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Women in Film: Oscars 2016

Again the Oscars are so white and again they are so male centric. To see how women are represented in movies, we can apply the Bechdel Test to the movies that were nominated for Best Picture. The Bechdel test has 3 requirements:

  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

Yes I wrote about this last year and we’re doing it again this year. Let’s go.


Image courtesy of IMDB.The Big Short


For the record, I LOVED this movie; it was probably my favorite of the year. However, as you can tell from the cover, all the characters are men, and women pretty much only show up in bubble baths to explain complicated economic concepts. Does it pass? Nope. 




Image courtesy of IMDB.Bridge of Spies


Tom Hanks hanging out with a bunch of frowning military men. Given the setting, it makes sense there are few women in this Cold War movie, but this also highlights that many of the stories we tell (especially ones from history) are about men. Does it pass? Nope. 



Image courtesy of IMDB.Brookyln 


No it’s not about hipsters; it’s a movie about immigration to the U.S. and it actually passes. The story focuses on the coming of age of a young woman, with many women supporting her: for once, men are small players in a woman’s story. Does it pass? Yes!




Image courtesy of IMDB.Mad Max: Fury Road



Ok I lied; this was actually my favorite movie this year. A change from most action movies, Mad Max lured in audiences with trailers full of explosions and male characters and then surprised everyone with an empowering female-centric plot (along with the promised explosions). It’s a miracle this movie even got made and everyone, including men, loved it. It’s a truly feminist action film: props to you Mad Max for getting action fans to think about feminism. Does it pass? Yes!



The MartianImage courtesy of IMDB.

Despite Matt Damon’s giant head plastered everywhere during the ad campaign, there’s quite a few multi-dimensional female characters (Jessica Chastain kills it as The Commander). But excluding some small technicalities, all conversations revolve around Matt Damon. However it’s hard to apply the Bechdel test since every conversation revolves around him: the movie’s whole point is saving him. There have been mixed reviews regarding the movie’s treatment of women. If you want to read more, check out these articles here and here.  Does it pass? Barely? Nope.


The RevenantImage courtesy of IMDB.

Surprise, a movie with a bear attack in the trailer is super masculine; it focuses solely on men’s relationships with other men. The only women in the movie are rape or murder victims, often used as motivation for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character. Does it pass? Nope. 



RoomImage courtesy of IMDB.

The grim story of a woman and her son held captive for years in a single room passes with many scenes, with Brie Larson’s character talking to her mother about creating a new life for her and her son after they rejoin the world. Does it pass? Yes!




SpotlightImage courtesy of IMDB.

In a movie full of male reporters, lawyers, victims, and priests, Rachel McAdams does a fantastic job as the only female reporter, but all of her lines revolve around men. The movie passes on a one-line technicality, with a woman asking another women for water, which I am not counting. Does it pass? Nope. 





So, 3, I guess 3 and 1/2, out of 8 movies pass this test. It’s an increase from last year, which was 2.5, but obviously this is still unacceptable.

How did this happen?

We can look at who makes up the academy, which is very old, very male, and very white. While the Oscars are trying to make changes so the nominees next year will be more diverse, we should also look at the larger institutions at play.

None of these movies have female directors and only one (Room) has a female writer behind it. This speaks to how unavailable powerful roles are to women in Hollywood on and off screen. It also shows how unwilling we are to tell women’s stories.

Why does this matter?

The point of the Bechdel Test is to reveal how few movies contain these 3 criteria, when passing this test should be incredibly easy. It’s ridiculous how women are used as plot devices, as the token woman, or as decoration, instead of treated and portrayed as human beings.

More roles that portray women as people with their own agency, feelings, agendas, etc. prevents the current trend of dehumanizing and other-ing women. This trend leads to real world effects, like more gender-based violence and higher death rates for women.

The lack of women in leading, diverse roles also means a lack of women with marginalized identities: women of color, trans women, queer women, women with disabilities, indigenous women, etc. Women with many intersecting identities will receive more oppression in society, such as denial of access to institutions, and have more violent acts done against them. Opening the door for more women–and more diverse women–helps us change our perception of these identities. 

What should you do?

Watch more movies directed by women with women in leading roles. Keep intersectionality in mind and watch movies with unfamiliar identities. While we’re talking about gender equality, watch some movies with trans characters, trans directors, or both. Go to movies opening weekend; speaking with your dollars communicates to studios that audiences want more movies like this.

Some recommendations: Inside Out (a revolutionary film), Carol (portraying women’s desire and agency), Ex Machina, Girlhood, Tangerine, Clouds of Sils Maria, The Danish Girl, The Hunting Ground, Grandma, What Happened, Miss Simone?,  Amy and Chi-Raq, just to name a few.  

When you go to movies, consume media, and go through your day, keep the Bechdel Test in mind and consider what portrayals you see and which portrayals are missing.


Images courtesy of IMDB.

Collegian Social Media Team Member Catie Perry can be reached at or on Twitter @perrycatie.


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  • M

    Mike HattelFeb 23, 2016 at 12:28 pm

    She does understand that the revanent is based on a true story in a time period where women were historically not involved in fur trapping expeditions? Or how women often at that time were treated poorly and the movie is trying to portray that accurately? She comes across as “dear god women in a movie that takes place in the place 18th and early 19th century doesn’t portray women like those in the 21st century that’s sexist!!!!” You can be for seeing better female protagonists but people stop taking you seriously the minute you claim a movie shouldn’t be watched for a sexist label when you claim its sexist for showing historically accurate treatment of women in a time they weren’t treated we’ll.

    • R

      RaymondFeb 23, 2016 at 4:40 pm

      She’s not suggesting you don’t watch these movies, just that you should also see films that include more female-centric themes. The review of The Revenant is succinct and explains the role women have in the film, there is no claim that it shouldn’t be watched.

      • L

        Lauren SchallFeb 26, 2016 at 12:45 pm

        Snaps Raymond