The Gender Gap and the Bechdel Test

13 May, 2020
You see it in movies, documentaries, on TV... The gender gap is still present in the media and entertainment industry. In this article, we analyze the current situation of the gender gap, as well as the movies and series that meet the criteria of the Bechdel test. 

A little over a year ago, actress Robin Wright spoke against Netflix for paying her less than her co-star Kevin Spacey, both co-protagonists of House of Cards. Since then, and just like she did, dozens of actresses, female producers, and directors have told their own stories about how there’s still a gender gap in the industry.

Forbes published a list of the highest-paid Hollywood actors and actresses. The highest-paid actor, Dwayne Johnson, earned a total of $89.4 million just last year, whereas the highest-paid female actress, Scarlett Johansson, earned $56 million. But between the two of them, there are other six male actors, meaning that the highest-paid actress in the film industry earns only as much as the sixth highest-paid male actor. 

It’s clear then that the gender pay gap still exists.  But it isn’t only about money. In Spain, a study conducted by the Auge Group and the Actors and Actresses Union indicated that only one in three acting roles go to women. Furthermore, that only 34% of leading roles are female.

That same study also revealed that this data stems from the age variable. So, as a woman gets older, she’s less likely to get a leading role. From all the analyzed films, only 24% of older leading roles were given to women. And this number decreased to 20% for 64-year-old characters or older.

The gender gap: figures of a man and a woman on a balance of money.

Women’s role in the big screen

From the very beginning, the film industry has evolved as the years go by. Each decade, films portrayed the beliefs and the social reality of the time, and of course, women’s role in society. Feminist movements and the multiple demands for gender equality in all life settings have changed the way we see women in movies.

A clear example of it it’s the comparison between the first Walt Disney films and the later ones. Ariel, Snow White, and Cinderella all play highly different roles than Elsa or Moana.

These last two characters’ stories and actions have little to do with men. Their world doesn’t revolve around finding their “prince charming”. Instead, they focused on their own empowering journey and personal growth.

The Bechdel test

The Bechdel test was created in 1985 in the cartoon strip titled “The Rule” by Alison Bechdel. It stemmed from the idea, that in order to avoid the gender gap, a movie, TV series, comic, or any other form of entertainment must satisfy the following requirements: 

  • There must be at least two female characters.
  • These two characters must speak to each other at some point.
  • Their conversation must not involve a man.

That last requirement doesn’t refer only to romantic issues. In fact, the conversation mustn’t involve the male gender at all: not husbands, brothers, fathers, or neighbors.

According to the Bechdel Test Movie List website, in 2015, about 61% of the 130 analyzed movies passed the test. But then again, the Bechdel test isn’t always synonymous with equality. In fact, there are films that have all three requirements, but due to their storyline, can’t be deemed pro-gender equality.

Thelma and Louise driving.

Movies that passed/failed the Bechdel test

  • Passed. Mad Max, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, The Lion King (2019), Argo, Spirited Away,  Children of Men, Roma, Mustang, Blue is the Warmest Color, All About My Mother, and Thelma & Louise. 
  • Failed. The Wolf of Wall Street, The Princess Bride, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars (the original trilogy), Avatar, Citizen Kane, The Avengers, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Godfather. 

TV Series that passed/failed the Bechdel test

  • Passed. Friends, Game of Thrones, Orange Is the New Black, Lost, The Good Wife, The Golden Girls, The Handmaid’s Tale, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Shameless, Parks and Recreation, and Veep.
  • Failed. Narcos, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Law & Order, The Sopranos, Gossip Girl, and The Wire. 

The film industry is one in which the gender gap is still present. Also, age is a huge factor when it comes to female actresses getting a role, which isn’t as important for male actors.

That’s why the Bechdel test was created almost 35 years ago; the goal was to establish a couple of parameters to identify gender equality in movies. However, in the past few years, people have been debating whether to update this method or not and whether it’s effective. Some say that these requirements must evolve in order to study present-day films.

  • Kochhar, Kalpana, Sonali Jain-Chandra y Monique Newiak, editoras. 2017. Women, Work, and Economic Growth. Washington, DC: Fondo Monetario Internacional.