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Friday, July 30, 2010

Science Fiction Movies Have a Woman Problem

Posted by on Fri, Jul 30, 2010 at 1:09 PM

John Scalzi applies the Bechdel Test to science fiction movies, and finds the results to be appalling.

(The Bechdel Test, if you haven't heard, is a bit of genius from cartoonist Alison Bechdel that should be as ubiquitous on the internet as Godwin's Law. When you're watching a movie, you should ask yourself:

1. Are there at least two women characters in the film?
2. Who talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?

You can find a website listing Bechdel Test results over here. Sadly, you can apply this test to some novels and it fails, too.)


Comments (60) RSS

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gijo by the bay 1
I knew there was a reason I liked the Alien movies, Even the main Alien is a Queen and so a female....With other characters that are female as well excpet the 3rd one and that well get the uncut version if you like the series....I am turning into a nerd!!
Posted by gijo by the bay on July 30, 2010 at 1:22 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 2
Have you seen Jersey Shore? Like the cab scene in Miami?

Posted by Will in Seattle on July 30, 2010 at 1:31 PM · Report this
34x42 3
so, if these 3 criteria are not met i should feel bad for watching the film. tad over sensitive, no?
Posted by 34x42 on July 30, 2010 at 1:33 PM · Report this
@3: No, I don't think that's the point. It's more like a simple litmus test whose only point is to highlight a specific problem with a wider trend. It's pretty much not meant to look at one movie at a time -- it's meant to question a culture.

One movie failing doesn't mean the movie is bad, but fifty or a hundred movies failing, while those movies can obviously still be quality stuff, starts to point to something wrong.
Posted by Gloria on July 30, 2010 at 1:36 PM · Report this
Fifty-Two-Eighty 5
I only judge movies by the amount of shit that gets blown up.
Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty on July 30, 2010 at 1:40 PM · Report this
brandon 6
I don't think the alien movies technically pass except for the 4th one with Wynona ryder. I know ripley kicks ass but i don't think she ever has any extended conversation with another woman in any of the first 3 films.

Video games are another good place to test. Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 seems to pass, unless you play the game under very specific conditions.
Posted by brandon on July 30, 2010 at 1:42 PM · Report this
Badger 7
And that is why I tend to enjoy old-school sexploitation movies like Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, or The Muthers. Although originally created for male audiences, these films feature women who are angry, tough, and independent - and who don't rely entirely on the male characters for a sense of identity.
Posted by Badger on July 30, 2010 at 1:42 PM · Report this
@3 - This is just an objective measure of movies, not a judgment. I don't think anyone would argue that All About Steve passing the Bechdel Test makes it a good movie. Nor did I change my mind about District 9 because it didn't pass. And Sex and the City 2 may pass with flying colors, but I still think of it as a film all about women as they relate to men and have no desire to see it - I'd rather go see the A-Team.

If you think this test is trying to make you feel bad for watching (and possibly enjoying) a movie that doesn't meet all the criteria, perhaps you're the one who's being a tad oversensitive.
Posted by genevieve on July 30, 2010 at 1:43 PM · Report this
CheekyMonkey68 9
#6 Yes, in the first Alien movie there was Veronica Cartwright as Lambert. She & Sigourney Weaver had some conversations- though not necessarily nice ones- but they did not pertain to a man per se.
Posted by CheekyMonkey68 on July 30, 2010 at 1:46 PM · Report this
Canadian Nurse 10
@3. Nowhere in the comic did Bechdel suggest anyone should feel bad for seeing movies that don't fit this criteria. In fact the punchline was that the woman who followed this rule hadn't seen a movie in six years. "Dykes to Watch Out For" was always more about noticing cultural trends than it was about making anybody feel guilty.

