Inside film school

// 24 July 2008

Why do so few films pass the Bechdel test? BetaCandy at The Hathor Legacy argues that it’s because film school teachs scriptwriters not to.

I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) – as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see.

I was stunned. I’d just moved from a state that still held Ku Klux Klan rallies only to find an even more insidious form of bigotry in California – running an industry that shaped our entire culture. But they kept telling me lots of filmmakers wanted to see the same changes I did, and if I did what it took to get into the industry and accrue some power, then I could start pushing the envelope and maybe, just maybe, change would finally happen. So I gave their advice a shot.

Only to learn there was still something wrong with my writing, something unanticipated by my professors. My scripts had multiple women with names. Talking to each other. About something other than men. That, they explained nervously, was not okay. I asked why. Well, it would be more accurate to say I politely demanded a thorough, logical explanation that made sense for a change (I’d found the “audience won’t watch women!” argument pretty questionable, with its ever-shifting reasons and parameters).

At first I got several tentative murmurings about how it distracted from the flow or point of the story. I went through this with more than one professor, more than one industry professional. Finally, I got one blessedly telling explanation: “The audience doesn’t want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about.”

“Not even if it advances the story?” I asked. That’s rule number one in screenwriting, though you’d never know it from watching most movies: every moment in a script should reveal another chunk of the story and keep it moving.

He just looked embarrassed and said, “I mean, that’s not how I see it, that’s how they see it.”

Right. A bunch of self-back-slapping professed liberals wouldn’t want you to think they routinely dismiss women in between writing checks to Greenpeace. Gosh, no – it was they. The audience. Those unsophisticated jackasses we effectively worked for when we made films. They were making us do this awful thing. They, the man behind the screen. They, the six-foot-tall invisible rabbit. We knew they existed because there were spreadsheets with numbers, and no matter how the numbers computed, they never added up to, “Oh, hey, look – men and boys are totally watching Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley like it’s no big deal they’re chicks instead of guys.” They always somehow added up to “Oh, hey, look – those effects/that Arnold’s so awesome, men and boys saw this movie despite some chick in a lead role.”

Comments From You

Soirore // Posted 24 July 2008 at 2:02 pm

This is so wrong in so many ways. The fact is that audiences DO NOT only want to see white men. The assumption that they do is merely film industry standard. People who have actually researched film spectatorship have found that viewers like much more of a variety in character and genre than we are offered.

The reason that Bechdel compliant films (with two women talking about something other than men) don’t always do so well at the cinema is that they are relegated to second class films in marketing and distribution. Plus, writers as the above shows, are discouraged from being interesting/ different. It would be really scary for Hollywood to try and sell a film where four female friends chatted a lot, sometimes not about men. Oh wait, they just made that film and it made gazzillions of dollars.

Don’t forget that until after WW2 women made up the majority of film viewers hence many films with women doing interesting jobs and having friendships with other women. And many women involved in the industry. It’s only later that things got really cruddy with the representation of women in film. (I am not suggesting of course that pre 1950s films are free from sexism but that they could be progressive in relation to contemporary gender cultures compared to today’s films).

And yeah Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. Are they invisible? But they appear in masculine genres so it won’t confuse the men too much (because they’re the only ones watching obviously).

We should also remember that the Bechdel test isn’t perfect. It can only really be used for mainstream film (I write more about this in my blog).

We should all go see Hana Maakhmalbaf’s new release instead. Or can we if we live outside London? Maybe the rubbish films make money because they are the only ones you can see. Perhaps some women are just desperate to go to the cinema and end up watching white men talking while privately yearning for Celine and Julie go Boating.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 24 July 2008 at 2:43 pm

its hard t believe they dont understand the real connection between what they make and what the audience want. i didnt think it really needed explaining.

