Last year I came upon this article which posits that as of May 2014, only nine feature films passed The Bechdel Test. I was shocked and went back though my own movie-viewing history and found that while many of my all-time favourite movies pass with flying colours, they counted for a small percentage of my overall movie history.
I decided to put my money behind my principles and this year I will only see movies that pass the Bechdel test.* Alison Bechdel is an American artist who first created The Bechdel Test in 1985 in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For. Last year she received a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Gender parity warrior and all around bad-ass Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency explains it here:
To reiterate, in order to pass the test, the movies must have:
1. Two or more female characters with names
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something other than a man
Some critics have pointed out the limitations of The Bechdel Test, and there are variations, such as the Mako Mori test, that are perhaps more flexible or open to interpretation. However, given Bechdel’s influence and the conversations she has inspired, I’m totally game. For example, in late 2013, the country of Sweden included The Bechdel Test in their film rating system, which I think is an inspiring move in the right direction toward gender parity in film.
I’ll be reviewing the movies I see on this page. For the record, I do not have a degree in film or gender studies. I don’t think that movies that feature only men or mostly men are inherently bad, anti-feminist, or unworthy. I’m a movie lover who is interested in seeing more women’s stories on screen and making sure that people do know about the ones that exist. Please send me your suggestions!
Wonderwoman is a classic action-adventure movie with amazing fight scenes, a love interest, betrayals, tragic deaths, and of course, good triumphing over evil (for now). In fact, I found the story a little pat except for one major difference: the superhero is a woman. There has been lots written about how moving it is to see the Amazons fighting soldiers. I found myself feeling exhilarated and a little choked up in these scenes. But once Diana leaves the island, the movie feels less exceptional. I understand that Diana being one woman in a man’s world is part of the point of the Wonderwoman narrative but does she have to be surrounded by tired stereotypes? In London, Diana is introduced to one other woman, Etta Candy, who is Steve’s secretary and reduced to taking Diana shopping and making unacknowledged quips about Diana’s appearance and generally playing the role of the under-appreciated, sexless, harried assistant. It’s telling that on imdb her character bio is empty. Couldn’t she be an ally? Or a friend? There were lots of women who fought in the resistance, worked as nurses, spies, translators, and did many things during the war, but Diana never meets any of them. I understand the stakes were high and Wonderwoman had to appeal to the broadest audience possible, therefore the safe route is the best one. But I hope in future movies we see more women, with more agency, and I hope they give Diana – PRINCESS OF THE AMAZONS, for pity’s sake- a bit more personality.
Hidden Figures is the most delightful movie I saw in 2016. I love a period piece, and one centred on the hidden achievements of black women in NASA’s space program is a Must See for me. Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson made major contributions to NASA’s space program in the 1960s. Now we get to see their stories. The movie addresses their personal as well as their professional lives, resulting in an ensemble piece in which (somewhat remarkably) we get a fulsome portrait of not just one but three women. The performances are fantastic and there are just as many funny, witty scenes as there are breathtaking moments of racism and sexism. Although the movie did well at the box office and received some award attention, it in no way got the reception I think it deserves. In comparison, think of the hoopla surrounding Apollo 13. This is the best movie of 2016 and one that I think all children should see.
Even though my official Bechdel Year has ended, I enjoyed this movie so much I decided to include it here. 2016 was a weak year for films, particularly for women. Thank goodness for Miss Sloane! Jessica Chastain plays Miss Sloane, a ruthless, mastermind of a lobbyist who is poached from a huge company by Mark Strong’s smaller, upstart company to help get a gun control law passed. If you like verbal sparring, politically charged dramas with passionate speeches, double and triple crossing and all sorts of twists, you’ll love this. As satisfying as it is to watch Miss Sloane stomp all over a great deal of blow-hard men, and in fact in many of the scenes she is the only woman, that’s not what makes this excellent film past the test. The main female relationship is between Chastain and a young lobbyist Esme played by Gugu Mbatha- Raw. Esme has principles and morals that Miss Sloane doesn’t quite understand. The two of them form an unlikely friendship that is tested during the campaign. You won’t always agree with Miss Sloane, but I dare you not to be impressed by her. Fantastic, gripping viewing.
