Column: Before the Oscars, a look at women on the big screen in 2013

Films with multiple female characters held their own at the box office this year, grossing more than $4 billion.

The Academy Awards are upon us, and that means it’s a great time to examine what 2013 looked like for women in film. There’s a great measuring tool feminists use to see if a film is up to snuff: the Bechdel Test.

If you’re not familiar with it, you’re not alone. I hadn’t heard of it until last spring, when another student shared it with me. The premise is simple: the test measures films against three criteria:

  1. It has to have at least two named women.
  2. They have to talk to each other …
  3. … About something other than a man.

Seems sort of intuitive, but think about it more closely: How many of your favorite movies actually pass the test? It was quite the eye-opener when I tried to think off the top of my head. Some of my favorite movies didn’t pass the test. I used the Bechdel Test database and found many movies produced today still don’t pass the test. In fact, according to, in 2013, only one-third of the top 50 grossing films passed the test. This is shocking to me, considering 50 percent of the population is female. Why is it that Hollywood believes women can see movies that only focus on men, while men aren’t expected to enjoy films about women?

Even more shocking is the fact that of the top 50 grossing films, not a single one was directed by a woman. The one exception is “Frozen,” which was co-directed by Jennifer Lee. What does this say about the films we are seeing, when women aren’t able to get behind the camera and have a say in what goes on the screen?

Although so many movies fail the Bechdel Test every year, many of my favorites pass with flying colors and are commercial and critical successes. Consider “Chicago” and “Million Dollar Baby,” both of which received the Academy Award for Best Picture. Clearly, women can be featured prominently in film and still be critically acclaimed. “Bridesmaids,” one of my absolutely favorite Bechdel Test examples, passes with flying colors and is loved by both men and women alike.

They can also be successful at the box office. Of the top 50 highest-grossing films, the ones that passed the Bechdel Test (even by slight margins) made $4.22 billion, compared to $2.66 billion made by the 23 films that did not pass all of the criteria. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” made $391 million and was the second-highest grossing film of 2013. It also happens to star a strong female character. The Hunger Games challenges many of the usual female ideals: Katniss is independent, and although stuck in a love triangle, she is the one saving Peeta instead of the other way around. Maybe it should be the rule instead of the exception. The upcoming film adaption of the “Divergent” novels gives me hope that Hollywood is finally catching on.

Women can vote with their dollars, and they clearly do so. But how long will it take for Hollywood to catch on that we deserve more than cheesy romantic comedies (although they certainly have their place) and women who only concern themselves with the exploits of the men around them? I don’t think it’s too much to ask that our female characters have lives defined by more than the men in them.

One great example is a movie I watched over winter break: “The Five-Year Engagement.” This 2012 romantic comedy features a lead female character, played by Emily Blunt, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, while her partner, played by Jason Segel, follows behind, giving up his own career-furthering opportunities to be with her. It was so refreshing to see this kind of relationship so contrary to the usual romantic comedy formula. The film passed the Bechdel Test and was entertaining to both me and my boyfriend. There were even laugh-out-loud moments. Maybe Hollywood is getting the message: Women in real-life situations, not necessarily defined by men, can make money, too.

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