24 June 2024

SleuthSisters, Movies, and the Bechdel Test: Part II

The last time our beloved SleuthSayer buddy John Floyd, who everyone agrees watches way too many movies, listed his favorites, fellow SleuthSayer Melodie Campbell and I both commented, "You are such a guy, John!" What did we mean? What does John's love for Casablanca, The Godfather, and The Big Lebowski have to do with gender? Aren't they all great films? Yes, but. Melodie gave me the best way yet to explain why many women may admire these films but not necessarily adore them when she told me about the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test, created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who now says she was only kidding at the time but thinks it's cool that it's worked so well and come to mean so much to women who love movies, is a simple three-part measure to apply to any movie.

Does the movie have at least one scene in which (1) two women characters talk (2) to each other (3) about a subject other than a man (or men)?

I grew up in a household in which the women—me, my mother, and my sister—outnumbered the lone man, my dad. Add in a gaggle of loquacious aunts, maternal and paternal, on holidays—I've recently learned that the linguistic technical term for the constant interrupting in any New York Jewish gathering is called "overlapping" and is a feature of our "dialect"—and the men could barely get a word in edgewise. At age 92, my mother, who by then called herself "the oldest living lawyer," made friends with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was twenty years younger. The first time they had lunch together, we asked Mom, "What did you talk about?" "Everything!" she said. And that's what I want women in movies to talk about too.

In Part I, my SleuthSister Melodie discussed why it's important for all of us to have movies that pass the Bechdel test: for some, characters that we can relate to and admire; for others, frequent reminders that women have more interesting things to talk about than men, men, men.

If you missed Melodie's post, you can read it here.

Now, here are some examples: 26 (a double baker's dozen!) wonderful movies that pass the Bechdel Test (in no particular order):

1. Enchanted April
Four women seeking respite from their lives in dreary post-World War I London are unexpectedly transformed by a month in a castle in Italy.

2. Hidden Figures
Black women's work as mathematicians at NASA was crucial to America's success in the Space Race; their story is finally told.

3. The Help
The women who work as maids to the young white wives of Jackson, Mississippi just before the Civil Rights movement risk their jobs and their safety to tell a woman journalist the truth about how they're treated.

4. Nyad
A woman in her sixties comes back from repeated failures to swim from Cuba to Florida, with the support of the woman friend who coaches her.

5. Fried Green Tomatoes
Two pairs of women form enduring friendships: a modern housewife in need of empowerment with an old woman in a nursing home and an independent woman in the 1920s with an abused wife in need of an escape route.

6. Little Women
Four sisters share dreams and ambitions in Civil War-era New England. Seven movies have been made of the novel that more American women still read for pleasure than men read Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn.

7. Erin Brockovich
A single mother fights environmental crime and corporate greed in a small community.

8. Norma Rae
A millworker finds her voice when she leads a fight to unionize.

9. Made in Dagenham
Women strike for equal pay at a Ford plant in Britain.

10. Songcatcher
A woman in the 1930s goes to Appalachia to collect folksongs and learns more than she expects to.

11. Beaches Two very different women's lifelong friendship begins and is renewed on beaches.

12. Marvin's Room
A dying woman seeks a bone marrow transplant from members of her dysfunctional family.

13. Howard's End
Two Edwardian sisters devoted to each other, culture, and their independence diverge on issues of class and how to use their privilege for good.

14. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
A group of aging British women and men relocate to India in hopes of a more satisfying life in their later years.

15. Still Alice
A brilliant woman facing early onset dementia struggles to connect with her daughters while she can.

16. Monsoon Wedding
The prospect of a wedding stirs up secrets in a prosperous Indian family.

17. National Velvet
A little girl with an eccentric but loving family dreams of winning the Grand National on a horse she won in a raffle.

18. Nine to Five
Three women friends plot revenge against their abusive boss

19. Girl, Interrupted
Two girls in a locked psychiatric institution become friends.

20. After the Wedding
The birth mother and adoptive mother of the bride meet, and their complicated history is revealed.

21. Calendar Girls
A group of respectable British women raise money by posing nude for a calendar.

22. Bend It Like Beckham
Two girls from different backgrounds become friends after being rivals at football (soccer to Americans).

23. Boys On the Side
Three young women join forces on a road trip that becomes a trip on the run.

24. Julia
The writer Lillian Hellman tries to help her friend Julia, who works against and is ultimately killed by the Nazis.

25. Outrageous Fortune
Two actresses who hate each other become friends in a mashup of buddy, spy, and caper movie.

26. Steel Magnolias
The women in a small Louisiana town shares their joys and sorrows at the local beauty salon.

How many of these have you seen?


  1. I've seen 2, 6, 8, 10, and 24. When I was writing my novel GREENFELLAS I realized it flunked the Bechdel test (why not novels as well as movies?) so I did a sex change on one of my characters and - guess what? - it improved the scene.

    1. Don't tell Florida that a sex change can improve things!

    2. Women improve a lotta things, Rob. :) And I loved Greenfellas.

  2. I've seen 15 of them. I'm going to have to do one on movies from the old B&W era - MANY of which passed the Bechdel test.

  3. BTW, one of the great movies with an almost all-female cast is Robert Altman's "Three Women." GREAT movie, if you like them weird.

    1. No, I didn't see it, and I've just googled it. Three great actresses, but the word that sprang to mind about the story was "unkind." And I bet this 1977 movie would irritate the hell out of me if I tried to watch it now.

  4. The trouble with Robert Altman for me was that he was merciless toward every one of his characters. He never gave the viewer one to love without reservation. Come to think, I could explain that in terms of feminist psychology, according to which women develop and form their identity through connection and relationship, rather than the male model of separation and individuation that always had us (and Carol Gilligan at Harvard, bless her) so puzzled in psychology class when we tried to apply it to ourselves. But don't get me started...