Any Tina Fey and Amy Poehler collaboration is reason for celebration. I really wanted to love SISTERS, but I found it lacking. The premise is solid: Amy and Tina return to their childhood home in Florida for one last party before the house is sold. Unfortunately SISTERS does not have the bite or the banter of Amy & Tina unscripted. Amy has some great moments with her romantic interest played by Ike Barinholtz, but she isn’t given much to do. It’s also hard to buy Tina as the wacky, party-hard sister. There are some solid one-liners and cameos from a whole host of mostly female SNL alumni (past and present). Rachel Dratch is wonderful, Kate McKinnon steals the (too) few scenes she’s in, and Maya Rudolph is perfect, if under-used. The best moments are the ones that feel unscripted, for example when Tina asks Amy to “give her a kiss” and they bump bellies. Although it’s refreshing to see so many funny woman of varying ages in a comedy, I left the movie wanting to go home and stream old SNL skits and Golden Globe clips.
Tom Hooper’s latest historical drama is based on a novel of the same name by David Ebershoff which in turn is (very) loosely based on the lives of Danish painters Gerda Wegener and Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe . The two share a loving, mutually supportive life as artists in 1920s Copenhagen. On a whim, Gerda has her husband Einar dress as a woman to fill in for her model. They call this woman Lili, and the ‘game’ escalates, going so far as to having Lili go to parties as Einar’s cousin. But Lili feels more real to Einar than ‘Einar’ ever did and she eventually makes the decision to be one of the first people to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. The movie is captivating, Hooper taking extra care with every detail. Each button, petticoat, brush stroke and tea cup is exquisite and deliberate. Much of the dialogue happens between Gerda and Lili, in fact the movie often feels like an excellent two-hand play. Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne are well-matched, nuanced performers. The movie is as much about empathy and love as it is about identity and transformation.
Based on the novel by Colm Toibin and adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, this gorgeous movie has some serious literary chops. Saoirse Ronan is mesmerizing as Eilis, a shy but determined Irish immigrant in 1950s Brooklyn. Despite her almost crippling homesickness, Eilis learns to thrive in the completely alien Brooklyn until tragedy pulls her back to Ireland and she must make a decision between two worlds. I appreciated how kind people were to Eilis. So many immigrant stories focus on feelings of isolation and lack of empathy, but Eilis has many people willing to help her. They don’t necessarily coddle her, but challenge her to be her best self. I particularly liked her relationship with her landlady (Julie Walters) and fellow boarders, which offered delightful moments of comedy. Jessica Pare has a small but memorable roll as Eilis’ glamorous boss who is tough but comes through when necessary. Although there is a love story, it isn’t the only aspect of Eilis’ life that is explored. In addition to her very lovely fella, Eilis’ transition is aided and supported by many women. A shining example of a historical drama from distinctly female perspective.
The Hunger Games series does an excellent job of portraying a range of female characters and the final instalment is no different. We have women portrayed as survivors, warriors, victims, villains, heroes, and everything in between. Katniss is a complex, conflicted and reluctant hero- impulsive and fascinating to watch. But we also have conniving, Machiavellian President Coin played by a chilling Julianne Moore; loose-cannon victor and survivor Johanna; level-headed propaganda director Cressida; trusted commander Paylor; flighty but loyal Effie; and last but not least, calm, newly-minted medic Prim (*sob*). The final chapter in this series is as bleak as one expects, but proves that a massive blockbuster can be carried by not one but many female characters.
I had high hopes for this film but was ultimately left unaffected but what should have been a moving historical account of the women’s rights movement in England. Carey Mulligan does a good job with the material that she’s given, but too much of the plot hangs on her character, often resulting in melodrama. Helena Bonham Carter and Anne-Marie Duff are in fine form, but those looking for a Meryl fix should be prepared for one very small scene. So many historical films have very little roles for women beyond wife, daughter or mistress, and Suffragette succeeds in breaking the mould here, if nowhere else. It is a decent primer on a period of history that is often downplayed or overlooked completely. Sadly it did not live up to the great trailer and those interested in this time period are better off reading Sharon Biggs Waller’s fantastic YA novel A Mad, Wicked Folly.
