Edge Of The Bechdel Test: Why Counting Box Office Is More Important Than Counting Interactions

Some thoughts on the Bechdel Test, the Mako Mori Test and a proposed Elsa/Katniss Test.

By now you know the Bechdel Test, which is a thought experiment you can apply to a movie. It asks three questions:

- Does the film feature at least two women?

- Do those women talk to each other?

- Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

It’s a pretty low bar, but you’d be shocked (or probably not shocked, at this point) to find out how few films pass the test. What’s even more shocking is how many films that do pass the test seem like they’re not particularly part of the feminist pantheon - like 2012’s Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader. The Bechdel Test has been getting used in ways it was never intended (ie, at all, because it’s kind of a set-up for a joke in a comic strip), and in the process has been getting warped. Passing the Bechdel Test tells us nothing about how a film treats its female characters, simply that it has them. For instance: Gravity does not pass the Bechdel Test.

Another movie that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test: this weekend’s Edge of Tomorrow, which features Emily Blunt as a totally awesome soldier who mentors Tom Cruise on his respawning journey to defeat alien invaders. There are two women in the film, and they do not speak to each other (Blunt’s character briefly speaks to a group of soldiers that includes a woman, but this doesn’t really count). Still, it’s impossible to deny that Blunt’s Rita Vrataski is a great, full character whose role in the film is exciting because while the character is gendered her plot purpose isn’t. In other words, yes, she’s a woman but her purpose isn’t to be Cruise’s girlfriend or the damsel in distress. She serves the plot as fully as Cruise, and her character could be gender-swapped without changing almost anything in the film (except some dialogue and one fleeting kiss). That’s actually a big change from the source material, which finds the protagonist more clearly engaged in a romantic situation with Rita, even if it’s one that he must eventually deny himself.

That, to me, makes Edge of Tomorrow seem like exactly like the kind of female-friendly movie we want, even though it fails the Bechdel Test. But it also fails another test, one created to defend a fan-popular movie that failed Bechdel: the Mako Mori Test.

Pacific Rim fails the Bechdel Test pretty spectacularly… but the character of Mako Mori is one who has been embraced by the many women in fandom because she represents a point of view that they appreciate, and because her character arc is so strong. And so Tumblr types came up with the Mako Mori Test, which goes like this:

- Does the film have at least one female character?

- Does she get her own narrative arc?

- Does she get an arc that is not about supporting a man’s story?

It’s an interesting counterpoint to the Bechdel Test. Gravity would pass this one, for sure. It also gets past issues of representation which, while very very very very very important (did I put enough verys on there?), don’t tell the whole story.

But Edge of Tomorrow doesn’t really pass this test either. Rita’s arc is largely about supporting Tom Cruise as he defeats the aliens. Of course that’s also her arc - she was a looper first, and she lost the ability - which makes this a mentor/mentee relationship, but a mentor is still supporting that mentee.

You could make up a Vrataski Test - maybe something about the female character not being reduced to a love interest - but there’s no point in that. What’s more useful when looking at the state of the culture at large is perhaps the Elsa/Katniss Test: how many female-oriented films are in the top ten? This weekend had the one-two punch of The Fault In Our Stars and Maleficent up front (Maleficent is vital because it proves bad female-oriented films can make as much money as bad male-oriented films), while Edge of Tomorrow’s Vrataski comes in third place. Meanwhile Obvious Child, a great film from a female director with a female lead, opened on three screens to a gangbuster $26,000 per screen average. Let’s put it this way: The Fault In Our Stars came in number one and had a $15,000 per screen. That means the few theaters showing Obvious Child were packed all weekend long.

To me these, combined with the enormous success of Frozen and The Hunger Games films, show that things are getting better. Counting interactions make for good exercises and discussion starters, but real, practical change - greater and more diverse representation - will come not from academic concepts but from box office pressure. As I've written before, it isn't about boycotting movies that get it wrong but supporting movies that get it right. Because as female-led and female-oriented movies continue to make money Hollywood will continue to make them. Yeah, it would be great if they added more women because it’s the right thing to do and because it makes movies better, but I’ll settle for them doing it to make money.