What is the Bechdel Test and why does it matter?
The Bechdel Test assesses fiction works by following a simple rule of three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.
The rule might seem pretty straight-forward, but it's shocking just how many films fail to pass this reasonable criteria. The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, all Star Wars movies, all but one of the Harry Potter movies, The Social Network, Pulp Fiction, Thor: Ragnarok, Slumdog Millionaire, Toy Story, The Lion King, and The Shining all fail the test. Even seemingly female-led films like Notting Hill and Love Actually barely scrape by.
The rule was originally popularised by novelist and illustrator Alison Bechdel's comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a 1985 strip called "The Rule". While Bechdel - a cartoonist, not an academic - has had difficulty taking ownership for the test's mass notoriety, she says she has learned to embrace the phenomenon, particularly given its guiding principle, that women are subjects, not objects.
However, this concept isn't just some quip pointed out by a cartoonist. In 2016, research led by the University of Southern California found that women made up only one third of speaking characters in the years' top 100 grossing films. And when crossing gender with ethnicity, the results were even more alarming. Of the top 100 films of 2016, only 53 had black female speaking characters and a mere 34 had asian female speaking characters. This is a stark contrast to only 11 out of 100 were missing white women on screen. By large, women are not given adequate dialogue and character depth in film, and women of colour, even less so. This sends a message to society that women lack substance, agency and are secondary compared to men.
While the Bechdel Test may not be fool-proof when measuring gender inclusivity, it certainly highlights some serious problems in movie-making. But of course, there are exceptions to the rule.
Here I Am (2011)
Telling the story of three generations, Here I Am shows the resilience of Aboriginal women. Twentysomething year old Karen (Shai Pittman) is newly released from prison and eager to reconnect with her young daughter who is under legal guardianship of her disapproving estranged mother, Lois (Marcia Langton). Trying to put her drug and sex work past behind her, Karen finds difficulty in her new found freedom.
Why does it pass? Aside from the central roles revolving around a mother and daughter's bruised relationship, Here I Am is largely set in a women's shelter. Here, several Indigenous female characters interact with discussions of motherhood, racism, the justice system and friendship.
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With the death of their mother, two sisters head back to their childhood home in North Queensland where their oldest sister has been living and working as their mum's primary carer. The three sisters have not been in the same room as each other for years, and their differences prove a challenging reunion. However, with time to talk, drink, and fight, some family secrets are revealed and the women are confronted with a complicated legacy left by their mother.
Why does it pass? A strong female-lead cast discusses their lives throughout the film. From topics like being a stay-at-home carer, to a secret pregnancy and being taken away by social services, this film has an array of emotionally-charged discussions led by Aboriginal women.
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Drunktown's Finest (2014)
Three young Native Americans - a Christian girl adopted by white parents who dreams of being reconnected with her birth parents, a young father-to-be with an impending military enlistment, and a transwoman who turns tricks for cash, but has her sights set on being a model - all strive to escape the hardships of life in their Navajo reservation in New Mexico.
Why does it pass? With two strong female leads, this Sundance success shows the coming of age journeys of young Navajo women as they struggle with their identity issues.
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Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013)
Set in 1976 under the prevailing residential school system in Canada, 15-year-old Aila is the weed princess of the Red Crow Indian reserve. She pays her 'truancy tax' to a corrupt Indian agent with the earnings from her dealing (a family business she took over from her Dad when he was sent to prison). One day, Aila's money is stolen and her only options are to either run from or fight the sadistic system.
Why does it pass? Honestly - there are only a mere three female characters in this male dominated cast. However, the protagonist, Aila drives the story as a strong young woman trying to keep her family and her community together through the ongoing harassment of the Indian agent. She has an emotional relationship with both, her mother's ghost whom she is frequently haunted by, and 'Grandma', an old neighbour who passes down traditional stories and folklore to her.
The Sapphires (2012)
Loosely based on a true story, The Sapphires follows the journey of four Indigenous women who travel as a musical group to perform for troops in Vietnam in the late 1960s war time. Discovered and encouraged by an alcoholic Irish talent scout, the story is predominantly about the trials and obstacles in front of each of the women as they band together despite racism, identity crises, heartbreak and loss.
Why does it pass? With a plot focused almost entirely around female characters, this is a story where issues facing women are front and centre, with male characters in supporting roles. Screenwriter for the film, Tony Briggs, the son of one of the original Sapphires, in an interview remarked on the four lead characters, “They dominate every scene and in some ways the guys are there to make up the numbers."
Waru is a unique work that brings together eight female Maori filmmakers with the specific task of presenting a short film, a 10 minute vignette, all existing within one feature film. The film’s plot traces the aftermath of the death of a child, and how eight different women confront guilt, defeat and pride and how their role within the community affects the whole.
Why does it pass? This project’s aim was specifically created to give women a voice. Throughout the film we see and hear the narrative from a female perspective and predominantly the characters show us interactions between and from a female perspective.
Beneath Clouds (2002)
Beneath Clouds is essentially a road trip story that begins with two teenagers, on different paths converging to run towards a new life and away from things that they would rather not face. Lena (Danielle Hall) has an Aboriginal mother, and an absent Irish father. Her light skin and blonde hair keeps her in denial of her Aboriginal heritage and her relationship with her mother is fractured. When she runs away she meets up with Vaughn, a petty criminal with anger issues and a prejudice and anger towards all whites. They take an uneasy journey together but through their challenges find common ground and a connection.
Why does it pass? Though the film mostly features the two main characters - young male and female characters - and their journey, we see an important interaction with Lena and her mother which goes in to the heart of relationship issues between a mother and daughter and touches on issues of not only cultural but also personal identity.
One Thousand Ropes (2016)
This critically acclaimed Maori film approaches the subject of teenage pregnancy and how one father with a colourful and violent past comes to terms with his own history and frees his daughter in the process.
Why does it pass? The film follows the journey of one family who are affected by trauma and how they cope with this. There are several female characters who sketch out the experience of pregnancy, women as the bringer of life and also as healers.
A debut film by Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante, this film is set in a Mayan farming community from the Guatemalan highlands and follows the story of a young Mayan woman, Maria (Maria Mercedes Coroy). Maria has had her hand in marriage promised to Ignacio, the foreman at the coffee plantation where they work, but her heart belongs to another. In a clash of modern and ancient worlds, the difficulties facing her responsibilities as a woman, daughter, sister and wife are explored.
Why does it pass? The desires of a young woman from a community, who has a history of exploiting their Indigenous peoples through abduction and human trafficking, is an insightful exploration that has often been overlooked. Beyond the role of lover and contributor to community, we get an insight in to what it means to be a woman and how women in these situations lift each other up and act as supporters.
Sami Blood (2017)
A 14-year-old girl Elle Marja (Lene Cecilia Sparrok) is a reindeer-breeding Sámi girl living in 1930s Sweden. She is is removed from her family and sent to a state-run school that aims to reeducate her into mainstream Swedish culture. At school, she is subjected eugenic scrutiny and race biology. Elle Marja soon learns that if she's to take the new academic opportunities presented to her, she must abandon her family and cultural identity.
Why does it pass? Set largely in a boarding school for young Sámi children, and then in a mainstream girls' school, Elle Marja interacts with many female characters (her peers, her sister, her teacher, her mother) as she battles with the struggle of growing up within the cultural context of Sweden’s oppressed Sámi peoples.
**Please note: 'Indigenous Films' refers to films where the key creatives are Indigenous.