In film, women are often reduced to stereotype, fulfilling the role of wife, girlfriend or sex-object to men whose lives and relationships drive the plot. Recent statistics however, suggest that this is changing, that more and more screenwriters are bringing strong female figures to our screens. Indeed, it is time that the film world take interest in the complexities of womanhood and, instead of resorting to easy stereotype, tell it like it is.
The following list ranks the top films of 2013 that passed the Bechdel test according to their US box office grossing from lowest to highest.
The Bechdel test ranks a film as gender-equal if it involves at least two named women that speak to one another about something other than a man. These criteria seem basic and easily met. However, the Bechdel test has revealed just how many films fail to meet even this low level of female representation. The Bechdel test owes its name to Alison Bechdel, the cartoonist whose 1985 comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For pointed its finger at the fact that so few films touch on female ‘sociality’, that is to say on forms of social bonding between women.
News website Voactiv reveals that only half of the top-grossing films of 2013 passed the Bechdel test – and some of them dubiously. Films that passed the test earned a total of $4.22 billion in the U.S., and the ones that failed a total of $2.66 billion. Putting forward this marked difference in film grossings highlights the success of female presence onscreen, and perhaps will be an incentive for Hollywood to bring more women in significant fictional roles to our screens.
It is an activist provocation that works. Many Swedish cinemas have even begun making audiences aware of whether the films they are screening pass the Bechdel test or not. Our list examines the female interactions in each film, exploring whether these women develop into pro-feminist figures beyond the basic interactions that the Bechdel test requests.
10. G.I. Joe: Retaliation – $123 million
Very much based in the male world of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe comic strip, Jon M. Chu’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation skims a Bechdel test pass by including a scene where two women, Jinx and Lady Jaye, introduce themselves to one another. However, though they interact at that moment, their relationship fails to develop throughout the rest of the film, placing female relationships well in the shadows of the male-dominated action. Nonetheless, the film does its bit for gender equality with Jinx portrayed as on-par with her male counterparts as one of the G.I. Joes. The film was a great success, grossing $123 million at the US box office.
9. The Conjuring – $137 million
James Wan’s The Conjuring tells the story of the Warrens, a married couple of paranormal investigators. Set in 1971, the film develops around their interactions with the Perron parents and their five daughters that have been experiencing paranormal events at their farmhouse in Rhode Island. The family is disturbed by the (primarily female) spirits that haunt their home. Relationships of friendship, fear and family love between women are played out. With a cast that’s primarily female, The Conjuring passes the Bechdel test with flying colours.
8. We’re the Millers – $150 million
When ex-drug dealer David finds himself forced into making a large-scale marijuana pick-up in Mexico, he decides to pull a family together in the hope of crossing the border back into the US in an RV unsuspected. He recruits his neighbour as his son, a teen runaway as his daughter, and a stripper as his wife. The mother and daughter play central roles, thus the film passes the Bechdel test. However, their portrayal is unflattering. While the two women interact, their discussions lack profundity compared to the interaction between their male counterparts, the father and son. Nonetheless, women are central to the plot progression and box office success of We’re the Millers.
7. The Heat – $160 million
Ambitious FBI agent Sarah Ashburn is marginalised by her predominantly male co-workers. Seeking a promotion, she is sent to Boston to hunt down a drug lord, Mr. Larkin. In Boston, she meets police officer Shannon Mullins on the job. Though at first their personalities clash, friendship and teamwork flourish between them as they put their heads together on the case. With many women in supporting roles as well, The Heat is a strongly feminist film that, whilst primarily being a comedy, also highlights and critiques the difficulties of being a successful woman in male-dominated work spheres.
6. Fast and Furious 6 – $239 million
Fast and Furious 6 comes under a lot of debate regarding its portrayal of women and their interactions. Plot progression is testosterone-heavy in the film, and though it features many women, these interact mainly through discussions about men, with a few exceptions that allow for the film to pass the Bechdel test. However, the fact that there are women on the team that is central to the plot (the team is working to overrule an organisation of lethal mercenary drivers), places them on par with the men in the film rather than using female figures as mere by-standers and admirers of male actions as may be expected in action-rich films of this type.
5. Frozen – $248 million
Not only does Frozen strive towards gender-equality, but towards an ideal of female empowerment. Disney twists the conventional fairy-tale plot by writing a strong female figure that interacts with men yet is self-sufficient, self-confident and witty. Children’s films promoting this message present a hope that gender-balanced films will become the norm for future generations. Moreover, the co-director of Frozen, Jennifer Lee, is the only woman scoring directing credit of the fifty highest grossing films of 2013.
4. Oz the Great and Powerful – $235 million
While most of the films on this list fall into a prioritisation of either male of female characters, Oz the Great and Powerful strives towards a gender-equal scenario. The major part of the plot may seem infuriatingly anti-feminist, with 3 beautiful witches relying on small-time circus magician Oscar Diggs to save them. However, as the plot progresses the film presents male and female cooperation as the key to success. Indeed the interaction between Oscar Diggs and the witches leads him to better himself as a man, and for the women to regain confidence in their own potential.
3. Man of Steel – $291 million
Predictably, Man of Steel is a fundamentally male-centric film about a young man endowed with superpowers fulfilling his potential on Earth. The film passes the Bechdel test, but only just, with very limited female interactions which are often only a single line long. Man of Steel is based on DC Comic’s Superman stories. However female character Lois Lane, that features heavily in these, plays a disappointingly minor role in Zach Snyder‘s 2013 adaptation.
2. Despicable Me 2 – $368 million
In Despicable Me 2, female interaction is a given. The three orphans Margo, Edith and Agnes, that saved their adoptive father Gru from pursuing a life of supervillainry in Despicable Me, are back. When Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League, an additional female figure, Lucy Wilde is introduced. The two partner up to track down the supervillain that has stolen an entire arctic research facility. The film has met criticism for turning the happily unconventional family setup of Despicable Me into a celebration of the traditional nuclear family. However, when it comes to interaction between women and developing their relationships onscreen, Despicable Me 2 is a success.
1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – $391 million
Frances Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, based on the dystopian books by Suzanne Collins, brings into play a large number of female characters that interact over a wide diversity of matters unrelated to men. Scenes of friendship, family, and mutual enrichment make this film a model example for Bechdel test success. Katniss Everdeen, the female lead, is a self-reliant, intelligent female capable of romance without compromising herself. Unshackled to society’s expectations of women, she presents a female ideal that does justice to womankind.