On this fine day, I wanted to discuss something called the “Bechdel” Test. This test was developed as a way to evaluate the portrayal of women in films the following way:
1. There has to be at least two female characters
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man/male character.
While I think this is a sound test to help us girls think about how gender equal some Hollywood films are, I feel like it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. A scene where two or more women are conversing about something besides a dude (and clothes and shoes) is definitely a start.
However, I wanted to take a look at some popular flicks through the lenses of something I will call the “Fem test.” I honestly could not think of a better name and it is “Fem” because the protagonist is “fem”ale…
As we all know, the majority of Hollywood films made for women audiences and featuring women protagonists fall under the romance/romantic comedy genres. However, I wanted to present some films directed at girls that might pass my test. Ladies, I present to you:
The Fem Test:
Movies with female protagonists in which either:
1.) The main plot is not about romance or a guy,
2.) A romance plot has a competing plot about something besides romance (whether that be a mystery, character development, achieving a goal, etc.)
Some notes: I do have a limited selection of movies in my memory (I don’t watch many.) Also, I am in no way suggesting that these movies are ‘intellectual’ or informative, but that they meet the criteria listed above (and they are entertaining depending on taste). Lastly, feel free to give feedback and further suggestions in the comments section below.
Here we go!
1. (Strangely,) Legally Blonde 2 – sequel to Legally Blonde.
Review: While this film does ooze of pink-obsessed California blonde girl stereotypes, the main premise of this story has nothing to do with romance or a man. It is known that protagonist Elle Woods is a bride-to-be, engaged to Emmit (introduced in the original film) but that is about it. The comedy revolves around her passing a bill through Congress to end animal testing. It is a silly comedy, but I enjoy it over a glass of wine after a shitty week.
While we are at it, I might as well briefly discuss the original. In Legally Blonde, the storyline starts out with the blonde protagonist chasing her ex to law school after he dumps her. Elle Woods seems to be a typical dumb blonde, but ends up having the brains to get into Harvard Law. Once she gets there, a competing storyline evolves surrounding her internship and the case she has to solve involving her friend. By the end of the film, it is revealed that she ends up with Emmitt and stops caring about her ex. However, there is barely any heavy romantic drama surrounding these occurrences.
Conclusion: I still think both films are quite silly in their jokes and content, but it is interesting that it is some of the few Hollywood productions in which female protagonists deal with major plots other than heterosexual romance.
2. The Princess Diaries
This is one of my favorite films since the age of 11. I discovered it when I myself was a painfully shy, awkward tween with glasses and frizzy hair. It is no wonder then that I strongly related to the protagonist, Mia Thermopolis, and her fear of giving class presentations. 11 years later, I still like this film.
Review: This movie plot revolves around Mia juggling her awkward teen years with the shell-shocking revelation that she is the heir to a European country. Her experience with boys is portrayed as a facet of this high school experience, and is just one of the many subplots that entertain us during this film. However, the main storyline is character development: Mia learns to become confident in herself and realize that she doesn’t have to resort to a life of “being invisible” – that she can actually offer something to the world. Her self-improvement culminates in the speech she gives to a large group of state leaders and friends accepting her title as the ruling princess.
The other prominent characters that Mia interacts with during the film are also women: her grandmother/the Queen of Genovia, who gives her guidance in how to rule a country; her strong-willed and outspoken best friend, Lilly; and her supportive and understanding mother, Helen. Because of this, the movie passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, as well. Each character supports Mia in her self-improvement. Mia is a very whole character and not one of the many two-dimensional female characters I see in movies. She has relatable flaws and does screw up in her choices. In my opinion, Disney does a good job giving a modern twist to the princess fairy-tale theme, actually acknowledging that there is more to being a princess than the glamour of it (although, admittedly, they don’t leave that stuff out.) Bonus: she ends up coupling with the guy who “saw her when she was invisible.”
Conclusion: I’ve said enough.
3. 13 Going On 30
Review: This film does revolve heavily around a romance plot, but also includes strong themes of character development and self-discovery. Jenna Rink is a social outcast in middle school. At first, 30-year old Jenna seems to have the dream life. She is editor-in-chief of her favorite magazine, lives in a luxurious NYC flat, and has a hot athlete boyfriend. However, as the film progresses, Jenna discovers that she went too far to elevate her social status, having morphed into a mean girl who cheats and lies. She realizes how much she took for granted when she was younger and goes through a very relatable journey of regret. (This film also has a whole time-travel-warp aspect to it, so it is a little difficult to explain chronologically.) Most of Jenna’s female-female interactions occur with her frenemy Lucy “Tom-tom” Wyman. While this relationship has the prototypical mean-girl vibe of most Hollywood films, Lucy and Jenna’s competitive tensions revolve around their jobs, and not men.
Conclusion: I actually have mixed feelings about this film, since Jenna’s romance does win over the other plots at the end. The film also has a hint of the cliché that a female character’s ambition and competitiveness always comes with some level of conflict.
