www.flickfilosopher.com/blog/2012/06/question_of_the_day_what_makes_2.html#disqus_thread#ixzz1xguU1QlW

  • mortadella

    Yeah, I guess that’s why I don’t think Rom-Com are particularly “women-friendly.”

  • Roy

    _Bonus points if you can figure out why no one worries about films being “male-friendly.”_

    Actually, I think Hollywood spends a lot of time worrying about films being male-friendly, and specifically about them being appealing to young males.

  • NorthernStar

    At least be more accurate with your sexism. Most women aren’t all that turned on by muscles – quite the opposite in fact.

    I prefer a skinny actually. Which reminds me: Mary-Ann, when are we going to female gaze over the likes of Matthew Gray Gubler? One of the few men alive able to successfully hide behind David Tennant.

  • LaSargenta

     Oh definitely.

  • LaSargenta

    Well, with much pop culture, it isn’t just gender-specificity, it’s age-gender-social class-race specific! Pretty limiting, if you ask me.

  • Jack Deth

     Hi, Northern Star:

    Do you mean to tell me that the  ratings Trifecta of ABC’s ‘Gray’s Anatomy’, ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Cougar Town’ has been pushing a false premise for all these years?!!!

    I jest, of course.

    Good call on Matthew Gray Gubler.  Curious to see if he could hide behind Matt Smith as well?

    Perhaps, Mary-Ann might also consider adding Ryan Cartwright (Gary Bell from Sy-Fy’s ‘Alphas’) as well.

  • Bassygalore

    Very good point, though I think there are a ton of movies that don’t try to target a specific gender, social class or race and they do quite well – The Avengers, Titanic, Star Wars, E.T., The Lion King,  Toy Story, Dances with Wolves, The Godfather, Jurassic Park, Ghostbusters, etc., at least I don’t *think* these are specifically targeting anyone (though I could be wrong). I think they become blockbusters *because* they didn’t target select audiences (and they are considered good movies by most people’s standards). With respect to the youth though, age does need to be a consideration. I’m quite happy that my daughter has her ‘kids movies’, because I wouldn’t allow her to participate in the movie going experience otherwise. :/

  • The Bechdel Test is way too broad a test for any kind of “[insert noun]-friendly.” By all means a film can feature two prominent female characters who do talk to one another about everything aside about men — but does that automatically make it female-friendly? You’re right, it’s the beginning of judging if it is female friendly — so what would the next test be? Are the female characters likeable and/or well-drawn? Does the characters do normal things? Is it the kind of movie where a female protagonist can easily stand in for a male one? Is it the kind of film that will attract a female audience, bad rom-coms and dramas aside?

  • PJK

    I never meant to state that I thought that the purpose of the Bechdel test was to determine if a movie was female-friendly, though upon rereading my inverted rule it does come of as that. I know that the test was used in the original comic as a guideline on whether or not to see a movie based on the set of rules, but I do feel like the test seems to have become this sort of shorthand test of female-friendliness for some people, which was never its purpose.

    Should we blame Hollywood for its terrible record of portraying women in Movies? Yes, we should. But the only way to change this behavior is to not reward it, and the only way to do that is to not pay to watch movies that do a lousy job in portraying people (men and women both) as three dimensional human beings with all the complicated behaviors and flaws that we all have.

    If we as consumers don’t take that responsibility, nothing will change. Hollywood will keep producing the same stuff as they always have because there is no financial incentive not to produce it.

  •  “Most women aren’t all that turned on by muscles – quite the opposite in fact” Sorry, but I don’t buy that at all. There are always exceptions, of course, as you have shown, but I believe a higher percentage of women would be turned on by a guy with muscles, than one without. All other things being equal, including facial attractiveness. I’m not talking about a super ripped, gross looking dude like old style Arnold. I just mean well-defined and healthy looking. Maybe a hint of a six-pack. I can understand what you’re saying if the skinny guy exceeds the muscle guy in all other capacities, but not if the only difference is physical.Perhaps your experience is different, but I know, even from my wife and her friends, that a man who works out, and looks like he can handle himself, are very attractive qualities. Take it from a guy who’s been skinny his whole life, and tried desperately not to be in his younger years. I’ve long since accepted who I am and what I am, but I still wish I had a stronger, and better looking body. Sadly, my current health condition doesn’t allow me to even try anymore. Good thing I’m pretty damn awesome otherwise. p.s. Chris Evans in Captain America popped in my head as I typed this. It’s a good example, because he’s the exact same guy before and after the body “upgrade”. How many women out there would go for the scrawny version over the buff one? Maybe 2, and one is a liar. ; – )

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    If memory serves, in the original strip, the character that listed the conditions claimed she (the character) wouldn’t go see a movie that didn’t meet those conditions. So, in that sense, the test originally was about approving or disapproving specific films, from the p.o.v. of that particular character. The Bechdel Test has since come to  mean more – and less – than simple approval, depending on anyone else’s particular p.o.v. 

