For years, people have been hungry for more and better representation of women in entertainment. Long gone are the days when the vast majority accepted flat, one-dimensional female characters, and even more when they don’t exist outside a male character’s story arc. Nor do audiences want women who either denounce stereotypically “feminine” traits, hobbies, etc., or where they are caricatures of what women “should be,” only caring about shopping, obsessed with their physical appearance, and/or catty toward other women.
It’s hard to measure representation within movies, but one common test is the Bechdel test, created by American cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, in the ’80s. To pass the test, a film must meet three criteria:
- There must be two named women in a scene.
- The women must talk to each other.
- Their conversation must be about something besides a man.
It’s important to note, of course, that the Bechdel test has limitations and doesn’t always tell the full story. Given that entertainment reflects our sexist society, it’s no surprise that many films fail. What may be surprising is that a lot of feminist films don’t pass. Let’s take a look at 10 of these and whether it’s a shortcoming of the movie or understandable.
10 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is an action film based on a video game. It stars Angelina Jolie as the titular archaeologist and adventurer. The Illuminati need to locate a key to find an artifact before the next solar eclipse. Meanwhile, Lara is at her family’s home when she’s greeted by her dead father in her dream. She then finds a strange clock, which is subsequently stolen after a member of the Illuminati discovers its location. Lara finds a letter her dad wrote explaining the importance of the clock, its ability to control time, and how vital it is that she destroys it.
Where are the Women?
To many, the character of Lara Croft was a much-desired missing piece in the action world, starting with the video game and transitioning over to the big screen. She is tough, smart, and fearless. There have always been questions about whether her character design is catered primarily to the male gaze, but perhaps there’s room for both to co-exist.
It’s very apparent, though, that the film utterly fails the Bechdel test, unable to check off even a single requirement. The cast isn’t large, but it is primarily male. For those who want to see a version that does pass the test, the 2018 reboot starring Alicia Vikander is a great option. Stream on Paramount+
9 Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
You know a film is iconic when even people who haven’t seen it have surely seen its most famous imagery or lines plastered on mugs, t-shirts, memes, etc. for years to come. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one such film. Arguably Audrey Hepburn’s most famous role, this Truman Capote book adaptation follows the life of Holly Golightly. The film opens with a New York taxi dropping off Holly in front of a Tiffany’s jewelry store. Decked out in that infamous black dress, pearls, and sporting a chignon, she looks longingly at the window while eating a croissant. She later learns she has a new neighbor and the two slowly fall in love.
More on Their Minds
Some may balk at Breakfast at Tiffany’s being considered a feminist film. Part of feminism, particularly intersectional feminism, requires looking into the impacts other identities and marginalities have on people. A true product of its time, this film does not handle race well, engaging in yellowface with a white actor portraying an Asian man, using harmful stereotypes.
Keeping that in mind, Holly also pushed against a lot of restrictions placed on women at the time, with her wild nature and unwillingness to conform to society’s expectations. This movie does have named women who talk to each other, yet each conversation revolves around men. Stream on Paramount+
8 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a romance with a science fiction edge. Joel and Clementine couldn’t be more different: he is quiet and prefers his own company, while she enjoys spending time around people and taking risks. Yet they managed to fall in love and date for two years. After their break-up, Clementine uses available technology to wipe her memories of their relationship. Hurt by this, Joel chooses to do the same. Reliving the good and bad times during the procedure makes him question his decision. And a call from Clementine asking to meet throws things even more out of wack.
Goes Both Ways
Romances and romantic comedies can definitely be feminist. Even if a heterosexual relationship is at its center, the way women are represented can allow it to hold that label. Clementine is a multifaceted character, for example. She allows room for vulnerability and strength. She may not start off perfect, but she grows and that’s the best part of any great romance arc.
Despite these great qualities, it does not pass the criteria of talking about something other than a man. It’s a romance, so perhaps some more leeway should be granted. Moreover, a reverse Bechdel test also likely wouldn’t pass. Stream on Starz
7 The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The Philadelphia Story is a vintage romantic comedy that’s a must-watch for viewers who adore love triangles and second-chance romances. Tracy Lord comes from a wealthy family and divorced her husband Dexter a couple of years earlier because of her father’s disapproval. She’s now preparing for her second nuptials with a successful man. But the reemergence of her ex-husband and an introduction to a charming reporter covering her wedding presents Tracy with a difficult choice.
The ’40s Standards
This is another film where describing it as “feminist” can spark great debate. It’s helpful to analyze it through a 1940s lens, however, rather than a contemporary one. Much of Tracy’s life is dictated by the men in her life — quite literally the opposite of equality. How the world and society see her is also of great importance, a notion she learns to abandon by the end.
Women not feeling shackled by rigid definitions of femininity is still an idea that requires pushback today, let alone in the forties. And yet, most conversations relate to men, even indirectly. This seems to be a major sticking point for most films that fail it, and this one is no different. Rent on AppleTV
6 A Star Is Born (2018)
A Star Is Born centers on two musicians who fall in love despite their inner demons working to tear them apart. Jack Maine loves music, but his struggles with addiction don’t allow him to thrive. When he sees a woman named Ally perform one night, he’s captivated by her talent. Jack encourages Ally to share her original music with the world, but she lacks confidence. Little by little, he gets her out of her shell and her career starts to thrive. Simultaneously, their romantic relationship is growing and the newfound fame as well as Jack’s addiction threaten to destroy everything.
