As far as equality goes Hollywood has always had women at a disadvantage. If there’s a reason that the flawed but compelling Bechdel Test persists in being raised as an argument for an increased female presence in movies it’s that, if nothing else, it highlights how little we give our actresses to do. The three tenets of the test are:
- That a movie has at least two female characters…
- …who talk to each other…
- …about something other than men.
Each year we see more lists and comparisons showing that the film industry is adapting to a world where the Bechdel Test is a valid criticism and every year we see more films succeed in passing. Films are becoming more female centric. The funny thing is that these two things have little to do with each other.
Women have long been a demographic unto themselves, so much so that an entire genre of movies has been named after them. ‘Chick flicks’ have long been a way for Hollywood to tidily appeal to what has always been a niche in comparison to the 18-30 year old target audience that would show up in droves for the latest summer blockbuster. But frequently we’ve begun to see examples of this male oriented standard falter as the box office proves time and time again that it is no longer predictable enough to guarantee a profit just because an explosion is thrown on screen.
On 6th June, the $178 million military sci-fi flick Edge of Tomorrow opened in the U.S. against the $12 million teenage drama The Fault in Our Stars. Whilst Edge of Tomorrow grossed $20.1 million, earning back only a fraction of it’s budget, the small romance film earned $48.2 million, not only securing the top spot at the box office but earning back it’s entire production budget four times over. And the most telling statistic is that according to Forbes, 82% of the audience were women.
Despite the disparity in costs, the future war movie boasted a well known lead, greater ticket prices (due to IMAX and 3D screenings) and higher critical praise according to aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes (90% for the Sci-Fi and 82% for the Romance). Box office trackers will be unsurprised by this turnout as it falls well in line with recent trends in Hollywood. Movies based on young adult novels have become almost traditionally successful since the launch of the Harry Potter franchise, which although grounded by a male lead paved the way for the Twilight series’ rise to dominance which in turn opened the floodgates for other female-led hits such as The Hunger Games and Divergent.
Of course it isn’t only young adult movies that have fared well for the female perspective recently. Films such as The Heat, Pitch Perfect, Zero Dark Thirty and even Frozen are becoming more prominent; movies with female leads and broad appeals that cannot be neatly categorized as chick flicks and that fall into a wide array of genres independent of any romantic interest that may (or may not!) be present. But how many of these movies pass the Bechdel Test? Certainly not all of them. The 3D special effects showpiece Gravity famously fails every aspect of the Test and yet is an example that places emphasis on the strength of its lead character who, as scripted, could only have ever been a woman. Obviously a test based on dialogue cannot provide a fair assessment of a story punctuated by action.
There are, of course, shades of grey to the whole debate of female representation in film. Legally woman have had equal rights for a long time but if our art is an accurate reflection of our times, the sexes have never been on equal footing. But now we can see and measure change. Perhaps the times are changing or maybe there are more women making and seeing movies. Whatever the case, it’s a natural progression that is paying off and one that neither Hollywood’s moguls not it’s critics would do well to force.