In 1985, Alison Bechdel published a segment of her comic strip entitled “The Rule.” It showed two women discussing going to a movie, and one explaining that she will only see a film if it fulfills the following requirements: that the film contains at least two female characters who have a conversation, which is not about a man.
Over the past 30 years, “The Bechdel Test” has become famous as a measure of a film’s gender representation, and for just how many films fail it. And, there are a lot more of those than you’d probably expect.
We won’t get into exactly what does and doesn’t pass (there’s an in-depth website for this, in case you’re interested — bechdeltest.com), but suffice it to say that this is still a major problem with popular media. However, when our parents were our age, it was even worse. Kasi Jackson, a professor of women’s and gender studies at West Virginia University, said that as a kid, most movies — even ones she enjoyed — had few female characters, with few lines.
“Every time one appeared, I remember clinging to every word,” Jackson said.
In media, a lot of people like having situations and characters to which they can relate, which is one of the hallmarks of a good story; however, that’s hard to have happen when there’s no one in popular media who looks like you. Jackson says that role models are incredibly significant, real and fictional, particularly to those at a young age. If someone who looks like you is portrayed in a certain light, it can affect the way you and others think. This is why media and advertising are so effective (and not always in a good way), and one reason why Jackson and others say that the Bechdel test is so effective. It’s not enough just to be included, it needs to be in the right ways.
As a culture, we’re used to seeing women in a very weak, soft position, generally used as subservient characters or just as eye candy. But we really shouldn’t be.
It isn’t only onscreen that the male dominates — as a workplace, Hollywood is incredibly sexist as well. According to a 2014 article by the Teen Leadership Council for Positive Sexual and Gender Representation, women in Hollywood generally earn anywhere between 75 and 90 percent of what men earn, depending on their age, and they get less job opportunities, too. There are far less female-led movies than male-led movies, and their race, age and physical appearance are judged much more harshly than men’s during casting — a lot of higher earning female actors are all young, skinny and pretty, reinforcing the stereotypical gender roles we usually see.
There are fewer women behind the camera, directing and writing, too, said the council, and if this might explain some of the more misogynistic portrayals of women — men are likely just making more films that favor them.
Fortunately, there are plenty of films, shows, books, and games that challenge gender stereotyping and misogyny, particularly more recently. From “Star Trek” (a favorite of Jackson’s to use in her classes), that has for decades contained strong female characters and even the first ever televised interracial kiss, to “The Hunger Games,” which turned gender roles on its head, to the newer lineup of Disney princesses and superheroes. This is one of the major reasons that these sorts of works have met commercial and critical success. Why “Frozen” and “Moana” broke box office records. Why “Black Panther” was nominated for Best Picture. The media is a major tool and a major weapon, and we have begun to stop using it to create these sorts of stereotypes — but there’s still a long way to go.
Many of these films have gotten major backlash from people who can’t realize that things we used to do and say were wrong, and that it is time to fix it. Despite garnering a positive reception by fans, during its first week of release, “Captain Marvel” was being massively trashed and trolled online, in order to have it made to look bad and dissuade filmmakers from more “inappropriate” use of female characters. In order to take bigger steps toward equality and fairness, this needs to end. We need to do better than our parents and grandparents at this. We need to make sure that everyone has someone like them who they can look up to.