    Aaaaaand thanks to the magic of google, TVTropes, and flickr, here’s the original strip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zizyphus/34585797/

  • innpchan

    4,5,6,7,8,9,10… No wonder I’m not in the movies.

  • Hollywood does. But no one else is wringing their hands over this. Because — ahem — Hollywood caters to male moviegoers all the time. Which was my point.

    You win the bonus points. :->

  • madderrose74

    I could hide two of my husband behind David Tennant. This is a fun metric; “What can you hide behind David Tennant?”

  • CB

    Is there an exception for movies where women talk to each other about things other than men endlessly and yet still somehow feel like they don’t have particularly healthy attitudes about them?  We can call it the “Tarantino Clause”.

  • CB

    There are always exceptions, of course, as you have shown, but I believe
    a higher percentage of women would be turned on by a guy with muscles,
    than one without. All other things being equal, including facial
    attractiveness. I’m not talking about a super ripped, gross looking dude
    like old style Arnold. I just mean well-defined and healthy looking.

    I’m not sure that’s true.  For one, there’s whole subcultures that thrive on skinny non-athletic men, emo, goth, hipster, and more.  For two, Team Edward. 

    In general I think women’s tastes are just more varied than men’s (not that men lack all variety, but, more so). 

    Take it from a guy who’s been skinny his whole life, and tried desperately not to be in his younger years.

    But if I took it from me (who had zero muscle definition even when I was the most fit I’ve ever been or will be in my life, as a high school wrestler) then I’d say that plenty of women are quite attracted to my lack-of-physique.  Many more so than I realized, even, looking back on my younger years. :)

    I’ve long since accepted who I am and what I am, but I still wish I had a stronger, and better looking body

    Me too, but it’s not because it’s a magic pathway to the ladies.  Well, maybe some types of ladies who may be your type of ladies; I don’t know.

  • Cautia

     OK, sorry – I meant the way that the Bechdel test has evolved to be used by a lot of people, not how it’s presented in the original comic strip.

  • LaSargenta

    I don’t think I’ve seen enough Tarantino films all the way through to evaluate that name. What of his films had two women who actually interacted enough to talk to each other? (Aside from Jackie Brown.)

  • PJK

     I think CB’s referring to Death Proof.

  •  I forget how you do the quote boxes. Oh, well.
    Key word: “subcultures” – Like I said, there are always exceptions!
    Trust me, I am not one to go for the superficial types. I’ve actually been married for 13 years to a pretty kick ass gal.. We agreed from the start that we were a couple of geeks who were lucky to have found each other. Heck, her major was Biology! Me, I’m a plant geek, who also loves movies and gaming. She digs all things vampire and horror. It works.
    Could be part of the problem is that over the years my wife has taken charge of her health in a big way. She lost a ton of weight, and started working out on a regular basis. Our basement is now her personal gym, and she looks fantastic. In the meantime, my health has dwindled. I am riddled with chronic pain on a daily basis, and have lost weight that I couldn’t afford to lose.
    Wait…Ya know what? I’ll stop there. It’s starting to sound like a therapy session. Lets just say that I’ve got some issues.
    I stand behind my previous comments, though.  A majority, not all.

  • LaSargenta

    I would really argue that claim in re: Dances with Wolves at a minimum. It is completely from a white point of view. I am not prepared to make a call on any of the others right now. (This could be a great topic for a paper… White Gaze in Mainstream Cinema. Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if it has been written already, possibly by Greg Tate or Ishmael Reed.)

  • CB

    Indeed. :)

  • LaSargenta

     Thanks. Haven’t seen that one yet.

  • LaSargenta

     Well, I certainly can’t hide behind David Tennant! LOL.

  • Also Kill Bill. Granted, they didn’t talk long, (“I’m going to kill you!” “Oh, yeah?” “Yeah!”) but hey.

  • Writingwrongs

    While it doesn’t address what makes a movie “female friendly” (as I think that term, in its most positive sense, means the movie has a “good story”) Dr. Martha Lauzen’s study “The Celluloid Ceiling” revealed some interesting statistics on women in front of and behind the camera.  

    In the Top 100 US-domestic films (gross), 33% of ALL characters were women and only 11% qualified as protagonists.  A severe under-representation by any measure.  However, what I found more revealing was that  of the 250 top grossing US-domestic films, women comprised 25% of the producers, 14% of the writers and only 5% of the directors. 

    So, if the  “Bechdel Test is to highlight how poorly, in the aggregate, women are treated by The Movies”, the above statistics might help illuminate why this is so.

  • LaSargenta


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