We take a look at this year’s contenders, and whether they pass the Bechdel-Wallace test (which asks whether a film has two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man). The sad thing is that while there are some great female-led films this year, they are not the frontrunners to win Best Picture, and some (most notably the breathtaking Carol and Inside Out) were not even nominated. The nominees that are left are all high-quality efforts that are worthy of your time – but they show a picture of Hollywood that is still casually, and often unnecessarily, focuses on stories about straight, white men.
The frontrunner for Best Picture is set in a heavily male-dominated world, with barely a female speaking part let alone a Bechdel-qualifying scene. There is some historical justification for that: it's based on the true story of fur trapper Hugh Glass and his survival ordeal, and those frontiersmen like him did not include many women in their parties. While director Alejandro González Iñárritu argued to us that the film has a female energy, thanks to - essentially - Mother Nature, it's hard to really see it as anything but super-macho.
The other main contender for Best Picture is based on the true story of the Boston Globe team who uncovered a church sex abuse scandal, so again we're stuck with a line-up that had to be primarily male because the real-life journalists were also male. But there is more potential to include women in this film's world, so the fact that it barely scrapes a Bechdel pass is disappointing. Rachel McAdams' Sacha is a fascinating character, and she exchanges two lines with her grandmother to get it through, but she’s underserved relative to, say, Mark Ruffalo's Mike Rezendes, and it would have been good to hear more from, say, the female victims of the scandal, or from victims’ mothers who we see but do not hear. This is a great film, which deservedly won the Screen Actors Guild Ensemble award – that body’s equivalent to Best Picture – but it could have done more.
The Big Short
The surprise winner at the Producers Guild, traditionally a good predictor for the Oscars, Adam McKay’s tragicomic account of the 2008 crash is set in the world of finance and is, therefore, another male-dominated affair. But McKay exacerbated the lack by leaving out the non-fiction book's Meredith Whitney, which didn't help. There's a general sense that the financial crash might not have happened with more women in the sector, however; there's statistical evidence that companies with more women in senior roles perform better and take fewer dumbass, world economy-destroying, at-least-borderline criminal risks. So perhaps Marisa Tomei and Karen Gillan should be encouraged that their roles were so small. And while it’s pretty funny to put Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to hold men’s attention when talking about derivatives, shouldn’t that have been followed with, say, Alexander Skarsgard in a sauna on collateral debt? For equality, you understand. It’s not something we want to see.
There are multiple named women in Ridley Scott’s account of a man stranded on Mars (Matt Damon – because if in doubt, maroon someone we care about) but they only talk to one another as part of a group conversation with men and not directly, so it doesn’t quite pass Bechdel. Ridley Scott’s film also ran into controversy for race-swapping its cast. While it’s better than some films in the diversity of its line-up, several characters specifically described as one race were portrayed by another – most egregiously Mindy, who was changed from Korean to white. If you’re going to make that sort of change to the (excellent) source novel, why not go in the right direction and make half the men women? But it does get points for Jessica Chastain’s fierce Commander Lewis, even if she is devoted to disco.
Bridge Of Spies
It’s a 1950s Cold War setting, so brace yourselves for lots of men in smoky rooms in this quietly tense affair. Tom Hanks’ James Donovan does have a wife Mary (Amy Ryan) and daughter Carol (Eve Hewson), but there’s no conversation between the two. As with The Big Short, you could question whether we women actually want to be involved in this one, since the Cold War is not exactly humanity’s finest hour. And again, it’s based on a true story which means it a little harder to make one of the leads female. Lawyer Donovan and his Russian spy client Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) were, y'know, men. Then again, filmmakers today just keep choosing (straight, white) men's stories to adapt instead of casting the net more widely, and that is really the problem.
Mad Max: Fury Road
This passes Bechdel with a flourish. Not only is Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa the surprise lead but she plans her escape with the help of the fierce Wives, led by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's Splendid Angharad, and races towards the safety of her tribe, the Vuvalini. Tom Hardy's Max is allowed to help, but this is essentially a battle between women and the monstrous patriarchy of Immortan Joe (bonus points for all these names). The only slight flaw on its feminism is the basic notion that society would inevitably revert to a brutal patriarchy at a moment's notice, with women objectified, raped and enslaved. That has a place in the already-established nightmare dystopia of the Mad Max films, but it's overused as a premise in cinema and literature generally and it would be nice to move away from it now, thanks.
This does satisfy the Bechdel test, but we don't want to discuss the exact circumstances too much because that might be a spoiler. What we will say is that it is a moving and powerful look at a mother's love for her son, a rare thing in cinema and something we'd like to see more often. It takes place against a nightmarish background – Brie Larson's "Ma" (since the film is told from her son's point of view, we're allowing that as a name) has been kidnapped by a Fritzl-like rapist – but the focus is on the strength and resilience of the victims, not the monster. It also offers a brilliant performance from Larson, who is deservedly the Best Actress frontrunner.
Finally! A film that does not just scrape a pass of Bechdel but smashes it. Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis leaves Ireland for a new life in America in the 1950s, struggling with homesickness and culture shock as she adapts to Brooklyn and then tormented by doubt about her course when tragedy calls her home. The film’s funniest scenes take place in the all-female boarding house where Eilis lives under Julie Walters’ watchful eye, and the film’s villain (sort of), Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), is also a killer female role. Watch this, think about how fresh it feels to see women’s stories treated with so much care, and dare to dream of a world where 50 per cent of films do the same.