As a long-standing Noah Baumbach fan I could not wait for this collaboration with my girl crush Greta Gerwig. I was not disappointed and this is my favourite movie of the year so far. Eighteen-year-old Tracy is not having a good freshman year until she looks up the 30-year-old daughter of the man her mother is set to marry. Brooke is even more than Tracy hoped for: funny, smart, outrageous, resourceful, enigmatic, kind, cruel- in a word, she is intoxicating. In Brooke, Tracy has not only found a person to admire, but subject matter for the short fiction she wants to write. Both Gerwig and Lola Kirke are perfectly cast and play off each other extremely well. I loved Kirke’s wide-eyed, talented yet awkward Tracy. She is completely endearing, even when being an asshole. Gerwig outdoes even herself in a role that make me think of Alicia Silverstone’s charming and similarly outlandish Cher Horowitz (from Classic 90s film Clueless). There is an excruciating but funny scene in which Brooke is approached by a former classmate who has finally worked up the nerve to tell her off for being mean in high school. Brooke’s response is hilarious and cruel and fascinating. As per usual in a Baumbach film, the characters are unforgettable, selfish, and have fantastic dialogue. I snorted at the scenes set in the writing class and could not get enough of Tracy’s completely outrageous view of herself and the world. This is movie I want to see again- many, many times- not just because it’s funny, but because each line, no matter how flippantly it is delivered, carries weight and is worthy of discussion. Brooke is not invulnerable and both women have growing to do, something they come to realize as they become friends. If it’s not abundantly clear, I loved this film and could talk about it for ages. A must-see!
This movie, based on an autobiographic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, has my name written all over it. Bel Powley is mesmerizing as aspiring teen artist Minnie who strikes up an affair with her mother’s boyfriend in 1970s San Francisco. She is both vulnerable and commanding, selfish and empathetic, average and ethereal. The movie deals with a girl discovering, experimenting with, and eventually owning her sexuality. Consequently there is a lot of frank discussion about sex and many graphic sex scenes. Although the movie deals with Minnie’s relationships with men, there are three female relationships that are equally important. Minnie’s mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) is loving but not particularly attentive. Their relationship is strained and Charlotte makes some questionable parenting decisions that come out of an alcohol-soaked, free-love, drug-enhanced lifestyle. I would watch a whole movie about Minnie’s sister, Gretel, who is wise beyond her years, desperate for her sister’s attention, but still annoying in that classic little sister way. Minnie also has a partner-in-crime/wing-woman/frenemy in Kimmie, and their relationship touched me the most in the film. Minnie gets herself into dangerous and sometimes cringe-worthy situations but I never really worried about her because I felt confident that she was never doing anything she didn’t want to do- or thought she wanted to do. Sometimes I wanted to cheer for her, sometimes I wanted to give her a hug. She rarely herself to exploited and it fact shows remarkable confidence in asking for what she wants and getting it. I hope the academy remembers Powley and this movie come Oscar season.
It should come as no surprise that Amy Schumer’s R rated summer comedy makes this list. Schumer is very vocal about making comedy for women. There are some great one-liners here and the movie is a good primer if you are not already familiar with Schumer’s brand of crass, lady-friendly humour. This isn’t a ground-breaking film that subverts the rom-com formula, in fact the formula is very much in tact except I would argue that Schumer plays the “traditional male rom-com role” (aloof, afraid to commit, ready to run at the first sign of trouble) and Bill Hader plays the more traditional “female rom-rom role” (talking to his friends about the relationship, patient, looking for intimacy). There are some great scenes between Amy and her on-screen sister Kim and a baby shower scene that’s worth the price of admission. Plus any movie that resolves conflict with a dance sequence is a winner in my books.
Pixar’s latest got stellar reviews for successfully getting inside the head of a tween girl- no easy feat indeed. The world-building here is fantastic: clever, thought-provoking but still tons of fun (The Train of Thought! Personality islands! Finally, the reason TV jingles pop into our heads at any given time!) Much of the narrative is driven between Sadness and Joy who get separated from control and find themselves wading through Riley’s brain. Like many Pixar movies I wonder if this film resonates more with adults than with children. The very young might find some of the concepts challenging but the movie does present an excellent starting point to talk about feelings, particularly the relationship of sadness and joy. There is some excellent voice work here, particularly by Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith. This thirty-something found herself welling up more than a few times.
This gorgeous-looking, slow-burning movie based on Vera Brittain’s groundbreaking memoir of her experiences as a World War I nurse is very much a feminist film, but I am surprisingly learning that feminist films don’t always pass the Bechdel. I’m happy to report this one does. In many ways it is about a girl who spends all her time with boys (her brother and his college chums) and wishes to be in a man’s world (Oxford university). Even when Vera leaves school to become a nurse (a traditionally ‘female’ occupation), she enters a very male-dominated space, helping a massive population of wounded male soldiers. TESTAMENT OF YOUTH proves that you can make a historically accurate film about being a woman in a man’s world and still have meaningful female interactions. Vera interacts with the other nurses, who dislike her at first because of her status as an Oxford student. She also has meaningful interactions with her mother and the headmistress about what is suitable for a woman and her future in general. The film is beautifully shot and ceaselessly tragic and ended up feeling a bit long. There is a love story for romantics, but don’t expect it to end well.
