The Prop Treatment: Female characters have fewer lines, less screen time, and are more likely to support their male counterparts than be the lead…

Chances are it’s happened to you. You are sitting in a dark theater, surrounded by strangers, innocently sipping on your soda and munching away on your buttery popcorn when you realize it’s happened again: the movie you are watching won’t pass the Bechdel Test. Alison Bechdel created the Bechdel Test for her comic series Dykes to Watch Out For, as a way to see if women are treated as props or actually people in the story plot. In order to pass, the story must answer yes to the following questions:

  1. Are there more than two named female characters?
  2. Do those two named characters have a conversation at any point?
  3. Is that conversation about literally anything other than a man?

The Bechdel Movie Test List reports that out of 8076 films, 42.4% do not pass. In 2009, Alaya Johnson, author of the blog The Angry Black Woman, created another series of questions related to people of color. These questions are:

  1. Does the work have at least two people of color in it?
  2. Who talk to each other?
  3. About something other than a white person (2009)?

Even if the film passes, the roles women are cast in are likely to be supportive characters and storylines. There are various tv tropes, including the idea of the disposable girlfriend, a romantic love interest who disappears between the installments of the series and never mentioned again. Change is slowly occurring though. The top 100-grossing films in 2018 included 40 with women in important roles as either the lead or co-lead. In 2017, there were only 32 films in the top 100 to make the list. While any increase is positive, it is still interesting how long it has taken to get to this point, considering women make up over half of the population.

When we turn our lenses to the people behind the scenes of these stories, we find the majority of the most popular and widely acclaimed directors, screenplay writers, and filmmakers are male. The New York Times published a study by Kevin B. Lee examining the number of time actors and actresses spent on the screen. On average, actresses spend 150% less time on the screen than their male counterparts. Another challenge for actresses is the limited roles available, especially as they age.

In general, women are aged out of Hollywood before men are. Out of 2,000 screenplays, women ages 42 – 65 only had 20 percent of total words spoken and women aged 65 plus only had three percent. By comparison, men ages 42 – 65 had 39 percent of all male dialogue and after the age of 65 had five percent.

What Now?

Captain Marvel just brought in 1 billion worldwide, showing clear support and interest for not only movies starring women, but also directed by them as well. Before it’s release, Rotten Tomatoes chose to change its review policies after Captain Marvel was the latest to be attacked by online trolls. However, this attack did nothing to slow down the excitement felt across the globe for Marvel’s most recent film.  So far in 2019, the top highest grossing films feature more diverse casts and storytellers. By remaining critical of harmful tropes in the media and supporting films with complex female characters, we can continue to help change Hollywood to more accurately reflect our diverse society.

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