15 Great Feminist Movies That Fail the Bechdel Test

15 Great Feminist Movies That Fail the Bechdel Test
Screenshot: Fargo/Prime Video

A recent Twitter dustup called into question the whole point of the Bechdel test, a set of criteria to help gauge the representation of women in popular entertainment first put forth by Dykes to Watch Out For cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 and inspired, in part, essay from Virginia Wolf. By way of reminder, the criteria are thus (though there are variations): 1) A movie has to have at least two women in it, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man.

Amid the recent release of Hulu’s queer-male centric Fire Island movie, New York Magazine writer Hanna Rosin took issue, referring to the Bechdel test in her tweeted criticism by noting the movie gets an “F- on the Bechdel test in a whole new way.” In fairness to the writer, she’s since deleted the tweet and apologised for, perhaps, taking unnecessary aim at a rare movie spotlighting the queer AAPI experience.

Nevertheless, Alison Bechdel herself isn’t nearly so precious about the test as are those who’d either use it to be overly critical, or criticise it as overly reductive. She responded to the hubbub by carving out a special exemption:

There are certainly movies that pass the Bechdel Test that certainly don’t qualify as masterpieces of feminism. Think of the sex comedies of the 1980s; Weird Science passes, but the story of two nerds who use science to craft a hot girlfriend likely isn’t quite what Bechdel had in mind. Similarly, as we’ll see, there are movies that don’t pass, and yet still have feminist cred to spare.

I’m using the broadest possible definition of feminism here, including movies with characters and themes that directly challenge misogyny, as well as those that feature well-developed, stereotype-defying female-identified characters with agency.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

The story of two individuals from a broken relationship who opt to undergo a futuristic procedure to erase their painful memories, the overwhelming focus in Eternal Sunshine is on the relationship between Kate Winslet’s Clementine Kruczynski and Jim Carrey’s Joel Barish. Like many other great (hetero) relationship movies, it fails the Bechdel test on a technical level without coming across as retrograde in any particular way. There are a couple of very brief interactions between Clementine and a receptionist (Kirsten Dunst) for the Lacuna firm that performs the memory wipes, as well as between her and Joel’s mother in a sort-of flashback that aren’t explicitly about Joel, but even those brief bits are in the service of exploring that central relationship. Still, Clementine stands out here as a complicated thoroughly memorable character in her own right; it’s been strongly suggested that she shows symptoms of borderline personality disorder, which, here, only serves to deepen Clementine.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Over three suffocating days (and over three hours of film), single mother Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) cooks, cleans, and engages in a bit of light but joyless sex work in order to pay the bills. Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece crafts the drudgery of one woman’s daily life into an unconventional, uncompromising, and mesmerising epic. Many critics at the time felt that there had never before been quite such an exploration of a the feminine experience (not surprising given the dearth of women directors), and the film inspired filmmakers of later decades to reconsider what a film about women could achieve. But it still fails the test.

Jackie Brown (1997)

Alison Bechdel herself has offered up Jackie Brown as a great example of a movie that doesn’t meet the standard of her eponymous test, but which remains an “amazing feminist text.” Pam Grier’s cash-smuggling flight attendant cannily struggles for financial independence, in the process both leaning into and subverting the badass chick tropes of the Blaxploitation era (the very tropes that made Pam Grier a star in the first place).

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Hays Code, the set of self-imposed guidelines designed to keep movies studios out of trouble with religious leaders and conservative audiences, forbade anything remotely feminist in ways both implicit and explicit, so it’s a stretch to call any movie made during the decades of its enforcement (roughly 1934 until the late 1960s) “feminist.” That’s especially true for The Philadelphia Story, at least on the surface, a movie in which Katherine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord learns a bit of humility while being alternately pursued and harangued by Cary Grant and James Stewart. There are several female characters here, but none of their exchanges are about much at all besides men (it takes place in the run-up to a lavish, possibly ill-conceived wedding). It’s all delightful, and Hepburn dominates the screen as always, even in moments of self-doubt.

But it’s really in the behind-the-scenes that Philadelphia Story reveals its true feminism: Hepburn acquired the rights to the play on which the movie is based (written for her) and sold it to MGM on the cheap in exchange for unprecedented creative control, giving her veto power over almost every aspect of production, and with an eye toward carving out a new niche for herself following a string of flops. Though meant to soften her image (slightly), there’s a real girlboss energy in Hepburn’s move here — carefully crafting her own profile in defiance of Hollywood’s male bosses, and, in the process, paving the way for decades of groundbreaking performances.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

