The results of our 2012 Bechdel test, and whether you should care

Monday March 12th 2012

Thanks to all your invaluable contributions, I’ve successfully managed to index the Bechdel scores of all 81 movies released in 2012 thus far. The full results can be found within my original post, but here’s a brief overview of my findings:

  • 63% of movies released within the 10-week period failed the Bechdel test.
  • Only one week on the release schedule had more passes than fails: Friday 10th February, thanks to female-starring big hitters like The Vow and Big Miracle.
  • Both Friday 13th January and Friday 9th March offered only one pass (The Darkest Hour and Hard Boiled Sweets respectively), compared with seven fails apiece.
  • On average, a given release week offered 3 passes and 5.1 fails.

So, what does it all mean? A few people on Twitter were quick to dismiss the value of the test when I launched the experiment last Thursday, arguing that the literal presence of women in a movie is not a good indicator of said movie’s attitude towards women. As the Telegraph’s Tim Robey quite rightly pointed out, even feminist classics are capable of flunking Bechdel.

And of course, they’re right: an individual Bechdel fail means next to nothing. Looking at the ten weeks I sampled, few would argue that The Darkest Hour has any female characters up to the standard of Haywire‘s Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), and yet it passes the test while Haywire fails on a technicality. It would equally ludicrous to suggest that all movies should pass the test — obviously a film like Michael has no need whatsoever for a scene in which two women have a conversation.

As with most instances of gender inequality, the significance of the Bechdel test is only revealed in macrocosm. That 63% of contemporary movies fail isn’t necessarily shocking, until you consider that a reverse-Bechdel test would almost certainly yield a figure closer to 5%. Movies that marginalise men are so rare as to be almost refreshing (recent examples include The Help, The Iron Lady and Bridesmaids), while movies that marginalise women are common enough that most people have stopped noticing them altogether. Note also that the aforementioned examples of reverse-Bechdel fails are all decidedly female stories, whereas your average Bechdel dropout might be no more gender-oriented than War Horse.

It would be insanity to suggest that complex, dramatic stories can only be told within the confines of the Bechdel test’s criteria. But to accept that 63% of movies released theatrically will fail the test — when the idea of a movie that casually features no significant male characters is almost unimaginable — is to accept that storytelling itself is inherently a man’s medium.