The Bechdel Test for films is simple. To pass, a film has to have:
1) At least two women in it
2) who talk to each other
3) about something besides a man
Sounds easy enough, but I guess it’s a little too much to ask of Hollywood, because even a cursory glance at The Bechdel Test website demonstrates that roughly half of the films in their database don’t pass. The test’s origins lie in Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, specifically a strip she drew in 1985 called The Rule. (You can read more about it on TV Tropes, and you can also watch a short video about the test here.)
A little clarification: for a woman to count toward the test, she should have an actual name in the film, so if “Female Bar Patron 2″ asks “Female Bartender 1″ for a drink, that doesn’t really count. It should also be noted that the results of the test don’t serve as a film review and aren’t necessarily a sign of a film’s overall quality. Some films don’t have strong (or any) female roles simply because the setting or subject: prison films, war films, and so on, and just because a film fails some or all of the tests doesn’t automatically make it a bad film (for instance, The Hurt Locker, directed by professional woman Kathryn Bigelow, won Best Picture and Best Director but still fails two of the three tests by having several female characters who happen to never speak to each other).
A recent example from my own watching of movies: my wife and I went to see Battle: Los Angeles. There were two women in the film, but I don’t recall them speaking to each other, so it passes the first test but fails the next two. That doesn’t make it a bad movie: what makes it a bad movie is it being a bad movie.
Film quality aside, the number of films that fail the test is just an overall sign that there aren’t a lot of substantial, meaty roles for women, and even when there are, they’re often centered around one or more male roles in the film. It’s something to keep in mind, sort of a mental checklist to fill out, while you watch movies. And, just for kicks, I checked the ten Best Picture nominees from 2010 just to see how they all did on the Bechdel Test site.
Black Swan: Passes 3 of 3 tests. (It’s noted as “dubious” on the site due to one protester, but all the other commenters agree it passes all three conditions.)
The Fighter: Passes 2/3. There are several women in the film, and two Oscar-nominated performances by the actresses portraying them, which makes it hard to believe it didn’t pass with flying colors. Still, there are apparently no conversations between the women that aren’t about Marky Mark’s character.
Inception: Technically passes 3/3, but I wouldn’t rate it that high. Spoiler alert: There are two named women in the film, Ariadne (Ellen Page) and Mal (Marion Cotillard), but the latter appears mainly as a dream-based projection of Leo DiCaprio’s fevered mind. Since Leo is (vaguely) male, when Ariadne is talking to Mal, I’d say Ellen is really talking to Leo’s subconscious and it doesn’t count. I’d rate this 1/3, personally. (Also, here’s some additional reading on Christopher Nolan and the recurring theme of (mostly dead) women in his films.)
The Kids Are All Right: 3/3, no bones about it. Though plenty of the film’s conversations (and pl0t) revolve around a male sperm donor played but Scruffy McWhatsisface, there are also plenty of discussions between the women about other things.
The King’s Speech: 3/3
The Social Network: 1/3. There are few women in minor roles, but then the film is about a dude who can’t talk to women, so I guess it’s not terribly surprising it didn’t pass.
127 Hours: 3/3? Really? Despite it being about one dude trapped under a rock, it somehow passes (haven’t seen it myself).
Toy Story 3: 3/3. A dubious pass, but some of the female toys talk about something other than the male toys, though I can’t personally recall the details.
True Grit: 3/3, though dubious. Haven’t seen it (though I read the book recently), but apparently Mattie Ross speaks to a landlady about something other than Rooster Cogburn.
Winter’s Bone: 3/3
Finally, and I won’t list them out, the previous year only two of ten Best Picture nominees passed all three tests: An Education, and Precious.