Representation of Women in Media & The Bechdel Test

Happy Women’s History month! Whether you are a women or if you simply came out of one, we can all take some time and think about the portrayal of women in media.

A few weeks ago, while moving 20 L jugs of chemical waste on and off a cart to give to the chemical waste disposal crew, one of the guys present joked to his female co-worker that she should lift them all off, “since it is International Women’s week and all”. She rolled her eyes and I laughed, responding that I had loaded them onto the cart. He eventually helped her move them onto the truck, but it reminded me of an episode of 30 Rock (Season 3, Episode 20: The Natural Order), where Liz and Tracy are arguing about equality and she ends up trying to replace the water cooler bottle to prove that no one, regardless of sex or race should be given special treatment.

She clearly has issues (see above gif). This type of “equality” is interesting. We just watched the first season of Ultimate Beastmaster on Netflix (a cross of Wipe-Out and American Gladiators with an international spin – it’s awesome) and were disappointed by how few women were able to make it through even the first level. The woman who went the furthest even commented that she was ecstatic about how far she went “for a girl”. There are some divisions and gender-biases that are hard for us to pass, because most of us (not all by any means) tend to be better or worse at some things simply depending on body type. In general, women have less upper-body strength than men, meaning that when the challenge is climbing up a wall, jumping on a rope, and swinging onto dangling metal circles, a lot of the women just couldn’t do it, regardless of how fit they were. That being said, so what!? That doesn’t mean we can’t all be treated equally just because we have different physiques, or excel at different things. Thankfully we’re moving towards this type of “equality” and away from the decidedly unequal past.

As I discussed in a previous article on Escapism Through Film and Television, when a study was done in 1987 very few women used television as an escape because of defined gender roles (women tended to stay home and would have the television on throughout the day, while men would come home from work and watch a specific program). This study was only performed 30 years ago, and although it is something that I find odd as a 20-something now, it is still quite recent. As a result, it is not that surprising that there is a lag in accurate and meaningful portrayals of females in tv and film.

One of the most popular and easiest ways to point out problems in female portrayal in media is the “Bechdel Test”. The Bechdel Test was created by Allison Bechdel within her comic series (Dykes to Watch Out For) in 1985. Basically, the idea (which was co-created by her friend Liz Wallace), is that a movie or show only passes this “test” if there are (1) two female characters (2) who speak to each other (3) about something other than a man. To see if your favourite movies pass the test you can check out this website:

Allison Bechdel’s 1985 comic – Dykes to Watch Out For & the origin of the “Bechdel Test”

While the idea is pretty simple and straightforward, even now a lot of popular movies don’t pass the test. For instance, “Up”, “Toy Story”, and “Finding Nemo” all fail the test, while being pretty great children’s movies with good stories and a lot of heart. In comparison, Fast and the Furious 6 passes the test. The quality of the conversation doesn’t really matter and it is obviously not a perfect system, but it does highlight some issues. There are obviously some films with limited characters (e.g. Gravity – does not pass the Bechdel test since there are only 2 live actors in the entire film: a man and a woman), but many films never even put two females in the same room. For movies like Toy Story and Finding Nemo, why couldn’t there be an additional female toy, or fish to flesh out these worlds? There is an issue of representation, one which is evidently better than it has been, but it is still there. Of course this representation does not stop with female representation, but at 50% of the population it would be nice to make some headway!

In 2015, Agarwal et al. developed a computational approach to automate the question of whether or not a movie passes the Bechdel Test. They were not only able to automate the process of asking these three questions, but by going through screenplays in order to determine if passing or failing the test also determines female importance throughout the film they were able to find a significant correlation between films that both pass the test and those that have a meaningful female role. While these results are not entirely surprising, this ability to automate the process does give us the ability to look at meaningful portrayals of female characters in all forms of media (cartoons, novels, children’s books, etc.).

Garcia et al. (2014) helped to develop this Bechdel test automation (something Agarwal et al. [2015] drew on), and looked at the connection between the Bechdel test and social media, by performing the test on both genders (female-female, or male-male interactions) and analyzed the dialogue of Twitter and MySpace users. While MySpace did not appear to have a gender bias, on Twitter a consistent male bias was found; they found that Twitter had both more male visitors and a lower degree of female independence, with male biased movies being more popular on the site. In comparison, Bechdel-passing movies tended to be less popular, and more females tended to share them on Twitter. That being said, Garcia et al. (2015) notes that there is a larger gender asymmetry found within parents compared with students, and between urban and rural centres respectively. So, while Twitter may be the method of sharing these films and trailers, a bias in gender likely has more to do with social and cultural beliefs of some users rather than the specific type of social media.

While looking through these papers I ended up finding out that a few theatres in Sweden will note if a film passes the Bechdel Test, and have found that this may be helping both equal gender representation, and perhaps diversity in films as a whole:

While it’s not a perfect system and we still have a ways to come, the fact that diversity, equality, and representation (regardless of who you are – we should all be represented in the media) are all reaching the forefront of media conversations is great! So it’s ok that Liz Lemon (see above gif) could not change the water cooler bottle, and hopefully portrayals of people will continue to become a lot more equal in the future.



Bechdel Test image:

30 Rock gif:

30 Rock gif:

Agarwal, A., Zheng, J., Kamath, S., Balasubramanian, S. and Dey, S.A., 2015, May. Key Female Characters in Film Have More to Talk About Besides Men: Automating the Bechdel Test. In HLT-NAACL (pp. 830-840).

Garcia, David, Ingmar Weber, and Venkata Rama Kiran Garimella. “Gender asymmetries in reality and fiction: The bechdel test of social media.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1404.0163 (2014).




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