besides, surely even with this selfish attitude where people want to see themselves as the shiny heroes there are a lot of ethnic minorities and women watching films. put together id imagine they outnumber white men. i for one do not want these films. if anyone had ever made a film where the women WERE saying something interesting i wouldnt have grown up so ambivalent to other women, and therefore would not think twice about a movie that has a lot of women in prominent or normal roles (as opposed to token motherly and sexy and girly or nagging wife) and then, with enough of them i think i would be quite satisfied with the watching women that were these things too rather than annoyed that i dont identify with any of them.

if i go a little off context to cartoons, not aimed specifically at girls (because there are plenty of films aimed at women that arent about strong white men even though they are usually looking for one) to say… the weekenders. you have a smart girl from the homecountry, a girl that loves sport and has nothing feminine about her that refuses the skinny girly girl some encourage to be so she can be herself (one of the few girls in tv i have ever liked) and a male black guy that loves shoes and fashion.. and the occasional cross-dress apparently. there are no hints of love between them, and the characters are very varied. and yet the main character that talks to you is the white male. he is not a macho male. he is rubbish at sports and very panicky and emotional, but still his character is the lead in even such a diverse cartoon. indeed he is the only one suitable for this as the 1st girl talks too much and smart things, the 2nd girl is pretty unintelligent and not much of a talker, and the black boy really does only talk shoes and cool. they do speak to the camera occasionally, but this is not the norm.

basically, even if you have an equal amount of males and females, male is the default lead for male and mixed audiences and female is the lead for female-only shows. you will not find mixed shows with male, or female lead if the latter existed, a group of friends where the girls outnumber the boys. i suppose this is because the girls hanging around boys are seen as tomboys or just different, whereas the token male friends in female shows (lizzy mcguire, braceface etc) are geeks or effeminate, if not for sexual interest. exceptions could include arthur, where there isnt really a set group of friends all hanging together at the same time (his mother is the main earner woo!) and thing like hey arnold where there are lots of background girls who dont have personalities and just make up numbers whereas the male background characters are very distinct.

recess intro:

braceface intro:

hey arnold intro:


i dont think i even need to eleborate on the amount of shows with a token girl thats the annoying logical one that gets caught alot, like sakura on naruto, or those where the whole purpose is to rescue the girl. if this is what i watched as a kid then it is no wonder my peers are accustomed to this in the cinema. and cartoons are changed to fit. ( Of course the powerpuff girls could not have been called whoopass stew on the children’s network, however i think you will agree that this pilot by craig mccracken is easily accessible to boys (created by male, narrated by male, sugar spice and everything nice is a little meh but im being picky) however the small changes, such as the names being flowers, and the general hearts and rainbows easily turned it into a girls show. im sure some guys watched it for the humor and mild violence but they wouldnt admit it. i know its hardly a feminist film to begin with, but small changes make a difference.

i recently developed a liking for the animaniacs, though of course i am drawn again to a male lead and to like the other male more than “the incredibly cute one” even though she does kick butt. but whilst i like the minerva mink cartoons ( i must say its not what i would want my hypothetical kids1st experience of a female lead to be. And as for hello nurse, its very nice that they put more focus on her want to be recognised for her mind ( but i do not think idealising women or encouraging catcalling (even if dot does it too and it IS based on an old skit much like the rest of it) is clever. luckily they are saved by slappy the squirrel and maybe rita, slappy being a lead role that is an OAP ex-actress and a sarcastic one at that (

however i am very torn now as the warner bros have made that stand against female led films. i feel i should be boycotting my favourite cartoon for this. what do you think? oh btw, im going into animation so… yeah. lol

Laurel Dearing // Posted 24 July 2008 at 2:55 pm

i am hoping to blabber on to the people in my class wanting to go into commercial animation and computer game design. not that they will get much say in a company but you never know.

Sian // Posted 24 July 2008 at 6:03 pm

I didn’t know about the Bechdel Test-useful!

Just applied to it my own film collection, comprised of mainly international/arthouse/independent films. Luckily my favourite director, Bergman, passes it in most of his films-but so many other directors that I really like don’t. The most recent film I saw that passes it was probably last year’s Canne winner 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (aka the Romanian abortion drama as it came to be known by the press!), and Innocence which has only female characters, and (shock-horror) a female director, the french Lucile Hadzihalilovic. I think that actually the older films (pre-1960’s?) do better! Which is a bit depressing.

