2018 has been the kind of year that makes you hunger for good news in almost any arena, so it’s no surprise that feminist observers of the entertainment industry this month seized on a new analysis that implied that starring a woman boosts a movie’s prospects at the box office. The research, compiled by Creative Artists Agency and the company shift7, is a sensible attempt to use the only true leverage point in Hollywood. (For all the industry’s liberal platitudes, the past few years have demonstrated that the entertainment industry’s barons don’t actually feel anything like shame when it comes to gender equality).
What the numbers mostly made me feel, though, was exhaustion with a long-running feminist measuring unit that’s started out as a withering critique of Hollywood that, like most things that come into contact with the entertainment industry, was co-opted by the very business it intended to condemn.
The so-called Bechdel Test, which emerged from one of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic strips, tests a simple thing: Does a movie feature two women who talk to each other about something other than a man? There’s nothing wrong with Bechdel’s acerbic and despairing assessment of the mainstream movie industry of 1985; her condemnation could apply equally to the movie-going landscape of today. But the Bechdel Test doesn’t even get close to reorienting the entertainment industry towards women’s stories, or to subject matter and emotional tones that have been traditionally considered female rather than excitingly masculine. I’d be delighted if I never heard anyone connected with Hollywood invoke the Bechdel Test again.
As the report notes, every movie released between 2014 and 2017 that made a billion dollars or more at movie theaters around the world passed the Bechdel Test. But, beyond the basics of the test, what does this factoid really tell us about the world’s most popular and widely-seen movies?
Mostly, it suggests that movies with reasonably prominent female characters can make a bundle of money as long as they aren’t very different from movies that star mostly men. Of the 11 movies that crossed the billion-dollar mark, eight of them — “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Jurassic World,” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Furious 7,” “The Fate of the Furious,” “Captain America: Civil War” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” — were installments of existing action or disaster movie franchises.
Some of these movies incorporate private concerns, and allow both male and female characters to display vulnerability as well as strength. (Invocations of family show up in the “Fast and Furious” movies so frequently that you could use them as the basis for a fairly risky drinking game.) The “Star Wars” movies, which star Daisy Ridley as Rey, arguably do the most to shake up their genre by featuring plot points and characters that call into question traditional models of strength and leadership. But even a very mildly innovative “Star Wars” movie is still a “Star Wars” movie. The franchise’s recent financial success is hardly about to overturn the hierarchy of moviegoing concerns that prioritizes exploding skyscrapers and battleships over more domestic and intimate — what have traditionally been seen as more feminine — concerns.
The three remaining movies on the list don’t say much more about moviegoers hunger for films that don’t simply star female characters, but that address women’s concerns and inner lives. “Zootopia,” Disney’s terrific animated movie about a bunny who wants to be a police officer and ends up confronting her own implicit biases about predator animals, is a zingy and slyly subversive delight, but it’s also fundamentally a much-cuter remake of “Chinatown.”
Which leaves us with “Beauty and the Beast” and “Finding Dory." Both movies are about women and their identities and independence (okay, one woman and one female fish), but are both based on preexisting intellectual property. In “Beauty and the Beast,” Belle, played here by Emma Watson, is the live-action incarnation of the Disney animated feature, while Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) graduated from a supporting role in “Finding Nemo” to be the star of her own picture.
The authors of the study are candid about how little the Bechdel Test actually means. “The test itself is an admittedly low bar - e.g., films can pass with a single line of dialogue,” they wrote in a footnote. “That fact makes it perhaps even more surprising that so many films still fail to pass this low bar.”
The fact that even a few billion-dollar movies cleared this hurdle is really what did it for me. The thing about criteria such as the Bechdel Test is that they can so easily move from exasperated challenge to the status quo to fig leaf that helps preserve the existing order. If all the entertainment industry has to do to pass the Bechdel Test is to slap a few lines of dialogue onto a hundred-and-forty-minute compilation of CGI explosions, then I’m done accepting Bechdel Test results as proof of anything other than Hollywood’s desire to wring as much profit out of feminism with as little effort as possible.