If you choose to feel guilty, no one can stop you, I guess, but calling Bechdel oversensitive says more about you than it does about her.
Posted by Canadian Nurse on July 30, 2010 at 1:48 PM · Report this
vooodooo84 11
@6 In Aliens, Newt is female, and Ripley speaks with her repeatedly.
Posted by vooodooo84 on July 30, 2010 at 2:00 PM · Report this
brandon 12
Oh your right #9,

I'll forever remember her vomiting cherry pits and going batshit crazy in The Witches of Eastwick.
Posted by brandon on July 30, 2010 at 2:01 PM · Report this
Dougsf 13
What #1 said, and also Aliens (and Alien) are also just absolutely 99% perfect movies in their genre.
Posted by Dougsf on July 30, 2010 at 2:01 PM · Report this
Anna Anna Anna 14
Aliens scared the crap out of me.
Posted by Anna Anna Anna on July 30, 2010 at 2:02 PM · Report this
Anna Anna Anna 15
Aliens scared the crap out of me.
Posted by Anna Anna Anna on July 30, 2010 at 2:02 PM · Report this
Anna Anna Anna 16
The double crap out of me.
Posted by Anna Anna Anna on July 30, 2010 at 2:03 PM · Report this
You know what's awesome? I could link to female blogs and writers who have been having this exact conversation for years, but it only starts to get linked around in general when it's a man that writes it up.

The meta on this is more fun than the actual post.
Posted by Cow on July 30, 2010 at 2:06 PM · Report this
Dougsf 18
#6 - For what it's worth, in the director's cut of Aliens, there's a scene with another female where Ripley is looking for her daughter, who she's outlived. Other than that, the bonus footage doesn't help the movie any.
Posted by Dougsf on July 30, 2010 at 2:09 PM · Report this
CheekyMonkey68 19
#11 Totally. I almost was going to say that as well but being as Newt is a child i didn't know if that counted or not. There was also the tough Marine lady- but i'm not sure if her & Ripley had any actual verbal exchanges.

Oh! As my partner just pointed out to me- there are the "Cube" movies. Great stuff, all had more than one female and nearly all conversation was about trying to get the hell out of their situation. I highly recommend them- but mainly part 1, for sure.
Posted by CheekyMonkey68 on July 30, 2010 at 2:10 PM · Report this
christopher575 20
I'd be interested to see the test results for male versus female writers, and then again for the genders reversed in the test for both. I have a feeling people mostly just write their own gender and aren't very good at writing for the other.
Posted by christopher575 on July 30, 2010 at 2:13 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 21
Wouldn't Boneshaker not even pass this test because the kick-ass female lead is searching for her son? The Bechdel test has always annoyed me.
Posted by keshmeshi on July 30, 2010 at 2:14 PM · Report this
rob! 22
I guess "Get away from her, you BITCH!" is talking to each other about something other than a man.
Posted by rob! on July 30, 2010 at 2:16 PM · Report this
CheekyMonkey68 23
OMG! #7 You made a Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill! reference! I love that flick! lol Kudos to fellow FPKK fan! Here's hoping Tarantino does not screw it up with the remake he is going to do.
After seeing "Death Proof" i think he might do ok by it- especially as he is a self-professed mega fan of the original.
Posted by CheekyMonkey68 on July 30, 2010 at 2:17 PM · Report this
Alison Bechdel wrote a really great comic strip, for years, but she seems to be on extended sabbatical. I miss the strip.

People do write what they know. In all of Jane Austen's novels, I think there's no scene in which two men talk to each other without a woman present to overhear them. Austen had idea how or what men talked about, when they weren't inhibited by the presence of the ladies.

Yes, it's the trend that's interesting, not what it says about any one movie. Maybe what we can read from the trend is, a great many movie makers are, in their own way, as cloistered as Austen was.
Posted by Eric from Boulder on July 30, 2010 at 2:24 PM · Report this
@21 the more important question is why anyone should care what happens in Boneshaker. It's an awful book.
Posted by lotosesser on July 30, 2010 at 2:25 PM · Report this
Dougsf 26
It's good to see Starship Troopers on there too. So basically, futuristic, co-ed, space Marines are the key to passing the Bechdel test, and to my heart.
Posted by Dougsf on July 30, 2010 at 2:33 PM · Report this
This is great. I think it should be combined with the Goldeen tests (named for my aunt), who says everyone should look at a movie and see if there are any female characters who are NOT:

A Love Interest
A Mother
A Girlfriend/Wife/Daughter

In other words, a character who doesn't, by definition of their role, have to be female.

