Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
The Bechdel Test is not perfect — even the creator of said test, prolific author and cartoonist Alison Bechdel agrees, and when I spoke to her in 2014 on the occasion of her winning a MacArthur Genius Grant, she was open about the test and its limitations. “I’m not a stickler about the Test — if I were, I wouldn’t see many movies,” she said at the time. She even ticked off a handful of films she had recently enjoyed that didn’t pass her own metrics (“Jackie Brown,” “About Time,” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” for those interested).
There are only three requirements for passing the test, which aims to determine how active and present women are in a film: It must feature at least two women in speaking roles, who have names, and who talk to each other about something – anything – other than a man. It has inspired other tests, too, including the Mako Mori Test, the DuVernay Test, and a slew of others that were recently unveiled by FiveThirtyEight.
No, it’s not perfect, and its application isn’t always essential to determine the value of a film, but tests like the Bechdel ask audiences to more closely consider what they’re watching, how it’s crafted, and what it’s trying to say. More often than not, that’s a message delivered by things that aren’t said, especially between two women. Many of this year’s highest-grossing films have featured women in prominent roles, but just because they appear on-screen doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re as active and present as the Bechdel Test asks them to be (and it’s a very, very small ask).
Here’s how 2017’s top domestic earners did when put, literally, to the test.
1. “Beauty and the Beast”
The year’s top-earner — a live-action rejiggering of the beloved Disney fairy tale, itself a new spin on the classic Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve story — may focus on a tale as old as time (read: a love story between a comely country girl and the literal beast who tries to kill her father and then softens up to her feminine wiles), but it also has a number of scenes that put Belle’s (Emma Watson) agency into sharp relief. Sure, some of the “passing” moments do involve her speaking to a piece of furniture (Madame de Garderobe, voiced by Audra McDonald), but that piece of furniture is also a human woman underneath all that wood. One of their most memorable chats even centers on Belle refuting any mention of being a “princess.” She’s her own woman, even when she’s telling a large chest of drawers so.
Belle also interacts with other members of the cursed household, including Plumette and Mrs. Potts, to talk about the Beast and other concerns, including, “hey, why are we all cursed?” And while we never learn the name of the young village girl Belle teaches to read early on in the film, it’s an essential sequence that highlights a number of Belle’s core values, from literacy to helping others. It’s a prime example of what happens when the Bechdel’s aims are honestly met: character insight, told in a way that folds believably into a story.
2. “Wonder Woman”
The first act of Patty Jenkins’ blockbuster superhero story is an almost entirely female affair, and while Diana (Gal Gadot) and her family of Amazons do spend some time talking about male gods and mankind itself (their creators and the reason for their eventual exile, incidentally), they also lead lives largely devoid of idle chat, the sort that so often falls into patter about relationships with the opposite sex. Instead, they’re busy interacting with each other, teaching other, governing each other, and attempting to negotiate the politics of their unique existence. The introduction of a man is understandably revolutionary — though Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor is certainly not the only man many of the Amazons have ever met, they’ve done some living — but Jenkins continues to keep her focus on the women at the center of the story and how their bonds are tested by the interloper, instead of automatically moving the focus of the film to Diana and Steve’s blossoming interest (they’ll be time for that later).
Once Diana leaves the hidden island of Themyscira, the Bechdel continues to prove out: She forms a quick bond with Steve’s secretary Etta Candy (a divine Lucy Davis), and the pair talk about fashion, function, and just where the hell a warrior lady can stick her most important weapons while still dressing appropriately for a chilling London. Diana’s eventual band of rogue fighters may be decidedly male-dominated, but she’s already proven herself to be the kind of hero who can bond with just about anyone over anything, including other similarly compelling female characters.
3. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”
There’s a scene about halfway through Rian Johnson’s first foray into the “Star Wars” universe that’s both revolutionary and dead simple: a circle of women, soldiers and warriors all, circled around a dazed Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), handily discussing how they’re going to tackle their latest military offensive. While “Star Wars” has always featured strong women — Carrie Fisher’s princess-turned-general Leia as the obvious prototype — Johnson’s film integrates them into all aspects of the story, particularly when it comes to making sure they’re fully present in both the Resistance and the First Order (look around those starships, women are everywhere). The rebels boast female fighters like Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), her sister Paige, pilot Tallie Lintra, and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), and the film hinges on a changing of the guard between Leia and Amilyn, the Resistance’s two top-ranking soldiers.
4. “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2”
James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is a family affair, building its action around an unexpected reunion between Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his outsized father, Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), but the superhero feature also makes room for another fraught familial relationship: the estranged bond between Nebula (Karen Gillan), the purple-skinned, half-cyborg and her green-skinned sister Gamora (Zoe Saldana). The sisters’ thorny relationship was framed with some large-scale action in Gunn’s 2014 Marvel Cinematic Universe entry. The new film casts it in a different light, one that doesn’t hinge on the two of them kicking the crap out of each other in skintight suits (though that happens, too). The pair reunite early in the film, and as the narrative winds on they are required to be more open and honest with each other — mainly about why Nebula hates Gamora so much, and what kind of future bond the pair could ever hope to have, if any.