There’s only one named female character in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s emotional silent masterpiece, and that’s Jeanne d’Arc herself, played by Renée Jeanne Falconetti. No matter. The camera is fixated on Falconetti’s face in her role as the martyr-in-waiting, powerfully (if fruitlessly) defending her actions and faith against religious authorities who remain deaf to her words. It’s not only a portrait of one of history’s most compelling women; in rendering her into a Christ-like figure in her own right, it also subtly subverts the gender dynamics that undergird so much of the faith she’s defending.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Jodie Foster’s unforgettable Clarice Starling is very much in a man’s world as the FBI trainee assigned to the case of serial killer Buffalo Bill. The other female characters are either victims or largely incidental, and almost every conversation involves either Buffalo Bill or Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector, who becomes both her nemesis and a puzzle she’s forced to unlock. It speaks volumes that Lector has become one of the most iconic villains in cinema history, yet still meets his match in Starling.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Even if feminism had been in the zeitgeist America of the 1950s, I’m not sure that conservative-leaning Joan Crawford would have particularly appreciated the label. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to see the triumphs of her career in those particular terms, and it’s nearly impossible not to see Johnny Guitar as an early feminist classic. There’s a love story in play, but Crawford’s Vienna is every bit as tough as any of the male cowboys who populated the endless stream of western movies before and since, and faces even greater challenges. It’s not as well known as some of Crawford’s other films, but this highly stylised, and sometimes violent, film, is among her very best.

A Star is Born (2018)

While the focus on the central relationship between Lady Gaga’s Ally Maine and Bradley Cooper’s Jack and offers only one or two very brief interactions between named female characters that don’t quite qualify as conversations, this film is all about the rise of Ally Maine and the slow, painful of her troubled and substance-abusing romantic partner. As she emerges from his shadow, he’s the one who isn’t able to deal.

What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)

This one’s a slight cheat, in that there are several named female characters and a couple of short interactions that don’t deal directly with discussions of Ike Turner; with that, it probably gets a technical pass. Still, the movie is overwhelmingly about Tina Turner’s life in relationship to her abusive marriage. Angela Basset’s Turner is an all-time great portrayal of an entertainment figure finding her power during a traumatising period and coming out the other side as one of music culture’s most iconic and inspirational performers.

His Girl Friday (1940)

In the play on which His Girl Friday was based (also filmed as The Front Page in 1931) the reporter character Hildy Johnson was a man, while this adaptation casts Rosalind Russell in the role and builds in a fast-talking relationship with ex-husband and newspaper editor Walker Burns (Cary Grant). I’m not sure if that gender swap helps or hurts the film’s feminist case, but there’s no question Russell’s Hildy is one of the most formidable women in the movies, especially of the era. She’s smart and slick, with a whip-smart sense of humour, and she is every bit as committed to her job as any of the newspapermen, ultimately exposing a political conspiracy that would have ended in the execution of an innocent man.

Waiting to Exhale (1995)

With an all-time great cast, director Forest Whitaker’s Waiting to Exhale (based onTerry McMillan’s novel and co-written by the author) was a popular and successful major film that finally took Black women seriously. Surely this would be the moment at which Hollywood understood that there was and remains a broad market for movies with by and about Black people that don’t deal in stereotypes? Surely.

Of course, it didn’t lead to any long overdue sea change, and though times have changed a bit, Hollywood still struggles in both making and marketing movies without white men in the lead. But Waiting to Exhale did show a way forward in its depiction of powerful, professional, and mutually supportive women who also struggle with the value and importance of romantic relationships. That’s what the movie’s about, so that’s what pretty much every conversation is about, but, in this case, the conversations about men don’t feel like a step back.

Fargo (1996)

The old (dubiously attributed) line about Ginger Rogers was that she did everything that Fred Astaire did, only “backwards and in high heels.” With that in mind, we have to give extra credit to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson who, unlike most of cinema’s many, many police chiefs, is tasked with solving the film’s central crime (and its offshoots) while seven months pregnant during a Minnesota winter. Her few conversations with other women are largely incidental and exclusively about the men involved in the case, which doesn’t in the least detract from her iconic stature.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Though this 2011 David Fincher film is dominated by male characters, it still foregrounds its title character, super-hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the traumatized and introverted, but ultimately unstoppable force who was having a major pop culture moment in the lead up to the American film’s release. The earlier Swedish adaptation of the Stieg Larsson novel actually does a bit better by its supporting female character, but Mara is nevertheless impressive here.

Cleopatra (1963)

It’s dubiously feminist, perhaps, given the very male 1960s studio system that produced the film, which keeps the focus on Cleopatra’s exoticism, sex appeal, and love life. Still, this remains one of the most expensive movies ever made, and Elizabeth Taylor’s star power at the time was at such a zenith that she became the driving force behind it, at least in the public imagination. That Hollywood’s most elaborate production revolves around one of antiquity’s most powerful female rulers — and, as a result, one of its most often-maligned — surely represents some kind of progress.There are a few entirely incidental conversations here and there between Cleopatra and the small handful of other named women characters, but they add up to little in the scope (and runtime) of the film. Otherwise, it’s very much about a female queen navigating the politics of a Rome dominated by men.

Before Sunrise (1995)

Given there is only one named woman in Before Sunrise, the first in Richard Linklater’s trilogy about the (ultimately) decades-long relationship between Julie Delpy’s Celine and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse, it fails a strict application of the Bechdel test immediately. Regardless, Celine is in every way a fully realised character, complex and interesting; though the movie is, essentially, one long conversation with Jesse, it’s immediately clear that she’s an equal player in the developing romance, and not merely the subject of Jesse’s interest.

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