There’s nothing that talks quite like money, so maybe studio heads will listen to this piece of information from number-cruncher extraordinaire Nate Silver’s “FiveThirtyEight:” films with women make more money. A lot more.
Walt Hickey reports that movies that pass the Bechdel test offer higher return on investment than those that don’t. That’s a big piece of news, given the current state of women in film: only 15 percent of last year’s top films featured women in lead roles, according to a study by Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. And that’s not an improvement; the numbers have been stagnant since 2002. What’s more, women comprised 29 percent of major characters last year, and 30 percent of speaking roles.
Because representation of women in film was so sparse, in 1985 “Dykes to Watch Out For” creator Alison Bechdel came up with a simple-enough gauge to judge if it was even worth seeing. The Bechdel test, as it’s come to be known, has three stipulations. To pass, a movie must:
1) Have two female characters
2) Who talk to each other
3) About something other than a man
“FiveThirtyEight” found that the median gross for films that passed the Bechdel test was $2.68 for every dollar spent. Films that failed made $2.45 for every dollar spent. Even in the international market, where films featuring women are thought to be a tricky gambit, movies that passed the Bechdel test had comparable or better returns on investment than films that did not.
It’s not a barometer that measures quality; plenty of movies that pass the Bechdel test are horrid, and there are some good ones, beloved by feminists, that don’t. It’s just a baseline measure of gender bias in film. “Fivethirtyeight’s” Walt Hickey issued this caveat:
Take “American Hustle.” The film passes the test, but only barely, thanks to a single scene where a con artist’s wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence, discusses nail polish with a politician’s wife, played by Elisabeth Röhm. On the other hand, “Gravity” — which is dominated almost entirely by Sandra Bullock, in a highly praised performance — fails the test, as Bullock never speaks to another woman in the film. Since it’s difficult to argue that “American Hustle” is more progressive than “Gravity” when it comes to the portrayal of women, we should be clear about the limits of the test.
Usually, the justification for the paucity of films that pass the test goes something like this: women and girls will see films with stories about men and boys but not the other way around — that is, when it comes to films, boys thinks girls are yucky, and men aren’t much better.
In trying to explain the difference in funding levels between movies that pass the Bechdel test and your typical movie, Hollywood insiders referred to a culture in which men control the creative process and the purse strings, and a pervasive belief that audiences — both in the U.S. and internationally — just don’t like films with strong female characters. Yet we found no evidence in the data to support the idea that films with women perform any worse at the box office than films without them, and what’s more, films with women appeared to outperform expectations.