The list is pretty slim. Happily, one of my favorite fantasy-scifi movies, Princess Mononoke, passes both tests with flying colors.
Posted by Rondie on July 30, 2010 at 2:38 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 28
I hear that Angelina Jolie doesn't do that in SALT.

Mind you, the part was written for a man, just as the part of Ripley in Alien was written for a man.
Posted by Will in Seattle on July 30, 2010 at 2:38 PM · Report this
Fistique 29
@20, if you check out what other people have written about the Bechdel measure (e.g. at the site Paul linked), you'll find that two things really increase the chance of a pass:

1) having a female protagonist, and
2) being written by a woman.

It's not that men are bad at writing women, just that men see "woman" as a very specific type of role, usually romantic/sexual, and default to male for all characters that need not be women for plot reasons. And most working writers are male.
Posted by Fistique on July 30, 2010 at 2:42 PM · Report this
blip 30
ironic that 'starship troopers' passes the test considering heinlein's serious woman issues.
Posted by blip on July 30, 2010 at 2:43 PM · Report this
CheekyMonkey68 31
#28 And also "Jackie Brown" was based on the book Rum Punch and the lead caracter was male, but Tarantino (QT ref again sorry) had specifically wanted Pam Grier for it so he wrote it for her. I love me some Pam Grier. She rocks me monkey socks lol.

Oh- also, going back to original topic, one just came to me "Mars Attacks!".
Posted by CheekyMonkey68 on July 30, 2010 at 2:57 PM · Report this
And on the other end of the spectrum, we have Soylent Green.
Posted by j.lee on July 30, 2010 at 2:58 PM · Report this
CheekyMonkey68 33
#31 typo monkey- my bad.
Posted by CheekyMonkey68 on July 30, 2010 at 2:59 PM · Report this
Ratatoskr 34
A real winner from the comments section of that website:

"Soon after learning about the Bechdel Test I went to a happy hour and sat between two women. There were around three other guys there. At first I was happy about sitting between two attractive women, but once they started talking to each other I realized how boring female dialog can be to men. I had to change seats after about five minutes because I couldn't stand it anymore. That's when I realized why so many films fail the Bechdel Test. It takes writing talent to construct believable dialog between female characters that doesn't put men to sleep."

My purdy lady eyes have rolled into the back of my silly little head.
Posted by Ratatoskr on July 30, 2010 at 3:06 PM · Report this
veo_ 35
How about Pitch Black? Did claudia black and the pilot woman (or the girl pretending to be a boy) talk about anything other then Riddick? I think so, but am not sure.
Posted by veo_ on July 30, 2010 at 3:11 PM · Report this
wisepunk 36

I thought Dick wrote Starship Troopers. I learn something new every day on slog. Something useless, but something.
Posted by wisepunk on July 30, 2010 at 3:15 PM · Report this
Ripley is the perfect female heroine. She is not defined by her looks or her relationship to men and is strong w/o being cold and unemotional or sacrificing her femaleness.
Posted by kersy on July 30, 2010 at 3:15 PM · Report this
sven forkbeard 38
Why is Sci-Fi singled out? I'll bet at least 70% of movies that aren't 'chick flicks' from the last fifty years would qualify. Also, Scalzi's a douche, 2012 is a disaster movie in the same vein as Deep Impact, The Poseidon Adventure, Twister and Dante's Peak, not sci-fi. AND he left out Serenity from the '05 group which features several strong role-model-worthy named female characters.
Posted by sven forkbeard on July 30, 2010 at 3:17 PM · Report this
CheekyMonkey68 39
#35 Yes- you are correct. In "Pitch Black", Claudia Black and Radha Mitchell do have more than a few exchanges if i am remembring it right. Been a while since i caught all of it though. But i'm pretty sure they did.
Posted by CheekyMonkey68 on July 30, 2010 at 3:53 PM · Report this
CheekyMonkey68 40
#37 i gotta agree with ya there. Actually Ripley is one of my all time favorite movie characters ever- on top of all the good points you made.