I’ve never had any interest in Sex and the City, but I do hope that that shows Hollywood that these films can make money. I do think they’re being a bit short-sighted in thinking that they wouldn’t, especially for women (50% of the population!!). Although my local semi-independent cinema shows a lot of Bollywood which are apparently really popular, which is good.

Now I come to think of it the later Star Trek series (well, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine) both pass this comfortably-phew!

Soirore // Posted 25 July 2008 at 10:49 am


Animation is really interesting because it offers the opportunity to have entirely genderless characters or characters that are open to interpretation. For example I love how Wall:E has been interpreted as a lesbian love story by determined viewers.

Regarding Warner Bros I hate that crap about female leads as well. They came out with that after The Brave One didn’t do so well ignoring the fact that Jodie Foster was basically responsible for the success of Flightplan (her most recent starring role) and her presence didn’t harm the success of Panic Room much either. But of course The Brave One did badly because she is a woman and nothing to do with script, marketing, direction and so forth. There’s a really good book about how men and women actors are valued differently called The Actress by Karen Hollinger. Nice chapter on Foster actually.


I’m not crazy about Sex and the City either. But if the studios want to look simplistically at how much money films make then they might have to start acknowledging that female centred films do that.

Don’t you think that Bollywood presents (sometimes) problematic female characters? It is often serene, feminine, traditional, “real” Indian woman who are the heroines and although there are spunky (for want of a better word) female characters they are usually presented as problems for the men in their lives.

We do need to look a little further beyond women talking to each other. The cultural and generic (and chronological) context is very important to whether a film is really female friendly.

Sabre // Posted 25 July 2008 at 11:08 am

If you haven’t seen Hancock and are planning to, don’t read this!

I went to see Hancock a few weeks ago (which I regret as it left me quite angry, and no it does not pass the Bechdel test at all). I went with a male and female friend and we ended up having a conversation about male and female superheroes. I whinged that just once (with the recent burst of superhero films) I would like to see a female superhero who kicked ass and saved the world. In Hancock it turns out that Charlize Theron’s character also has superpowers – cue hopefulness! But she spent all her time trying to hide it from her sappy hubby and yet berating Hancock for not using his powers for good. I guess nobody wants a woman to save the day. Anyway after the film I ranted to my mates and my female friend flatly stated ‘I wouldn’t want to go see a film with a woman superhero’.

Jaw dropping.

(the male friend listened to the debate and decided to stay back when it got to that point, my look of horror must have freaked him. He’s a film studies student so maybe I should influence him more!)

Laurel Dearing // Posted 25 July 2008 at 11:41 am

i have thought of a cartoon that surprisingly seems to have more emphasis on the adult female than most of today’s cartoons, and im not sure if thats a good thing!

the flintstones! yes betty and wilma are housewives that look after the kids and engage in a battle of the sexes. yes they are nanning and nosey. BUT it leads them to, you know, actually DO something. *gasp* they sneak into the boys meetings off their own backs, they get themselves into trouble and their husbands out of trouble, they are the smart ones in the relationship and im pretty sure betty and wilma have quite a few scenes chatting about things that yes are somewhat to do with the men, but for quite some time. the stupid male role is also quite problematic, but i think thats fred in particular really. barney is smarter thn he lets on, and fred’s boss and other people are less like him.

just occurred o me last night.

as for the genderless things this is true. i cant think of a lot that dont still take the shape of a particular gender though. even say flubber, when it dances, half of them grow skirts like girls which shows this is not the default. also voice acting gives it away.