Studio Ghibli has a long tradition of making beautiful animated films that pass the Bechdel test, such as SPIRITED AWAY and THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY. Many of these are based on children’s books, including WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE, adapted from a novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson. This is a tender and emotional story about Anna, a lonely child who is sent to a rural community to recover from asthma, although I would argue it’s depression and anxiety she is really suffering from. There she discovers an impressive mansion on a marsh and is inexplicably drawn to it and the girl who lives there, the elusive Marnie. The movie is haunting and beautiful, with a watercolour palette and a sweeping orchestral score. It perfectly captures the intensity of adolescent female friendship, which can be intimate and at times appear romantic. The high drama may cause some adults to roll their eyes, but it’s important to remember that for kids every emotion is heightened. As lush and gorgeous as it is to look at, the movie delves into dark places, including abuse, neglect, and violence. In a world where so many films for children strive to be funny- or worse, ironic- in an attempt to appeal to a mass adult audience, I very much enjoyed the great big beating heart at the centre of the story and the capital S Sentimentality of it all. I saw the subtitled version at TIFF Bell Lightbox, but the English dubbed version boasts a strong cast of voice actors (Sally Draper as Marnie? I’m in!)
Lest people worry that Bechdel films tend to represent the dreary and downright dangerous aspects of being a woman, I present Pitch Perfect 2. Easily one of my most anticipated films of this year, Pitch Perfect 2 delivers more of the same schtick, but doesn’t manage to hit the same high note as the original film. There are some choice and pointed political jokes (during a discussion about minorities, Cynthia Rose declares”I’m black, a lesbian, AND a woman”), PP2 is essentially a low-stakes, heart-warming comedy about friendship. Though it doesn’t live up to the freshness and vigour of the first movie, PP2 offers some great one-liners (most of which belong to Fat Amy) and enjoyable musical numbers. The narrative feels strained, offering glimpses at a variety of storyvlines (Beca in her first internship, Emily struggling as a new recruit, Fat Amy coming to terms with her feelings for Bumper), none of which feel dire or are given enough time to truly develop. I will likely not re-watch this film, certainly not in the way I turn to the original, but I was entertained and am always happy to see a generally smart comedy about female friendships.
Based on the Thomas Hardy novel of the same name, this is the story of a young woman who inherits a farm in the Victorian era and despite societal expectations resists marriage in favour of remaining independent. It is everything you want from a literary adaptation, complete with a solid British cast and beautiful cinematography. Though the film is clearly feminist with some excellent and pointed lines (“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language chiefly made by men to express theirs.” BURN!) and there is excellent wielding of the female gaze, it barely passes the test. Bathsheba (who prefers “Miss Everdene”) has many private conversations with her companion Liddy, though they tend to stray towards her marital status and the eligible men in the parish. To be fair, Miss Everdene operates in circles dominated by men, which is why the majority of her conversations are with men, not women. Miss Everdene is presented with three suitors: hard-working and hopelessly in love Farmer Oak; stodgy, well-intentioned and wealthy Mr. Boldwood; and sexy ne’er-do-well soldier Mr. Troy. Everdene makes a variety of frustrating mistakes, but she is ultimately rewarded in love at the end of the film, unlike poor, sad Tess, subject of Thomas Hardy’s other famous novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
The always fantastic Juliette Binoche is an ageing actress who is tapped to play the role of an older woman in a remount of the play that made her famous in which she was cast as the young seductress. Binoche struggles with this decision, which is strongly supported by her young assistant played by Kristen Stewart. Throw in Chloe Grace Moretz’s character, a hot young talented hollywood mess, and you have a great think piece about identity, power and the murky waters of seduction. There’s a lot of dialogue in this movie and at times it felt more like a play. I desperately wanted to see the fictional play, The Majola Snake, at the centre of the conflict. Binoche is excellent, at times confident, at times heartbreakingly insecure, and it is both hard and compelling to watch her deal with her own ageing. As she rehearses with Stewart her feelings for the assistant get caught up in her feelings about the character she’s playing. Lots of meaty stuff here about what it’s like to be a woman ageing in an industry that glorifies the ingenue, being at the mercy of love, and the cost of power.
