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Putting Money on the Bechdel Test (GRAPHS)

by Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna
April 2, 2014 4:51 PM
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Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins in 'Blue Jasmine'

The Bechdel test has proven an intriguing -- if far from wholly accurate -- method of figuring out a film's level of female character development. Are there two women in a given film? Do they talk to each other -- and about something other than men? In a fascinating piece on FiveThirtyEight, the Bechdel test is assessed from a financial standpoint. The conclusions are both depressing and hopeful.

Using films made between 1990 and 2013, the study shows that films which didn't pass the test had -- surprise! -- predominantly higher budgets than those that did. The median budget for a non-Bechdel-passing film is $48.4 million. The median budget for a film passing the test is almost $20 million less: $31.7 million. Clearly Hollywood doesn't value women who like to talk to one another about, say, their jobs or travels or ambitions or emotions.

But now for the silver lining: despite those films receiving less budget, they didn't fare any worse at the box office. In fact they had a better return on investment. Check out the graph below.

Look at movie like "Gravity," which boasts both a high budget and a significant lead woman who qualifies as an "action hero." That movie scored over $700 million the worldwide and wins Oscars to boot. When all revenues come in, Sandra Bullock may collect not just her $20 million advance, but as much as $70 million, largely from her 15% gross participation. And the actress has proven her action chops as well. There was a time that many people thought Bullock should be relegated to the constricted romantic comedy niche along with most other actresses. Cameron Diaz, Angelina Jolie, Michelle Rodriguez, Jennifer Lawrence and now Shailene Woodley have proven that women can perform in action movies as well as men. (Meanwhile, producers keep paying aging ex-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger not to open movies like "Sabotage.") Give women more high-quality commercial opportunities, Hollywood, and believe me, they will deliver. 

I weigh in on why Scarlett Johansson should be able to carry a Marvel superhero movie and why Hollywood is so myopic when it comes to women and action on Studio 360

And here's the graph for the median budgets:

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More: News, Features, Women in Film, Bechdel Test


  • Sally Archer | April 8, 2014 11:26 PMReply

    Thank you! A thousand thank you's for writing with proof of what we know is true --- the reasons are not economic but about misogyny and keeping women in a subordinate sex-class role when films featuring women having real (reel) lives aren't green-lighted or adequately financed. Women can internalize misogyny of course but the prevalence of violent gonzo porn and who's getting hurt by whom in the images says a lot, doesn't it? Our consciousness has capacity to expand and some men of good will continue to join those women who "get it" in seeing movies about expansion of action, life-loving agency and options for us all. Over time I hope the circle grows!

  • Danny | April 2, 2014 7:39 PMReply

    Oddly enough "Gravity" strictly speaking does not pass the Bechdel test, since when does Ryan talk to another woman (unless it is her monolog to the non-present daughter)? But it would be absurd to not bend the "rules" in this case... in a movie of just two visible characters, the woman talking to herself about something other than men will have to qualify, especially when the movie is all about her and the guy is there to support her.
    Funny how prominent (and valuable) the Bechdel test has become, when it started as a bit in the comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For".

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