5. “Spider-Man: Homecoming”
Although Jon Watts’ superhero film features a pair of the comic book’s most beloved female stars, with Marisa Tomei taking over as Aunt May and Zendaya unleashing a brand new M.J., they don’t ever interact, a missed opportunity that will hopefully be rectified in later entries into the web-slinging franchise. The film just barely passes the Bechdel, if only because of a handful of seemingly tossed off interactions, including a brief goodbye between Liz (Laura Harrier) and her mother, and later, Liz and her friend Betty (Angourie Rice) during a truncated farewell in their high school’s hallway. It’s the barest of minimums.
Here’s a conundrum: The blockbuster Stephen King adaptation notoriously follows a group of tweens that includes just a single girl (a breakout Sophia Lillis as Beverly), but does that necessarily keep her from ever interacting with another woman? Incidentally, she does, but depending on your understanding of the scene — an early one that sees a hiding Beverly being bullied by resident mean girl Gretta (Megan Charpentier) — “It” may not pass the Bechdel. We first meet Beverly on the last day of school, sequestered in a bathroom stall, seemingly expecting a daily bullying session care of the vicious Gretta, who is mostly interested in literally trashing her and calling her a slut. The problem, though, is that any rumors about Beverly’s supposed promiscuity are just that, rumors, and Gretta might know that. Their interaction is certainly not a positive one, but depending on whether or not the audience thinks that Gretta believes what she’s saying, the conversation is either about a man (or boys, or men), or about whatever other issues Gretta might have with Beverly, far outside those she is actually voicing.
7. “Thor: Ragnarok”
Taika Waititi’s first big superhero film unspools a pair of wholly new, unexpected, and interesting female characters in the form of Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie and Cate Blanchett’s Hela, though they never speak to each other. They also never speak to any other woman in the film, partially due to story constraints (Hela is mostly doing her own thing, Valkyrie has purposely ostracized herself from her normal life, after a tragedy that involved the destruction of the all-lady band of warriors she was part of), partially due to the relatively narrow group of characters that populate the film. It’s a prime example of where the Bechdel doesn’t tell the full story — these are complex female characters that enhance the film they’re in immeasurably — but it’s also one that makes us wonder: How hard can it be to find even a brief moment for women to talk to each other? Especially in a movie where plenty of men talk to each other?
8. “Despicable Me 3”
The highest-earning animated film of the year includes a delightful — and unexpectedly heartwarming — subplot about the struggle to be a good stepparent, one that culminates in a number of conversations between earnest stepmom Lucy (voiced by Kristen Wiig) and her trio of cute stepdaughters. Bonus: the girls also talk a lot about the procurement of a unicorn, which may or may not be male, but ultimately doesn’t matter, because it’s really a discussion about the power of dreams and imagination. Not so hard, right?
Much like “Thor: Ragnarok,” the James Mangold film hinges on a compelling female character (Dafne Keen as X-23, AKA Laura) who dominates the action of the film, but like “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” gives her the absolute bare minimum of interactions with other women. In scattered scenes, two female employees of the outfit that created Laura speak about an escape plan, and final act sequences unveil more mutants like Laura (including girls), though their conversations are limited and mostly revolve around escaping the clutches of a man (baddie Boyd Holbrook). Although Logan (Hugh Jackman) first discovers Laura because of her self-appointed protector Gabriela Lopez (Elizabeth Rodriguez), the pair never actually speak (one pickle: Laura is mostly mute), and Gabriela is gone long before they can genuinely converse with each other.
Still, Laura is the center of “Logan,” a breakout force bundled inside a satisfying narrative, an origin story about the rise of one of the X-Men’s most unique superheroines. That’s a worthy story for anyone.
10. “The Fate of the Furious”
It’s the “Spider-Man: Homecoming” conundrum all over again. Despite having a number of female characters amongst its high-powered ranks, including Charlize Theron as the central villain, the latest “Furious” movie barely gives its women any space to talk to each other about, well, anything. The sole example of named female characters speaking to each other about something that’s not a man? Brace yourself.
Ramsey: Tell me we’re going to be okay!
Letty: We got this!
It’s no surprise that such short shrift treatment of women pushed star Michelle Rodriguez to issue a call to action on her Instagram, where she wrote earlier this year: “I hope they decide to show some love to the women of the franchise on the next one. Or I just might have to say goodbye to a loved franchise. It’s been a good ride & Im grateful for the opportunity the fans & studio have provided over the years… One Love.”