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The Rule

November 3, 2007

Clarice

What movies could you watch if you followed the Alison Bechdel rule, from her comic “Dykes to Watch Out For?” What is the rule? Well, in order to watch a movie, it must have three characteristics:

1. There must be two or more women in it
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something other than a man.

Some variants include the stipulation that the women have names. Doesn’t sound too difficult, does it? It’s much tougher than it sounds. I don’t actually use the rule to determine what I watch (and there is a lot of worthy film-making that violates the rule), but I do think it addresses a crucial gap in the media representation of gender. Think about it. Think about the last three movies you watched, or look at the Oscar nominees from past years, or kids movies, and ask yourself if the only women in it are tokens, or exist only to talk about the male character. When you start to think about it, it really is amazing how many movies act as if women either don’t exist, or exist only as sex objects. One in a while something surprising comes along, for example Resident Evil: Extinction passed the Bechdel test, but for the most part women have just gotten used to not seeing themselves in film.

Here’s a list of every Pixar film:

Toy Story – two females (the mom and Bo Peep) never talk to each other
A Bug’s Life – three females (Dot, princess Atta, the Queen), they do talk to each other, I don’t remember what about. Edit: A reader has pointed out that they talk about things other than men. So this one passes!
Toy Story 2 – two females (Bo Peep, Jessie) They talk to each other, about the male characters
Monster’s Inc – two females (Boo and Celia), they never talk to each other
Finding Nemo – one female (Dory)
The Incredibles – three females (Helen, Violet, Edna), they do talk to each other, about something other than males (family and clothes)
Cars – two females (Sally and Flo) Do they talk to each other? I don’t know.
Ratatouille – One female (Collette)

Using the list of characters on the wikipedia pages (which includes minor characters) for these movies we come up with a male to female ratio of: 77:30. That comes out to 29% female characters in Pixar films. The worst offender is Ratatouille with a ratio of 13:1, and the best is The Incredibles with a ratio of 1:1. Not one of the 8 movies features a woman as the primary lead character (with the possible exception of The Incredibles, which features the whole family).

Let’s keep this in perspective: children’s movies have fewer than 30% female characters. These are movies which are especially made to be inoffensive and identifiable to many kids. How much worse must adult movies be? Next time you watch a movie, think about it. If you find one that follows the rules, or one that egregiously violates them, let me know!

48 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2007 5:26 am

    hi natasha i like your contant keep updating it

    Rohit Mehra
    rohit.7002@gmail.com

    http://rohitseo.wordpress.com

  2. Dr. Jim permalink
    November 6, 2007 4:31 am

    And why do “romantic comedies” always have a more involved story for the guy than the gal? I don’t see to many of these sorts of movies, but the ones I remember always revolve around the guy.

  3. maffersalmon permalink
    November 8, 2007 1:41 am

    exception to the rule, and a truly great film:
    Death Proof, two stories, female driven. First story, girls talk together, about sex and men, all die.
    Second story, girls talk together, about men, but shift to their own methods of empowerment….. kill the bad ass guy at the end. Nice shift of power.

  4. November 9, 2007 1:40 pm

    the thing is, if you think about children’s movies about female characters and thus for girls (as opposed to movies about boys and thus for both girls and boys, because girls will watch stuff about boys but boys won’t watch stuff about girls), it’s still pretty dire: How many women in Sleeping Beauty? Just two, and one tries to kill the other. How many women in the Little Mermaid? Just two, and one tries to kill the other. How many female characters in Beauty and the Beast? Just two, and one is a talking tea pot.

  5. November 9, 2007 1:50 pm

    Yikes, Holly, you’re right. That’s really awful. As Jim pointed out, even in adult movies for women (romantic comedies, “chick flicks”), there is usually only the lead woman and maybe a best friend. If there is a best friend, she’s usually just there to talk about the male lead. Argh, it makes me angry and sad.

    Thanks for the movie recommendation Matt! I’ve heard of that movie, it’s not a Tarantino, is it? I’ll just look it up.

  6. Dr. Jim permalink
    November 9, 2007 2:58 pm

    The animated Chicken Run has one very assertive hen and a lot of the story revolves around her. A lot of the other hens are interesting in their own right. Relatively few roosters. That may be simply a product of the realities of chicken farming though…

  7. November 9, 2007 2:59 pm

    That’s true. Man, Chicken Run is such a great movie. Like I needed another reason to love it. :)

  8. Dr. Jim permalink
    November 9, 2007 3:47 pm

    That’s it, we has us a movie night…
    Now we need a date.

  9. AndersH permalink
    November 10, 2007 11:22 pm

    Maybe I misunderstood how you counted, but wouldnt a ratio of 77:30 make it 28% women?

  10. November 10, 2007 11:40 pm

    He he he, you’re right. That was dumb. I just made the correction, thank you.

  11. House of Mayhem permalink
    November 11, 2007 12:11 am

    (n00b visitor from Pandagon alert.)