Sorry- movies are my "thing". I managed a video store for years and can chat movies all day. Yes- i am an official movie and movie trivia geek and i own it! LOL. i'll try to chill now. Thank you. Cheers & Happy Friday, folks!
Posted by CheekyMonkey68 on July 30, 2010 at 3:58 PM · Report this
@25: word.

The is a fair test for some films, ridiculous for others.

Moon fails.
I think The Road does too.
Posted by dirge on July 30, 2010 at 4:17 PM · Report this
Cory 42
Helps explain explain why chicks don't like science fiction movies or nerds.
Posted by Cory on July 30, 2010 at 6:05 PM · Report this
Cynic Romantic 43
38 FTW
Posted by Cynic Romantic on July 30, 2010 at 6:31 PM · Report this
#17 - Word.

#38 - Because Scalzi writes and blogs about SF. I bet he chose those examples because he felt his readership would more likely be familiar with them than in other non-genre movies.
Posted by Colneg on July 30, 2010 at 7:21 PM · Report this
balderdash 45
John Scalzi is so fucking awesome. Definitely one of the leading lights of modern sci-fi and probably the funniest.

@41, The Road - the movie - fails every test for everything. It was goddamned terrible. That was not a book that was ever meant to be cinematized. It is entirely fair to apply this test to it, because fuck that movie, that's why.
Posted by balderdash on July 30, 2010 at 10:47 PM · Report this
sirkowski 46
If a guy had told me that I would have thought it was extremely sexist, but I've been told by women that all women talk about amongst themselves is cooking and reality TV and that an all-female work environment was torture for progressive women. Make of that what you will.
Posted by sirkowski on July 31, 2010 at 12:04 PM · Report this
Irena 47

That has more to do with work environment than gender. Listen to the conversations of a bunch of guys around the water cooler in any random office and it's not any more interesting. Those are just boring people; it's not a problem inherent to women.
Posted by Irena on July 31, 2010 at 2:07 PM · Report this
@27 Uhhh...last time I checked, most male characters in movies are a love interest, a father, of a boyfriend/husband/son. It kinda seems to me that your test just proves that female characters are female and have relationships with the other characters. And relationships are what make movies interesting, right?
Posted by TenrSinger on July 31, 2010 at 3:59 PM · Report this
Fistique 49
You guys know you don't have to speculate about the number of movies of any genre that pass this test, right? The information's been compiled in a wiki and linked in Paul's post.
Posted by Fistique on July 31, 2010 at 5:14 PM · Report this
@47 Exactly. I've worked in all female environments that were stimulating and ones that were brain dead. The point is that women are human beings, and human beings have a range of interests and experiences. Also: people tone things down in the workplace SIGNIFICANTLY. Cooking and reality tv are easy, unoffensive, universally accessible conversations. Personally, I absolutely refuse to talk politics, philosophy, or religion in the office. It's inappropriate.
Posted by kersy on July 31, 2010 at 7:16 PM · Report this
King Rat 51
Most novels fail the Bechdel test.
Posted by King Rat on July 31, 2010 at 8:20 PM · Report this
@48, I think that point is that 9 times out of 10, men are playing the protagonists or the core members of the cast. They have a wide range of opportunities. Women tend to exist solely in relation to the men. It's not that these men aren't brothers/husbands/fathers, it's that they're allowed to be more than just that.
Posted by mitchmitchmitch on August 1, 2010 at 11:08 AM · Report this
Mainstream science-fiction movies are written for mainstream audiences, not science fiction audiences. That's why they're such sausage fests -- they're basically movies written for horny teenage boys. Good science fiction movies -- the kind that become classics -- tend to score better on this test, even if they're written by men.

