Earlier this year I took my entire family to see The Lego Movie. My son was excited because LEGOS, I was excited because I had heard there was a really cool female protagonist, and my mom was thrilled to enjoy buttered popcorn without any nagging. Finding a film with enjoyable heroes and role models isn’t always easy, and it is especially difficult to find a family film with strong female characters as well as strong male characters. Having both is something that is important to me, especially since my son is very much at an age where he latches on to anything quotable within a film.
After The Lego Movie came out, I read repeatedly that it had passed the Bechdel Test, something that has become a pretty good starting place for measuring substantial female roles within a film. However, Chris McKay, the director of The Lego Movie, doesn’t believe the film gets a solid pass. (That’s something he is planning on fixing in the sequel.) Knowing that a filmmaker is paying such close attention to this test is a reminder that as parents, we can evaluate all family movies against it as well.
So what exactly is the Bechdel Test and why should parents pay attention to it?
In 1985, author and cartoonist Alison Bechdel created a strip called The Rule within her successful comic, “Dykes to Watch Out For.” In the strip, two characters discuss the possibility of going to see a movie. However, they would only consider the movie if it followed all of “the rules.” Nearly 30 years later, these rules are now known as the Bechdel Test and Alison Bechdel has recently been awarded a genius grant (also known as a MacArthur Award).
The award is more than being able to walk around claiming genius status; it’s also $625,000 in unrestricted grant money. Not too shabby!
The Bechdel Test asks us to examine a film and ask three questions:
1. Are there at least two named female characters?
2. Do those female characters talk to each other?
3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a boy or man?
(While not an original element of the test, many also look at the length of conversation. By the way, this is why many feel The Lego Movie doesn’t quite pass.)
Once you become aware of these questions, it’s hard not to think about them while watching a film. Finding a children’s film that follows the rules becomes something to celebrate.
Instantly we can see how a film passing the Bechdel Test would be great news for our daughters. Seeing female characters of substance will always be wonderful and empowering for them. As the mother to a son, I also know how important it is for him to see films in which women and girls are not merely background characters. Our boys need to see female heroes on film as much as our girls do.
Colin Stokes, a director of communications for Citizen Schools, gave a TED talk about the messages within children’s films. Stokes explains:
“Plenty of excellent movies fail the Bechdel Test or imply that heroism is equivalent to a boy becoming a man. Yes, there’s plenty to enjoy and admire in these movies, but if you’re looking for something that shows your children a wider world — and gives your son a wider range of role models — load up some of the masterpieces that push the formulas to more inclusive places.”
Stokes broke down some formulas within many of the films our children have seen and came up with his version of “instead of that, try this.” He took a look at Star Wars, a huge favorite series in my house, and put it in a category called “The Quest.” Other films as examples in this group are The Hobbit and The Lion King. Stokes shares that with a typical quest story, our kids are served a very masculine storyline: “A boy’s world is threatened by an evil male force. He must train and mobilize other boys to defeat the enemy in a violent conflict. There is essentially one female, who is granted to the hero as a prize.”
He suggests showing our kids what he calls the enlightened version of the quest story, “A boy or girl (or team) seeks to heal an injustice in the world. They must make friends who share their goal to change the culture of an older generation, by modeling a better way.” Some films that follow this plot are The Wizard of Oz, all the Spy Kids movies, and Tangled. All of those suggestions also pass the Bechdel Test.
Within the last two years, over 20 films geared towards young teens and children have passed the Bechdel Test. Maleficent, The Lego Movie, and Frozen are on this list and they also happen to be some of the highest-grossing children’s films.
What do our children gain from watching films where girls and women speak about things other than boys and men? Well, for starters, it reminds our children that girls and women have value. By not putting girls and women into the background, you put us on the path to equality. If our kids only see films where girls and women are minor characters, they will grow up to see the girls and women in their life as minor and not star players capable of changing the story.
Being able to apply the rules from the Bechdel Test may feel like over-simplifying gender issues in film, but in a Vanity Fair article about Alison Bechdel, we’re reminded not to “underestimate the power that comes in being able to name and codify a problem.”