Review: From the title, you already know this is going to be about gender tensions. Although directly based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, this film also holds parallels to Disney’s Mulan (and why I am not including Mulan in this list, as it will be redundant.) Viola Hastings’s male chauvinist soccer coach cuts the girls’ soccer team, deeming them less important than the boys’ team. In order to play in the game against her home school, Viola decides to impersonate her twin brother, Sebastian, and join his school’s team while Sebastian goes to London to fulfill his music career. This involves her cross-dressing and living in the boys’ dorms of the boarding school – a basis for much of the comedy. In a nutshell, the storyline involving Viola’s soccer goals develops along with the romance plot. Viola’s athletic lifestyle throughout the film is also contrasted with her mother’s old-fashioned, upper-middle class obsession with the debutante ball, which Viola attends to appease her mother.
Conclusion: When it is not dealing with the love polygon, much of the film is centered on the cultural differences between boys and girls and directly addresses the ways they are socialized in U.S. culture. It also addresses issues of sexism. The tensions in gender differences, as I mentioned before, is also the root of the comedy in this film, where Viola actually becomes an “insider” for her female audience when it comes to seeing how boys behave with one another, and mistakenly employs stereotypes into her own behavior when trying to act like a guy. While I found the film entertaining and funny, I still think it completely failed to reach its potential in character development. This film could have illustrated that people are more complex than their stereotypes. However, a lot of the characters besides the protagonists are superficial caricatures: Viola’s crazy, materialistic mother, the typical mean girl Monique, the overly-geeky Eunice, the weird bald principal, and the obsessive, stalkerish Malcolm.
5. The Devil Wears Prada
Review: This film is based on a semi-autobiographical book, but wins in terms of the Fem test. This is because the main plot is not at all romantic, but about Andy’s job experiences working for a famous fashion magazine. Granted, it is about fashion (although Andy herself is not very interested in fashion) and Andy’s entry-level job is as a high-profile secretary. However, she works for a very well-known female boss. This film does have a lot of the clichés regarding ambitious, successful women. However, they are directly addressed in the film. (When Miranda’s marriage yet again falls apart, she knows that the media is going to frame it as another example of a powerful woman who can’t keep a husband. Andy points out to Christian, who is critical of Miranda’s cold demeanor, that if she were a man, no one would criticize her for the same assertive qualities.) This film also passes the Bechdel Test as Miranda and Andy are two women who talk about stuff besides men.
Conclusion: Again, I appreciate this film for having another dynamic plot besides romance. Andy’s post-graduate dilemma of finding her dream job while having to compromise with a not-so-dream job is relatable (although she turned down Stanford Law to do so.) She also suffers from the post-grad symptom of being easy to exploit because she is too eager to please early in her career (I’ve been there before.) However, as I mentioned before, this film does carry the stereotype regarding ambitious women, it being that a woman’s ambition never comes without trouble in her personal life. Miranda is the caricature of a “cold, bitch” boss who has been divorced many times, and Andy’s job plays a direct role in the falling-out with her boyfriend, Nate, although they resolve their issues by the end of the film.
6. Harry Potter films
Review: You know why I chose this. I appreciate both the Harry Potter books and films because they are very gender equal in terms of how the characters are portrayed. Romance doesn’t even kick in until later in the series. Both male and female characters are multi-dimensional and have complex stories behind them, and the plots are more dynamic than those in one-dimensional romance genres.
Conclusion: Because the film’s main character is male, it cannot pass the Bechdel Test, but is still very equal in gender representation.
Review: This is one of my favorite childhood films and passes the Fem Test with flying colors as there is absolutely no romance involving the 8-year old protagonist. “Matilda” is based on the children’s book written by famed fiction writer Roald Dahl. It is a great story. Unlike many negative stereotypes surrounding little girls, Matilda is a child genius with random psychic powers. Matilda and Hermione from Harry Potter (a child genius with magical powers) were the characters I idolized as a child. Matilda grows up being bullied by her parents and then her crazy school principal. By the end of the film, she employs a cheeky plot to overthrow the tyrannical principal and save the school.
Conclusion: This film starring a young girl is a breath of fresh air. Finally, a film catered to children that does not involve marrying a prince or selling her soul to a seawitch. Matilda finds a friend in her caring teacher, who ends up adopting Matilda in the happily ever after in the modern child’s fairy tale.
8. Miss Congeniality
Review: This is also an obvious one because the film portrays a tough, ass-kicking female FBI officer. However, her tomboyish persona does not go unquestioned in the film, as she is forced to enter a pageant disguised as a beauty queen and given a makeover. Throughout the film, a lot of the comedy revolves around her inability to fit into the girly, fashionable world of pageantry. But this film passes the Fem test as the main plot revolves around a mystery, with the romance subplot taking the backseat. It also passes the Bechdel test as there are conversations among female characters that don’t always involve men.
Conclusion: This is another one of those classics I love. For me, the only downfall is that the main character defends pageants by the end of the film, claiming they aren’t as dumb as she thought they were. Well played, Hollywood. Pageants are still dumb.
Honorable Mentions: The Hunger Games, Girl With a Dragon Tattoo
Anything to add?
P.S. Also check out 10 Blatantly Sexist Movie Moments You Probably Never Noticed