Take a moment to think of the last movie you saw. Did it have:
- Two women with names
- who had a conversation
- about something other than a man?
If so, it passes the three-point Bechdel Test, named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who featured the concept in her cartoon strip in the 1980s (she says a friend came up with the idea).
I shared this video with my coworker and film critic for Christianity Today, Jeff Overstreet, and he noticed that many of the movies that don't pass muster are kids' movies. Of the top-grossing family movies in 2010, Alice in Wonderland and Despicable Me pass; Toy Story 3, Twilight: Eclipse, and Karate Kid squeak by; and How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek Forever After, Iron Man 2, and The Last Airbender flat-out flunk, according to this user-generated list.
Of the feature films put out by Pixar (arguably the high cultural watermark of family films) only three out of ten—The Incredibles, A Bug's Life, and (barely) Toy Story 3—pass.
The Bechdel Test can't tell you if a movie is well-made, funny, or even portrays women in a positive light. But it can tell you that substantive female characters are often absent from the movies most of us are watching. What's more, so are depictions of substantive female friendship.
When I think back to the Disney princesses who entranced me as a kid in the late '80s and early '90s, the Bechdel Test makes me realize how isolated the protagonists were from other women. Ariel of The Little Mermaid literally lost her ability for conversation in her encounter with the other main female character, Ursula, in a conversation about how to get a man. Would her story have been different if she'd talked over her decision with her sisters or her (nonexistent) mother? Princess Jasmine of Aladdin had only a tiger for a confidant, while Belle of Beauty and the Beast confides her troubles to a matronly talking teapot. (It's hard to say if a teapot counts as a woman.)
The relentlessly merchandised Disney Princess franchise allows little girls to dress themselves and imagine themselves as pretty princesses. And that may be all to the good. But what kind of story are young girls being invited to imagine? Even though the Disney princesses in the 1990s had been somewhat updated as confident, independent heroines, willing to defy parental wishes, their storylines still kept them so walled-off from other women, they might as well have been trapped in a tower by an evil witch.
Sure, it's farfetched to think of Disney princesses meeting for coffee to discuss art, theology, and politics. But the strong, valuable friendships we rely on deserve to be portrayed in movies. Good friends enrich our lives intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. They support us through all kinds of challenges—not just boy troubles. When female characters' conversation is only about men, girls get the implicit message that their life stories, and their friendships, will revolve around boys. It's a question worth asking: What would a strong friendship between girls or women look like in a kids' movie? And what would a princess's story look like if it didn't revolve around a man?
Have you seen a kid-friendly movie that passed the Bechdel Test? Have you seen one that flunked? Or have you seen a movie in which princesses discuss art, theology, or politics? If so, I promise to go rent it right away.
Hannah Faith Notess is the editor of Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical, a collection of personal essays, and managing editor of Seattle Pacific University's Response magazine.