Films for Girls: Bechdel-Inspired Girl Positive Test

Last month after Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar victory, I cited a 2008 statistic from Melissa Silverstein's Women and Hollywood blog, indicating that only 6 of that year's 50 highest grossing films were focused on women. I had a few people ask me what I meant by "focus." Yes, the majority of box office hits probably feature women, but who do these films revolve around? A few weeks later, I came across a great test via GABblog to determine whether there is a focus on women in a film.

The Bechdel test, developed by artist and scholar Allison Bechdel (although she credits Liz Wallace for the test), involves three simple questions.

The Bechdel Test
1. Are there at least two women with names in the film?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. Do they talk about something other than a man?

If you answered yes to the those three questions then you have a film with a focus on women. And you might be surprised to learn that the following films, which are favourites among young girls, failed the test: Shrek, Wall-E, Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2 and 3, the Princess Bride, Up, Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings 1, 2 and 3--all films that I have watched with my 7-year-old daughter. No wonder she thinks it would be cool to be a boy. For a more complete list of blockbusters that flunk the Bechdel test, watch this 2-minute video by Feminist Frequency.

Another blogsite, Angry Black Woman, posted this test for people of colour (POC) in media. This test and subsequent analysis caused a stir, generating 159 comments.

1. There has to be two POCs with names.
2. They have to talk to each other.
3. They have to talk about someone other than the white person.

If you still need some more compelling evidence of just how underrepresented women in film are, I suggest that you read this article by Jennifer Kesler, a former screenwriter in Hollywood. Kessler states that although she moved to California from a state that still held Klu Klux Klan rallies, she found a more insidious form of bigotry there in the film industry.

I have to admit that I was taken aback when I saw the list of films that didn't feature at least two women talking about someone other than a white guy. But I am more concerned about the impact this will have on my daughter. I decided we needed a test for young girls and came up with this:

The Girl-Positive test

1) There has to be two girls with names.
2) Two girls discuss their hopes and dreams.
3) These hopes and dreams do not ultimately lead to the attention of a boy.

I think that it's time to start compiling a list of movies for young girls and adolescents that reflect the rich lives of girls and women.

Here's the start of my list:
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Princess Monoke
Kiki's Delivery

Parents, please help me build my list. Can you think of any other films that pass the Girl Positive test?

Mexican doll artist Norma Andreu created Frida Kahlo- and Remedios Varo-inspired dolls currently on display at Artistri, 5319 Park Avenue, Montreal. My next post will be on this artist and two of her other collections.

Related posts:
In a Hypothetical Society
An "A" For Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign
Glass Ceiling: Smashed or Cracked?
Image de femmes 2010


Julie | April 16, 2010 at 12:36 PM

Great project, worth encouraging and nurturing. Congratulations.
My 8 yo old boy twins love Princess Mononoke and Coraline, and I like seeing them enjoy the strong role models. I know some parents have shied away from seeing Princess Mononoke because some of the women are former prostitutes. But I feel: a) They are former prostitutes, and b) This is a minor part of the plot, which my children have yet to ask about. But I am ready ... Good luck with your project, Julie

Heather | April 16, 2010 at 12:51 PM

It's so good to hear your that your boys like Princess Mononoke and Coraline. That's one of the arguments that production houses use: boys will not watch anything with girl protagonists. It's just not true. My two-year-old just loves Dora and Lou. Thanks for stopping by and if you can think of any other films, please let me know. Heather

Lucie | April 21, 2010 at 11:36 PM

Girl, Interrupted. Story about a young woman's 18-month stay in a mental institution. Most of the characters are female and they all have names. Quirky movie and some very quirky characters. Portrays a difficult period with humour and compassion, showing the characters' vulnerable and indomitable natures. Great acting by Winona Ryder and a young Angelina Jolie.

Heather | April 22, 2010 at 5:03 AM

Indeed it does pass the Bedchel test. Not sure I'd watch that with a 7-year though. You've raised a very interesting point. In the Kessler article cited above, she states that she was taught in film school that the "audience only wanted white, straight, male leads." Yet, I know a lot of men who really enjoyed that film. Thanks for your comment.

Paul | February 9, 2013 at 11:27 AM

Fantastic post and article.

I have one issue with it, though:

Isn't it possible to have a good film/story with a single female protagonist (without a second one in the picture)?

I'm thinking of something like "Spirited Away". Surely there are good stories to be told with just one main character?

Heather | March 10, 2013 at 2:09 PM

Well, it's hard to talk to yourself about your hopes and dreams. I suppose, if she gives a monologue. But the point is to have girls be shown that it is positive, normal and even exciting to talk about their hopes and dreams. Even better, girls on TV do it! A great example of role-modeling.

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