Test the Media · ep. 63

Teen and tween girls watch a movie while eating popcorn.

It started with the Bechdel Test

You may recall, I’m big on Media Literacy. A few years ago I learned about a method to analyze media, and I found it reeeally interesting so I want to tell you about it! It was while I was reading “More Than A Body,” by Drs. Lindsey and Lexie Kite, they described the Bechdel Test, named after graphic novelist Alison Bechdel in 1985.

To pass the Bechdel Test, a movie has to meet three criteria:
(1) it has to have at least two named women in it;
(2) who talk to each other;
(3) about something besides a man.

Sounds simple enough, right? But many movies actually can’t pass the Bechdel Test. Maybe up until the last decade or so, there hasn’t been much representation of women in movies that didn’t center the girl’s storyline around a guy. Even today though, I think you’d be surprised by just how many movies don’t pass the Bechdel Test. According to BechdelTest.com, recent movies that didn’t pass were Avatar: The Way of Water, Minions: the Rise of Gru, and the live action Pinocchio. And according to FiveThirtyEight.com, other movies that didn’t pass include Storks, the Angry Birds Movie, The Jungle Book, The Secret Life of Pets, and Doctor Strange. Do any of those surprise you? Now, while the Bechdel Test measures female representation, it doesn’t cover the portrayal of women, like stereotyping or being disrespectful. It is good to keep in the back of your mind, though, as you watch shows. If the female characters are mostly interacting to talk about a guy, the message from the show is that the only thing that matters in a girl’s life is being in a relationship. When in reality, girls’ lives are multi-faceted, not limited to just relationships. And that should be portrayed more in shows.

The Mako Mori Test

Some movies narrowly pass the Bechdel Test, even though the female character’s plot centers around the main male character, or if the female character weren’t in the movie at all, it wouldn’t change the story. On the flipside, some movies with a prominent female character whose storyline doesn’t revolve around a guy actually fail the Bechdel Test because she’s the only girl in the show. This led to the development of the Mako Mori test, which measures whether a film has one female character, who gets her own narrative arc, and that is not about supporting a man’s story. So by that criteria, several of the movies I listed that failed the Bechdel Test would pass the Mako Mori Test. Something to think about. 

The Bechdel Test also inspired the creation of many other media representation and diversity ‘tests,” and they each offer unique lenses to analyze media. 

The DuVernay Test

The DuVernay Test, named after director/producer/writer Ava DuVernay, was created by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis. It tests whether “African Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than [serving] as scenery in white stories.” Fewer movies than you’d think can actually pass this test, where a non-white character has their own storyline. But, like the Bechdel Test, I think shows have improved representation over recent years, and there’s still plenty more that can be done.

There are many other media “tests” to keep in mind. FiveThirtyEight.com measured 50 movies against several newer tests, so I want to tell you about their findings.

The Lena Waithe Test

In the Lena Waithe Test, named after the Emmy-Award winning writer, a show passes if there’s a Black woman, who is in a position of power, and is in a healthy relationship. The creation of this test points out how the opposite is often portrayed in media. But some more recent movies can pass this test, including one of my favorites, Hidden Figures.

The Ko Test

The Ko Test, named after writer and actor Naomi Ko, measures whether there’s a non-white female in the film, who speaks in five or more scenes, and speaks English. More than half of the 50 films tested failed, but some that passed were Moana, Kung Fu Panda 3, and Sing.

The Ligiah Villalobos Test

In the Ligiah Villalobos test, named after the producer and writer, a show passes if the film has a Latina lead character, and she or another Latina character are shown as professional or college educated, speaks unaccented English, and is not objectified. Sadly, no movies tested passed.

The Koeze-Dottle Test

The Koeze-Dottle Test, named after journalists Rachael Dottle and Elle Koeze, measures whether 50 percent of the supporting cast (not the main characters) are female. Movies that failed that surprised me are Finding Dory and Zootopia.

Disability Tests

In addition to media tests for female representation and racial and ethnic diversity, other tests measure whether a film normalizes disability. In an article from TheMighty.com, Chelsea Rivas suggests this criteria: a disabled character with a name, who isn’t a villian, and whose disability is not a critical plot point. And in a Medium article, author Kenny Fries’ test would measure whether the work has more than one disabled character, whether the disabled characters have their own purpose other than the education and profit of a nondisabled character, and whether the character’s disability is not eradicated.

The Uphold Test

There are also tests for representation behind the camera, too. The Uphold Test, named after writer and actress Rory Uphold, tests if the on-set crew is 50 percent women. All of the movies tested failed.

The Rees Davies Test

But the Rees Davies Test offers some hope. Named after director and producer Kate Rees Davies, it measures whether every department of a film has two women in it, can they handle that? Many movies pass that test, but I know they can do better.

Send Hollywood a Message

I mean really, Hollywood, learn from all of these tests. Hire more women, on and off-camera. And tell better stories using people who aren’t being represented enough so that media is a more-accurate reflection of our society.

No single media test will measure all aspects of representation and diversity, and no single movie will pass every media test, but it’s still good to analyze the media that’s being created so we can make informed decisions on what we watch. When a movie makes a lot of money at the box office, or a ton of people stream a show, that sends a message to the companies making these shows that they should make more stuff like that. But if there’s something you think should change, send that message. Tell the media what you want to see by how you spend your time and your money, or even use your voice. Seriously, what if people sent a letter/email/DM or made a post/video telling writers, producers, and studios what we want to see less of and and what we want to see more of? I think some of them would listen.

See Media Differently

I hope this exploration has given you lots to think about. My aim is to help you see media differently. Since media is a significant part of our lives, it’s important to critically assess the media we engage with so we’re aware of the messages being shared and what’s behind them. Remember, media literacy is about being a mindful media consumer, communicator, and creator.

Before you go

If you have a topic suggestion, I’d love to hear from you! Send an email (tweens get the OK from your parents) to [email protected] .

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