1) The Descent
2) Aliens (since all the readers here seem to be forgetting Vasquez)
3) Serenity

There are a bunch of more obscure ones, but also, generally speaking, because of how the budgeting tends to be structured, the dynamic is more common in sci-fi television -- Joss Whedon shows, Terminator: TSCC, Bionic Woman, etc. The problem with the male-ness of science fiction movies has a lot more to do with how they're funded, who funds them, and where they fit into the big-budget studio system than it has to do with what sci-fi nerds enjoy or consume.
Posted by Judah on August 1, 2010 at 1:52 PM · Report this
Another film that passes the test is "Sunshine", an overlooked sci-fi film from Danny Boyle that falls off the rails a bit at the end but with so few good science fiction films being made these days, a welcome addition to the genre of late.
Posted by Ian Forbes on August 2, 2010 at 12:46 AM · Report this
Cory 55
@53 Actually, it's not a mainstream thing. Howard Mittelmark, an editor, has read a lot of science-fiction novels and mentions that it's a real weak point for the genre that women are basically ignored... Unless they're the love interest.
Posted by Cory on August 2, 2010 at 2:48 PM · Report this
RE: Aliens. Vasquez (the origin of my Latina dyke fetish) doesn't talk with Ripley alone ever, but I think she's only ever alone with one character for about 20 seconds. But they do both participate in this very important exchange:

Vasquez: [after barely surviving the Alien surprise attack] Okay. We have several canisters of CM-20. I say we go back in there and nerve gas the whole fuckin' nest.
Hicks: It's worth the try, but we don't know if that's gonna effect them.
Hudson: Let's just bug out and call it even, why are we talking about this for?
Ripley: I say we take off, and nuke the site from orbit. It's the onyl way to be sure.
Hudson: Fuckin' a.
Burke: Whoa, whoa wait a a minute. This place has a substantial dollar value attached to it.
Ripley: They can "bill" me.
Burke: Look. I know this is an emotional moment for all of us, okay I know that. But let's not make snap judgments, this is an important species we're dealing with, and I don't think that you or I has the right to arbitrarily exterminate them.
Ripley: Wrong.
Vasquez: Yeah, watch us.
Hudson: Hey, you may not been keeping up on current events, but we just got our asses kicked, pal.
Burke: I'm not blind to what is going on, but I can not authroize that kind of action, I'm sorry.
Ripley: Well, "I" think that Corporal Hicks, has authority here.
Burke: Corporal Hicks.
Ripley: This situation is under military jurisdiction, and Hicks is next in the chain of command, am I right Corporal?
Hicks: Yeah. You're right.
Burke: C'mon Ripley. This is a multi-million dollar installation here, and he can't make those kind of decisions, he's just a grunt.
[to Hicks]
Burke: Uh, no offense.
Hicks: None taken.
Posted by dwight moody on August 2, 2010 at 2:59 PM · Report this
@55- Maybe it's just the what I read, but it seems to me like there are an awful lot of current SF authors who use female protagonists.
Posted by dwight moody on August 2, 2010 at 3:12 PM · Report this
AustinCynic 58
If military SF is your cup of tea, David Weber's sprawling series of novels starring Honor Harrington passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Now granted, a series of 11 full-length books (and counting), not to mention short stories and collateral series, gives you room for a LOT deep character development but I think Weber writes strong female characters better than just about any male SF writer, and better than most writers, period, IMO.

I'd love to see Harrington on-screen. I think if one of the cable nets was willing to invest the money and got some good writers to do it, they'd have a real winner.

And since Doctor Who's relaunch in 2005, there has been a vast improvement in the female companions' characterizations on the show compared to the classic series. I especially noticed it whenever Sarah Jane Smith appeared on the new series.
Posted by AustinCynic on August 2, 2010 at 4:03 PM · Report this
AustinCynic 59
@34 Pretty much any conversation between any two people in any subject in any setting is going to be a snoozefest. I used to decry "unrealistic" Hollywood dialog till I wrote a few screenplays. Any "realistic" conversation--if by realistic you mean naturalistic--will likely lay on the page like my late grandmother's meatloaf. Heavy and indigestible. Gender's got nothing to do with it. Put yourself between two stereotypically handsome jocks yakking about sports standings and statistics and most people would be bored out of their skulls as well.

Robert Altman is the one filmmaker I can think of who could pull off anything close to what feels like a natural conversation on screen.
Posted by AustinCynic on August 2, 2010 at 4:11 PM · Report this
@58 Thanks for the recommendation!
Posted by kersy on August 3, 2010 at 10:59 AM · Report this

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