The Bechdel Test: Do SFF Movies Pass?

You’re at the newest science fiction movie watching the screen, thinking Where are all the women?

It’s not uncommon. It’s also not uncommon when one finally wanders on screen to wonder Is she going to talk or just stand there?

The representation of women in fiction has a long road to climb and several dark holes to jump over. The Bechdel Test demonstrates just how far we have to go.

To pass the Bechdel Test, a work of fiction must:

  1. Have two women talking to each other
  2. About something other than a man
  3. And also those women should have names

It doesn’t seem like that’s too much to ask for, but apparently it is. There are estimates that around half of all films never make it through all three tiny stages of the test.

There’s a lot of interesting data on the Bechdel Test and general film (between 2010 and 2013, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender estimated that only 31% of named film characters were female), but I was curious how movies within science fiction and fantasy genres stand up, and, more specifically, whether there’s a difference when comparing a list of movies based on books to movies with original scripts.

Before applying the test against some of my favorite movies, I guessed that SFF would do slightly worse than the general field. After all, it’s a male-dominated industry that still struggles with basic representation of women and acceptance of female authors, characters, and aliens. Female protagonists often fall into the check box categories of “women to be saved” and “women to bone”.

However, I hoped to see a significant difference in movies based on books. I think books take the time to get to know characters better and are generally more representative. Authors also make individual decisions. If they don’t have realistic female characters, then that’s all on them, and hopefully a strong female character would be impossible for a script writer to ax. (And applying the Bechdel Test to SFF books? That’s another blog post.)

Where does the Bechdel Test Come from?

First, I wanted to learn more about the test itself. Alison Bechdel is credited with creating the test in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.

Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)

However, she credits her inspiration to Virginia Wolf who wrote in A Room of One’s Own:

“All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple….And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends….They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men.”

Yeah, I really hoped SFF could fulfill this small requirement too.

To run my little test, I used the responses on BechdelTest.com and only included movies  from 2014-2019 that have some fantastical or sci element in them.

I started first with SFF movies not based on books:

The Cloverfield Paradox – Pass

The Meg – Pass

Pacific Rim: Uprising – Pass

Tomb Raider – Pass

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – Fail

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Pass

10 Cloverfield Lane – Pass

Assassin’s Creed – Fail

Ghostbusters (2016) – Pass

Independence Day: Resurgence – Pass

Rogue One – Pass

Ex Machina – Fail

The Last Witch Hunter – Pass

Mad Max – Fury Road – Pass

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Pass

Hercules (2014) – Fail

Interstellar – Pass

Maleficent – Pass

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb – Fail

Then, SFF movies based on books:*

*Note: I considered comic-based movies in this category as well as series if the first movie was based off a book

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – Fail

Avengers: Endgame – Pass

Spider-Man: Far from Home – Fail

A Wrinkle in Time – Pass

Annihilation – Pass

Bird Box – Pass

Black Panther – Pass

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – Fail

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – Pass

Maze Runner: The Death Cure – Pass

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Fail

Blade Runner 2049 – Pass

The Dark Tower – Fail

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Pass

War for the Planet of the Apes – Fail

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 – Pass

Wonder Woman – Pass

The 5th Wave – Fail

Captain America: Civil War – Pass

Deadpool – Fail

Doctor Strange -Fail

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Pass

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Pass

Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 – Pass

Insurgent – Pass

Jurassic World – Pass

The Martian – Pass

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials – Pass

Pan (2015) – Fail

Amazing Spider Man 2 – Fail

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Fail

Divergent – Pass

The Giver – Pass

Guardians of the Galaxy – Pass

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Fail

How to Train Your Dragon 2 – Fail

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 – Pass

I, Frankenstein – Fail

The Maze Runner – Fail

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For – Fail

The Results

Before we talk numbers, let me just say, I’m only pretending to be scientific. There’s a strong bias because as I went down the list, I only included movies…that I had heard of. The list was general, so deciding if they were SFF was entirely based on whether I had previously heard of it. Also, it’s entirely possible I miscategorized some or did basic math wrong.

Regardless, while my research was no where near exhaustive, I felt I got a sample size big enough to draw some conclusions. 26% of original SFF movies failed the Bechdel Test. 42% of book-based SFF movies failed the test.

42% of the movie type I go to the theater to see most DON’T EVEN HAVE WOMEN TALKING TO EACH OTHER.

Just half the world unaccounted for in film.

Though my data is basically the smallest bit of data ever created, it still may signal that original movies in fact do pass the Bechdal Test more than book-based sff movies. I have a few theories on that:

  1. Original movie plot lines are being developed now, in a time when move makers realize that women also want to have fun at the movies, whereas many of the films in the book-based list are based of off books written long ago, like The Hobbit.
  2. The comic-based movies could have skewed the data. Comics—specifically superhero comics—are still thought of as a guy thing. However, when I went back to look specifically at comic-based movies, 41% of them don’t pass, directly in line with the percentage of general SFF book-based movies that failed. Though this theory was immediately debunked, I have to keep it on the list so I have more than one real theory.

No matter how you look at it, we need more movies with women in them doing more than propping up male characters.

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