    1. Altman can seem merciless towards Shelley Duvall's character - until you realize that Duvall herself improvised her character's ramblings and advice on dating, as well as her character's recipes and diary. And Sissy Spacek improvised a lot of her lines and actions as well. The two actresses built - for good or ill - a lot about their characters. I think there's a lot there about personality and individualism - can they merge? Can someone take over another person's persona? All three women change dramatically by the end of the movie. Meanwhile, it definitely passes the Bechdel test - these women talk about a lot more than men. It's Edgar who's the supporting player.

  5. So great to see the comments here! Your comment on feminist psychology is new to me, Liz, and resonates with me. Maybe another post about that, Liz? I'd love to get you started (grin) Melodie

  6. I'm intrigued by the fact that we seem to be going back in time to look for movies that pass the test (so many good ones!) My unease is with movies of today. Lots of YA movies with girls and young women in them, but precious few adult movies. Melodie

  7. IN Bechdel's original cartoon that created the rule her character said that the most recent movie she had seen that passed it was Alien. "The women talked about the monster!" Insert joke about choosing the bear here, I guess.

    1. Robert, does your back hurt when you get out of bed in the morning? I ask because mine does, and it's one of the signs that 1985 was a long, long time ago—almost 40 years!

  8. I find my adult movies (called exactly that) in the AARP Magazine every year—the only part I read consistently except who's turning 70, 80, and 90 (at this point I haven't heard of a lot of the 50s or even some of the 60s). But besides the Bechdel issue, many of them, especially Oscar nominees lately, are too dark and depressing to interest me. The newest film on my list is Nyad (2023), which won Oscar nominations for Annette Bening and Jodie Foster. I liked the 2019 Greta Gerwig version of Little Women, with Saoirse Ronan as Jo, and the 2017 PBS Masterpiece version of Howard's End, with Hayley Atwood as Margaret Schlegel. There, my objection would be the re-use of old material rather than taking risks with new work. But the market, as we know, tends to create and then feed its darling monsters. Also, Melodie, some of it is personal taste. I'm bored bored bored with young women's insipid self-discovery and dysfunctional marriages that make me itch to get the couples into treatment with a therapist as good as me—an ethical one who sleeps neither with patients nor their family members! I don't "go to the movies" any more, and I watch more and more TV on streaming services that give me international series with subtitles and older characters who look and act like real people.

  9. Oops. It's Movies for Grownups on AARP.

  10. What does that say about me when I didn't like so many of those "girl" films listed above? I prefer a story to move me. And I detest women talking over each other. It's annoying to the point I would walk out or turn it off. The Godfather to me is a great film on many levels. As for newer films, "The Professor and the Madman" was pretty much the only film I've liked enough to buy recently.

    If I had to make a list, it would always begin with CASABLANCA, because it has so many archetypes, values, and relationships that grow, plus dialog that becomes hugely popular (at least, in my house) quotable lines. To me it's the best film ever made, and this coming from a huge Austen fan who watches every version of her books EVER made, and Agatha, though I haven't seen a few on the list in Part I. There were some films on the above list I would NEVER EVER want to see, the exceptions being the films I own, such as: Enchanted April, Howard's End, and Julia. And my favorite person in Enchanted April was the owner of the villa, Michael Kitchen, and of course, Anthony Hopkins in Howard's End.

    I've had numerous discussions with family members about why they would go see a certain movie, and none included a female star. Though I would watch a film with Ingrid Bergman, or Bette Davis, or Joan Fontaine at the drop of a hat, I can't think of a single actress today who would drive me to go see. Story is everything to me, and never, ever, driven by it being a particularly female story. And the trend with skinny women beating up men is patently laughable, unbelievable, and poor writing. Besides, I'd rather read a book these days.

    1. Seems like it says the writer might be an anonymous man. Though I might have the gender wrong.

    2. No, I'm a woman, but I don't have a Google Account, so my only choice was anonymous.

  11. Wait, Liz--you forgot Blazing Saddles!! Okay, just kiddin'.

    I love this list! As for your question, I've seen all of them except 4, 9, 10, 15, 16, and 20, and I was actually planning to watch Nyad on Netflix tonight. My favorites are probably The Help, Erin Brockovich, Hidden Figures, and Nine to Five.

    I agree with both you and Melodie that most of the good ones that pass the test were made long ago--and that IS sad.

    By the way, watching too many movies is impossible . . .

    1. Aw, John, Blazing Saddles is adorable. Fascinating that The Help, about your neck of the woods, is one of your favorites. And glad to hear you've seen so many of these.

  12. I have seen nine of these movies. I wish I could contribute a suggestion to a modern-day movie that passes the test, but I just don't watch movies like I used to. The Hunger Games certainly qualifies, but I think Melodie already covered that. Or did John mention it. Someone did. Anyway, good post.

    1. Thanks, Barb. I suspect we all watch fewer "movie movies" since the pandemic. For "other" conversations, think mother-daughter movies, sister movies, work movies, death and dying movies...and re recent movies, Barbie certainly passed the test.

    2. Academic movies are another good source. I just remembered Words and Pictures. It passes, but it came out in 2013, so not recent.

  13. I'm late to the party, Liz and Melodie, but my list would prominently include The House of Mirth based of course on Edith Wharton's novel. Lily Bart… wow. It's a very moving film.

    1. I've seen exactly half. I didn't see National Velvet but I read it. Does that count? Come to think of it, if I had to pick a Taylor movie, I'd opt for Suddenly, Last Summer.

    2. Leigh, the movie is great, with little Elizabeth Taylor luminous as Velvet, young Angela Lansbury as the older sister, and Anne Revere as the Channel-swimming mother along with Mickey Rooney as Mi.


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