Soirore // Posted 25 July 2008 at 1:55 pm

With genderless cartoons: yes I think I was thinking more of potential than reality. I love your deconstruction of the Flintstones, I always thought there was a touch of Doris Day in Wilma. I had a long discussion with a friend once about sex and gender in Wacky Races. We determined that Peter Perfect represents the fallibility of masculinity and male sexuality as he basically drives a huge phallus that breaks-down every episode.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 25 July 2008 at 2:16 pm

haha well you had better not forget about Penelope pitstop. doesnt need de-constructing either! i believe she was the only female? she had her own series which seemed to involve her being kidnapped alot. i cant say i remember why.

i would talk about more modern cartoons but they seem to nearly all be aimed at boys or girls specifically. as usual the boys toons are accessible to girls that want to watch easy enough, but the girls ones are so stereotypically feminine the boys wouldnt watch to find out.

i was pretty horrified when my neighbour commented that in sonic the girl and the boy didnt get married at the end. ok, maybe not horrified, but stumped! i mean you still have the pink girl, the useless girl, and the badgirl with boobs. how much gender stereotype does one child need in a single cartoon?

Aimee // Posted 25 July 2008 at 5:14 pm

“I do think they’re being a bit short-sighted in thinking that they wouldn’t, especially for women (50% of the population!!).”

52% of the population!

Anne Onne // Posted 26 July 2008 at 7:56 pm

This is so true. Every time I watch something, read something, or partake of any form of fiction, I’m all too aware of the lack of focus on women. It’s something that impinges slightly on my enjoyment of nearly everything, because everything is written about men. Your average film will focus on Mr white heterosexual protagonist, his relationship with his best friend (if we’re lucky, best friend may be a POC, or very rarely gay, but nearly never a woman, and rarely focused on in themself), a rivalry with some other badass man and his valued relationship with a wise male mentor (always male, you can’t have a female mentor!). Female characters will be love interests. Either Mr Protagonist can’t decide which woman to choose, or he will have a rivalry over a woman with another man. Because of course, female characters should only be in a story if there’s men fighting over them.

So far in discussions with people I know, I’ve focused on the subtle bias we have, where we all inbibe the focus on white men, and reflect it in many ways, including writing and aiming everything at them. Part of this is that many of the people in a position of power in these fields are white heterosexual men, who in turn select stories of interest to them, and ignore things they find boring, i.e. things about POC, women and LOBTQ people. These are actually not boring at all, but to white heterosexual men used to having all the attention on people like them, it seems the most natural thing in the world that people only want to read/watch things about them.

I always though that it is more than just subtle bias, especially since ‘sex sells’ (i.e. naked women sell) is seen as an all-encompassing truth. I just never thought it would, in this day and age, be so bluntly stated that people only want stories about white heterosexual men. It’s clearly not true. Half the people in the world are women, and whilst we don’t mind stories about men, we clearly would not mind more women in the limelight, as well as other minorities. In this way, it IS a lie. There are plenty of us who like varied stories, but we’re not being listened to, because of course, everything is primarily advertised to white heterosexual men, and they are seen as the main demographic worth pursuing, even though all us women, LOBTQ people and POC outnumber them.

The problem is, though, partly, that the audience also is a bit brainwashed to believe this. We are taught that films should focus on men, because everything in the media focuses on them, and this contributes to all of us, women included, in judging minority characters more harshly.

It is also in part because minority characters are deliberately sidelined, left as a less interesting sideshow to the white male protagonists. In that way, I can’t blame people for commenting that some random female character is uninteresting, when she has been given no character depth and is only used as a device to further the male characters’ stories. My main problem is that people take this to mean that women are less interesting, and blame the character, rather than realise that she is a badly-written character because a (probably male) writer has made her so.

And I will again say that I love the Bechdel test.

Sian // Posted 27 July 2008 at 6:42 pm

@Soirore (belatedly):

I’ve never actually seen a Bollywood film, so I couldn’t really comment on that-I was mainly pointing out that non-Hollywood films with POC can be extremely popular (they sell out there), something that that cinema (but not all) have cottoned on to. But I agree with your general point that we need to look a little further beyond women talking to each other-it’s unfortunate that even this rarely happens though.

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