Why It Fails
Lady Gaga is known for her feminist views and calling out sexist interviewers who don’t think she’ll bite back. Even with her as one of the two leads, the film cannot soar past the Bechdel requirements. Viewers loved watching Ally grow into her own and find her voice both on stage and off. As the romance is vital to the story, Jack’s involvement helps her in her journey, though he’s not solely responsible for it. Unfortunately, Ally does not have too much interaction with other women in the film. When she does talk to an unnamed woman character, it’s about Jack. Rent on AppleTV
5 Jackie Brown (1997)
Jackie Brown is a late-90s crime movie starring Pam Grier. The eponymous character is a flight attendant doing more than passing out thin blankets and cups of water. She is smuggling money and drugs across the Mexico-U.S. border for a man named Odell involved in the selling and transportation of illegal firearms. She’s caught and sent to jail before Odell bails her out. Soon, she’s pulled between pretending to help the police nail Ordell and pulling off a huge smuggling deal of over $500 million.
A Pass from the Creator
This Quentin Tarantino film was not released without its fair share of criticism. Particularly, Tarantino’s directive choice of characters’ liberal use of the N-word raised some eyebrows. Even with the valid concerns in the film, it’d be hard not to walk away from it thinking Jackie Brown isn’t a strong, cunning, and competent character.
Even her lack of interactions with women doesn’t detract from its enjoyment. The creator of the Bechdel test agreed. Alison Bechdel told Cosmopolitan, “It absolutely fails the Bechdel test, but it has one of the strongest female protagonists I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood movie — it’s an amazing feminist text.” Stream on Netflix
4 The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs is a horror film that’s a perfect character study for those interested in psychology and true crime. Clarice Sterling is still a trainee for the FBI, but she’s asked to interview Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist turned cannibalistic serial killer. Law enforcement believes Lecter can provide insight into a serial killer who’s at large and goes by the name Buffalo Bill. However, Lecter uses his psychiatric background to get under Clarice’s skin. While he’s having fun playing games, Clarice feels the pressure of a ticking clock until Buffalo Bill claims his next victim.
Not a Detractor
With two sadistic murderers as vital characters, it’d be understandable if a cop investigating the crime fell into the background. But Clarice was just as captivating, if not more. She did not fall into the average detective archetype. Her backstory wasn’t cliché; it was richly crafted and mirrored her current-day struggles and character arc brilliantly.
As expected, The Silence of the Lambs falls just short by not meeting the third requirement of the Bechdel test. Still, if a viewer is seeking a fleshed-out, fully formed woman at the center of their film, they wouldn’t be disappointed here. Stream on AMC+
3 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a thriller based on a Swedish novel published in 2005. Mikael is a journalist trying to reassemble the pieces of his career thanks to a libel suit. A wealthy man, Henrik, approaches him with information that can help Mikael win his lawsuit. But it comes with a cost. Henrik wants Mikael to investigate the disappearance (and murder?) of his niece that happened forty years ago. With the help of a hacker named Lisbeth, Mikael will try to unravel this mystery that’s haunted a family for decades.
Vigilante or Monster?
Can Lisbeth be considered a feminist? She gets her revenge on men who have exploited her and others throughout the film, a trope that’s celebrated in many classic feminist stories. Yet others believe some of her violent acts should not be lauded as feminist. Despite much of the messaging centering around women taking back power, it barely scratches any of the three requirements. A lot of the women in the film are unnamed and, frankly, aren’t given much characterization. Stream on Paramount+
2 Blonde (2022)
Release Date September 28, 2022
Blonde is a fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe’s life and career. It starts back when she was Norma Jeane Mortensen, with her chaotic upbringing with a mom she couldn’t depend on. She experiences abuse at the hands of her mom and is eventually sent to an orphanage. But eventually, her beauty and innate star power catch the eyes of important men. Yet if she thought the glamorous hills of Hollywood would provide salvation, she’d soon learn it’d be the exact opposite.
Close, but No Cigar
Monroe is one of the most iconic figures of our time. Even younger generations are familiar with her legendary shots and name. She truly was a once-in-a-lifetime figure. So much of her public persona was wrapped up in her sexuality and portraying her as a “dumb blonde,” even though many personal accounts mentioned she was intelligent.
A story about humanizing this misunderstood woman you’d think would pass with flying colors, yet here we are. Since the story focuses on how men took advantage of Monroe, perhaps the failure in this case was intentional rather than an oversight.
1 Mulan (1998)
Release Date September 4, 2020
Mulan is a Disney princess film set in Imperial China. After the Huns invade the country, a decree is sent out nationwide, calling for a man of each household to join the war. Mulan doesn’t want her sickly father to join, so she makes the snap decision to dress up as a man and take his place. If she’s caught, she’ll bring dishonor to her family and risk getting killed. Though she never excelled at being a “traditional” girl, the role of a soldier isn’t a walk in the park either. If she can win over the respect of her captain Li Shang and her fellow soldiers, maybe it’ll be enough to protect their country.
Inherent to Setting
Disney’s princesses are notorious for being damsels in distress or not fully realized people with wants, feelings, and challenges that don’t revolve around finding love. Yes, there’s a romance in Mulan, but her fighting for her family, country, and learning to believe in herself is much more prominent. Due to her disguise, the feelings aren’t even reciprocated by her love interest until the third act.
As much as Mulan is touted as the best feminist Disney princess movie, the female characters tend to only talk about men (or marriage) with one another. However, because of the time period and gender roles, it makes sense. Stream on Disney+