    My mom and I are both voracious readers–although she reads a lot of chick lit. I’ll pick up one of her books if it looks interesting. If I read the jacket, and it violates the last rule, it goes back on the shelf.

    Always gotta be moonin’ bout the guys…BORING!

    Gimme “Fried Green Tomatoes” any day o’ the week!

  12. November 11, 2007 12:26 am

    Dude, I totally undestand your point, and agree with it almost entirely, but let’s not make up stuff so that the idea fits with our theory!

    In A BUG’S LIFE, Princess Atta and the Queen talk to each other about something that is not a man. They had to, since the Queen was preparing Atta to take her place.

    And in SLEEPING BEAUTY, all the movie is pretty much carried out by “minor characters”. They do practically everything! I am talking about the Three Good Fairies, without whom the entire movie would fall apart.

    (In case anyone is wondering, yes, I am a huge Disney Geek)

  13. Jonah permalink
    November 11, 2007 3:59 am

    Holly @4:
    I don’t think it’s necessarily true that “boys won’t watch stuff about girls”. I remember watching the Disney versions of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White as a kid. As far as I can remember, it never even occurred to me that I should dislike these movies because they had female protagonists.

    Of course, my parents aren’t exactly typical. They always encouraged me to view the distinction between “boys’ stuff” and “girls’ stuff” as being arbitrary and silly. Unfortunately, there are probably parents out there who are afraid that if their little boy watches too many “girlie” movies he will turn into a sissy, and this kind of attitude is bound to rub off on their children.

  14. November 11, 2007 4:08 am

    Wow, I’m kind of surprised by all the new visitors. Neat. Thanks for commenting.

    Mary: You are right about Bug’s Life, and I did mention above that there are three female characters and they talk to each other. It’s just been years since I saw the movie, so I don’t quite remember what they talk about. I’m not sure what you are suggesting I made up, but I’ll try to fix it if you are right.

  15. November 11, 2007 2:42 pm

    Jonah, I know quite a few boys who are huge Tiffany Aching fans, and other women I know have encountered them out there too.

    What is true, I think, is this: there is a perception among the mostly-male gatekeepers that “guys won’t buy a chick in the hero’s role” – this being projection, because they’re a bunch of MCPs themselves, and this is “self-fulfilling” in that there aren’t any counter-examples to gather data from, just like the essentially-untested assertion that “guys won’t go to movies that have women narrating the trailer, because it threatens their manhood to have a female voice of Authority” – despite the fact that the only movie that broke this studio-head rule (and it is a rule, there was a whole NPR segment on this a year or two ago and the wheezy geezers in suits were very adamant about it) was Gone In 60 Seconds, which did quite well among males, who didn’t seem to be quite as turned off by a woman telling them why they should like a movie as the Wheezy Old Geezers believed they would be.

  16. November 11, 2007 2:45 pm

    (I should add that the Tiffany stories are all books, and that – we were talking about this elsewhere recently – it’s INFINITELY easier to find recent examples of YA books that don’t violate the Bechdel Rule, than it is to find movies – and most of the few movies you can find that even have strong heroines, even if they don’t quite make the Bechdel cut, are older, like Labyrinth and Last Unicorn.)

  17. November 11, 2007 3:57 pm

    Great post. Excellent point. I’m going to use the rule now too to help decide if a movie or TV show is worth watching.

  18. November 11, 2007 4:11 pm

    I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you were making stuff up. I was over reacting at Holly’s comment about there being only 2 female characters in Sleeping Beauty. It so happens that one of the 3 characters she forgot to mention is one of my all time favourites!

    But I agree with every point you made!

  19. Majicou permalink
    November 11, 2007 10:43 pm

    Actually, if you watch Ratatouille she gives a good reason why theres only one female cook in the kitchen.

  20. Sharon permalink
    November 11, 2007 11:06 pm

    Great post, just wondering whether you read the article on the Guardian about children’s tv, and how they make the decision about whether male or female characters will be the lead? The creative director claims that girls are happy to watch male or female characters in the lead and boys will only want to watch male characters in the lead. I have no idea whether this is true, but it answers the question of why movies are made like this (as depressing as the thought is). Here is the link, if you are interested: http://www.guardian.co.uk/gender/story/0,,2203993,00.html

  21. ESVA permalink
    November 12, 2007 4:50 pm

    One kid’s movie that came out 12-13 years ago that bucked this trend was Matilda. My son was about 4 at the time and he loved it. We took him to see it in the theater and he also watched the video for several years after that. Another pretty good one, around the same time, was Harriet the Spy. Overall, though, I think you’re right about the number of female characters the qualities of those characters.

  22. Retief permalink
    November 12, 2007 7:01 pm

    This may seem ironic, but the Barbie movies are actaully pretty solid on you three criteria. If you’re not familiar with them check out Princess and the Pauper first. Fairytopia and Mermaidia are pretty good too. Barbie’s take on Rapunzel is interesting as is Swan Lake. Nutcracker is the weakest of the bunch.

    And my son likes most of them as well as my daughter.

