Through The Gender Lens: One Century of Cinema History
Data Analysis of 6,000 Movies and Their Bechdel Test Scores. From Pauvre Pierrot (1892) to Jurassic World (2015).
Started as a joke in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For (1985), the Bechdel Test is now one of the standards used by critics to assess gender bias in films. In order to pass the Bechdel, a movie must meet 3 criteria: it has to have at least two (named) women in it (1), who talk to each other (2), about something besides a man (3).
In this article, we analyzed Bechdel Test information for almost 6,000 movies released between 1892 and 2015. For each movie, we pulled in information from IMDb (such as director, genre, actors, plot keywords…). We then matched the films to information we collected from bechdeltest.com, about whether or not the movies had passed the three criteria.
For one in every five movies of 2015, female characters never speak to each other
And this doesn’t account for the 8% of movies that don’t even have two named female characters who could have engaged in a conversation. Nor does it account for the other 8% of 2015 movies where women do talk to each other… but only about men!
Movies grouped by Bechdel Test outcome, filtered for 2015
Class of 2014: for the first time since 2009, a drop in percentage of movies passing
Of 264 movies released last year and reviewed on bechdeltest.com, only 58% had two or more female characters who spoke to each other and discussed something other than a man. This percentage had been rising steadily since 2010, but saw a drop in 2014.
Percentage of surveyed movies passing the test
Bechdel Test outcome of movies released between 1892 and 2015
Things got much better for female movie characters in the ‘80s
Only 47% of the movies released during the ‘70s had more than two female characters engaging in a conversation about something other than a man. A percentage that had been roughly stable from the 1940s. Yet, for movies released during the ‘80s, the number grew to 56%, the biggest percentage increase yet recorded.
Percentage of surveyed movies passing the test
Girl-to-Girl talk is pretty uncommon on the screen
Having female characters talk to each other is apparently the biggest obstacle to passing the test, nowadays. The number of movies having less than two named female characters has generally been declining over the years. Yet almost every year, at least half of the movies failing the test did so because female actresses didn’t engage in a conversation between themselves.
Why movies fail the Bechdel Test — Percentage breakdown of total movies that failed each year
On average, since the 1940s, the lack of girl-to-girl conversation has been the main reason for movies failing the test. From the ‘70s to today, it always accounted for more than half of the fails, on a decade-long average.
Actually, women failing to talk to each other is pretty common in general, affecting 22% of all the almost 6,000 movies. The number peaked in the 1970s when almost a third of the movies released in that decade and reviewed on bechdeltest.com failed to have women engaging in a conversation with members of the same sex. (Note: this even excludes movies with less than two female characters!). And even today, things aren’t much better. Still more than a fourth of the movies released in the 2010's have two or more female characters who never speak to each other!
Breakdown of movies that fail the test (out of total movies surveyed, per decade)
Of films with ‘family’ in the plot, 74% pass. Only 48% of those with ‘career’ do
Movies with “family” in the plot grouped by Bechdel test outcome
Movies with “career” in the plot grouped by Bechdel test outcome
Six movies of 2015 where women talk to each other only to discuss men
Do young girls get enough role models? Almost half of animated movies surveyed fail the test
True, passing the Bechdel test doesn’t necessarily imply that a movie presents strong female characters and a gender balanced reality. However, it is interesting to realize that many of the movies targeted at children often lack to portray female characters — let alone girl protagonists. About 46% of all the 395 animation movies surveyed fail the Bechdel test. This is even higher than the overall failing rate for all movies analyzed, which is 43%. In most cases animation movies failed because the female characters never get to talk to each other, a trait found in more than one every 4 animation features.
Movies and Bechdel Test results, filtered for animation movies
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Caveat: The test is by no means a definitive tool to judge whether a movie presents empowering female role models, or whether a movie that passes the Bechdel Test is gender-balanced. But the test does offer a convenient and useful way to analyze sexism in the movie business. Also, always keep in mind the sample size of movies reviewed per year to correctly interpret the stats.
Data has been retrieved on July 22nd, 2015