I loved every moment of THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (but mostly those moments including Maggie Smith) so I was thrilled when they decided to do a second film. Sadly I found this follow-up only mildly entertaining and lacking in strong story lines, especially for the women. I remember the first one having more varied character growth and this time around most of the characters were concerned with love. Even Maggie Smith’s lovably salty character Mrs. Donnelly was mostly used to tell people in the midst of romantic crises to buck up. I know that the film is billed as a romantic comedy, but it was definitely heavier on the romance than the comedy.The conversation that stands out the most to me was between Evelyn (Judi Dench) and her female boss, who offers her a promotion. Other than that there are a few brief conversations between women that touch on health, life lessons, and being true to one’s self- but they all eventually lead to discussion about male lovers, fathers, or sons.
After watching this film I now have a major girl crush on writer/director Celine Sciamma. Marieme is a good kid growing up in the rough banlieues of Paris. Her mother is away all hours of the day trying to make a living, leaving Marieme to look after her sisters and avoid her abusive older brother. After her dreams of high school are squashed by an unsympathetic guidance counsellor, she finds comfort in a a girl gang, becoming their fourth member. There were so many fantastically realized relationships in this movie. The scenes with Marieme and her younger sister are sweet, funny and heartbreaking. Sciamma masterfully captures the everyday joys and conflict of girl friendships. The cast is fabulous, and even a scene of the girls doing nothing but giggling, dancing and lip-syncing for the length of an entire Rihanna song is compelling. It is mesmerizing to watch shy, naive Marieme transform herself into fierce, loyal Vic (for Victoire, or Victory). At one point Lady tells Vic, “You do what you want” and that is essentially what Vic decides to do. Her choices aren’t always smart, but they are hers alone. I ached for Vic, but I left the movie feeling like she would be okay. Given the English translation of the title, GIRLHOOD is inevitably being compared to Linklater’s BOYHOOD, but there are some major differences. Growing up poor, white and male in American is not the same as growing up poor, black and female in Paris. There is little to no parental support or influence in Vic/Marieme’s life, and while Linklater’s film isn’t an idealized portrait of adolescence, Mason’s life is positively glamorous compared to Vic’s. Deeply affecting and surprisingly hopeful, GIRLHOOD demonstrates the hardships of growing up female in a hostile environment. Vic is a compelling heroine and a girl you want to stand up and cheer for. Now please excuse me while I go find all of Sciamma’s previous films.
This Swedish gem was a beloved TIFF movie and I can see why. Bobo and Klara recruit Christian virtuoso guitarist Hedvig to form a punk band despite everyone telling them that punk is dead. In the days leading up to their first performance they cut Hedvig’s hair, meet up with cute Punk boys, develop crushes, fight over said crushes, and eventually realize that they are the best. An unglamorous, sweet but cringe-worthy coming of age story for those girls who never joined dance club. Passes with flying colours.
Based on Lisa Genova’s book of the same name, this is a real heart-breaker of a movie about a prominent linguistics professor (the sublime Julianne Moore) dealing with a diagnosis of early on-set Alzheimer’s disease. Some of the best scenes in the movies happen to be the scenes between Alice and her youngest daughter Lydia (a compelling Kristen Stewart). Lydia is living in LA and trying to make it as an actress and Alice is trying to come to terms with her daughter’s “risky” career choice. Early in the film much of their conversation is about Lydia going back to school or thinking of her future, but as Alice deteriorates they talk about her past, the plays Lydia is performing in, and love. A nuanced portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship.
As a super-fan of the stage production, I went into this movie with very low expectations. It wasn’t as bad as I expected, but the good parts certainly didn’t blow me away. The movie felt less feminist than the musical, which I remember having more interactions between female characters. The movie does pass, but barely. Rapunzel and her mother, The Witch (note that this isn’t a name) have two major scenes during which they discuss whether The Witch really has Rapunzel’s best interests at heart. They argue over the nature of love, whether the Witch’s rather strict treatment of her daughter is justified, and how she feels she has sacrificed everything for her daughter. Cinderella and The Baker’s Wife (not only is this not a name, but derived from her husband’s profession) talking about life at the palace and what it’s like to go to the ball. Much of this conversation dances around the idea of The Prince, but technically it passes. Overall not a strong contender. Also suffers from a lack of Bernadette Peters.
*Exclusions: TV, which tends to pass anyway, and documentaries. While there is obviously a need for women-focused documentaries, I’m narrowing my experiment to feature film