  23. November 12, 2007 7:03 pm

    Retief: Really? You’re right, that is surprising. I’m impressed that your son likes them too. I’ll definitely check them out if I am given the opportunity.

  24. Myk permalink
    November 13, 2007 2:08 am

    I’m trying to find movies in my collection that fit the rules but aren’t clearly “chick flicks”.

    Fame (the movie and the TV show) had a lot of conversations between the Dance and English teachers. An odd couple that fit the rules without being “chick flick”s are Debbie Does Dallas and the Story of O.

    I could go through a long list from my movie collection, but I’ll just cut to the chase and say that they’re certainly a serious minority, and my collection is not a typical guy’s choices, either.

    Jane Austen flicks are usually going to fit the rules.

    Here’s a a few good ones:
    The Banger Sisters, Barbarella, Bend It Like Beckham, Bring It On, Cold Comfort Farm, Dancing at Lughnasa, The Devil Wears Prada, Empire Records, Girl Interrupted, If These Walls Could Talk, Muriel’s Wedding, The Rose.

  25. Megan permalink
    November 15, 2007 4:54 pm

    I love the Bechdel rule. But I feel moved to point out from my efforts to feminism up my daughter’s childhood that My Little Pony movies fit the rule. It’s *all* female characters and they *never* talk about boys.

    Instead, they talk about how much they love bubbles and ice cream and rainbows, then they plan sleepovers and giggle vacuously and tilt their heads flirtatiously. I wonder if there’s a corollary that could be added to exclude stuff that’s essentially porn-star training for girls.

  26. November 16, 2007 7:24 pm

    I think it’s because though we make up exactly HALF the population – we are still considered the “token” female character.

    Seems like it is an accurate representation of how power is divided. We get 30%.

    Do you think if we insisted on getting 50% real life power might shift by the time this generation of children are old enough to take power?

  27. November 29, 2007 12:43 am

    Great, great entry! I’ve been noticing how this trend holds true in a lot of movies that I watch-how there’s a ‘token’ female type of character.One of my (and my sisters’) favorite Dreamworks animated films is the Road to El Dorado. Yes, there *are* in fact several things to be said (historical innacuracies abound, I’m sure) but we love it. Miguel and Tulio are a great pair. but the movie has ONE femaile character. and she’s ridiculously pretty and also…scantily clad.
    But there are other alternatives….like Anastasia! another favorite of ours. the most powerful characters in that movie are Anastasia, the grandma and…the bat. :)
    Great entry! and yay for the Carnival of Feminists for bringing me to you.

  28. February 2, 2008 11:44 pm

    One animated kids’ movie (though not from Pixar) that passes is Lilo & Stitch. At least three female characters, and at least two of them talk to each other a fair bit about things other than men. Of course, one of them is a little girl, but still. (Also, it’s a lovely movie in all sorts of ways.)

  29. February 3, 2008 8:01 am

    I’m totally behind you on this, although being the mother of 2 daughters, I have to watchsomeof this stuff more than I’d like to–and I must say that actually there are more female characters than merely Dory in FINDING NEMO.

    Coral, Nemo’s Mom: Dead before the opening credits.

    Deb: the fish in the tank who talks to her reflection.

    Peach: the starfish in the tank.

    Pearl: the little cephalopod schoolkid who says “you made me ink!”

    Darla: the terrifying human child with braces.

    But no, they don’t talk to each other.

    I’m going to clue my almost-10-year-old in on this rule, and see what her reaction is.

  30. February 3, 2008 9:49 am

    You’re absolutely right, there are more female characters in Finding Nemo than just Dory. I guess my excuse is that I was working from memory, so I was only including the main main characters. Still, I should have at least gotten Darla. How could I forget her? :)

    Is Peach female? I’ve never been able to tell.

  31. jpage6 permalink
    April 11, 2008 9:47 am

    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon passes the Bechdel rule. Those 2 strong female leads spend all their time arguing about a sword…which is a phallic symbol…never mind.

  32. jpage6 permalink
    April 11, 2008 9:52 am

    Gilmore Girls passes the test. They do spend alot of time talking about men, but also education, careers, ethics, etc. And the main themes, topics, characters are 3 generations of women – men are really the secondary characters on this show.

  33. April 11, 2008 9:55 am

    I’ve never watched Gilmore girls, but what you say about it is encouraging. It’s not that women shouldn’t talk about men (it’s fine that they do), but that things like what you’ve pointed out – education, career, ethics, etc, are all parts of women’s lives too.
    Thanks for your comments!

  34. June 2, 2008 1:06 pm

    I just found this thread after googleing Alison Bechdel test… very cool. I am interested to see what movies in my collection fit…

  35. October 10, 2008 7:07 am

    Yes, Gilmore Girls passes the test big time. They talk a lot, about lots of things. Probably that’s why I always liked this series and always hated Sex and the city.
    Guess Kill Bill would pass the test as well, wouldn’t it? I’m not sure, but When Harry met Sally may pass as well.

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  37. Rob Forbes permalink
    August 12, 2010 1:49 pm

    At least Dory is played by Ellen DeGeneres!

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