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The Bechdel Test and Its Importance: A Wake-Up Call for Women Over 40

Ladies, have you ever noticed how the media loves to pigeonhole us into cliché roles, especially as we age? Whether we're watching a movie, a TV show, or even browsing through a magazine, the portrayal of women—particularly those over 40—is often discouragingly narrow. The Bechdel Test serves as a cultural barometer for how women are represented in fiction. But what does this mean for women over 40 who are struggling to find their worth in a world that often devalues them based on age?[1] Let's dive into this urgent, often-overlooked conversation.


the bechdel test for women in media


What Is the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test is a seemingly simple, yet remarkably revealing metric to gauge the portrayal of women in movies, television shows, and other forms of storytelling. Named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who popularized it in a 1985 comic strip, the Bechdel Test sets forth three criteria that a film or show must meet to pass:

  1. Firstly, it must feature at least two named women.

  2. Secondly, these women must have a conversation with each other.

  3. Lastly, their conversation must be about something other than a man.

It's a simple criterion, yet astonishingly, a vast majority of films and TV shows don't meet it. [2]


At face value, these criteria might appear easy to fulfill, but you'd be surprised at how many films and shows fail the test. This isn't just a curious anecdote; it's indicative of the systemic gender bias that exists in media representation. It reflects how female characters are often not given their own agency, independence, or concerns outside of their relationships with men.

According to a 2019 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, only 40% of the top 100 highest-grossing films passed all three Bechdel Test criteria.

While this figure might seem dismally low, it's worth noting that it has seen improvement. In 2002, the number was just 12.5%. Over the years, thanks to the tireless advocacy by gender equality activists, these numbers have been on an upward trend. Another study published in the "PLoS ONE" journal found that films that pass the Bechdel Test also perform better at the box office than those that don't. Yet, despite this economic incentive, many films still don't meet the straightforward criteria of the test.


But it's not just about numbers; it's about what these numbers represent. The failure to pass the Bechdel Test often means that women's stories aren't being adequately told, and that their concerns and lives are not considered important enough to be portrayed. Women are often relegated to being mere props in a male-driven narrative, reduced to their relationships with men, devoid of independent goals or complex personalities.


The Bechdel Test serves as a reminder of how far we still have to go in achieving equitable gender representation in media. It is by no means a comprehensive tool—it doesn't account for LGBTQ+ representation, racial diversity, or the depth of female characters. However, it provides a clear starting point from which to gauge the industry's progress and to prompt further discussion on gender equality in storytelling.


Why the Bechdel Test Matters: More Than Just a Metric

At first glance, the Bechdel Test might seem like a rudimentary yardstick, perhaps even trivial. However, it carries a profound message about the systemic gender imbalance in media representation. Its significance extends far beyond the realm of film and television, serving as a microcosm of the larger gender disparities that permeate our society.


One of the primary reasons the Bechdel Test matters is that media is a powerful tool for shaping public perception. Films, TV shows, and other narrative formats don't merely reflect society; they also have a hand in shaping it. When women are consistently marginalized or depicted in limited roles that hinge on their relationships with men, it reinforces existing gender stereotypes. Such portrayals send a message, however subtle, that women's stories, experiences, and perspectives are secondary to men's. This impacts not just how society views women, but also how women view themselves.

Only 10.6% of the directors of top-grossing films are women

The second reason the Bechdel Test is important is that it draws attention to gender inequality in the media industry itself. According to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative's annual report, as of 2019, only 10.6% of the directors of top-grossing films were women. This disparity in the creative process inevitably leads to disparity on the screen. The Bechdel Test serves as a wakeup call to an industry that still has a long way to go in terms of gender equality, both behind and in front of the camera.


Moreover, the Bechdel Test matters because of its economic implications. Films that pass the test have been shown to perform as well as or better than films that don't, according to various studies. This contradicts the longstanding, yet unfounded, industry belief that male-centric stories are more lucrative. Simply put, there is a market for films that offer well-rounded female characters and storylines that don't revolve around men.


Finally, the Bechdel Test provides a simplified, accessible way for anyone to critique media. It offers a starting point for more nuanced conversations about gender representation, conversations that can lead to more complex understandings and, hopefully, real change.


The Bechdel Test is far more than a checkbox or a passing fad. It is a critical lens through which we can assess and demand better gender representation in one of society's most influential arenas. It's not just a measure of a film's worth; it's a measure of our collective progress in the ongoing struggle for gender equality.


Gender Bias How Women Are Portrayed in Films
How Women Are Portrayed in Films (infographic from the New York Film Academy)

Media Stereotyping and its Deep-Rooted Impacts

Media, particularly Hollywood, has long been a reflection of societal norms and expectations. Unfortunately, this reflection often shows women, especially those above 40, in a disparaging light. This kind of portrayal doesn't merely exist in a vacuum; it sets the tone for how society perceives women and dictates what roles they "should" fit into.[3]


Implications of the Bechdel Test on women over 40?

While younger women have their own set of stereotypes to battle, the pigeonholing becomes particularly egregious as we age. The roles offered become more one-dimensional: the lonely divorcee, the nagging wife, the doting but clueless grandmother. These portrayals not only insult our diversity but also have real-world repercussions. For instance, these stereotypes often feed into age discrimination in the workplace and can negatively affect our mental well-being.[4]


The Bechdel Test holds particular implications for women over 50, a demographic that faces not only gender discrimination but also ageism. When films and television shows fail the Bechdel Test, it isn't just younger women who are affected; older women also see a lack of representation or stereotyping in roles that do exist. The media often relegates older women to the background or to cliche roles like the grandmother, the 'cougar,' or the old maid, thereby contributing to a cultural narrative that erases or devalues them. This double whammy of gender and age bias leaves women over 50 feeling unseen and unheard, exacerbating existing societal prejudices.

Firstly, the absence of meaningful interactions among older women in media sends a detrimental message about their worth and role in society. It implies that their stories are not important enough to be told, and by extension, that their experiences, wisdom, and contributions are of lesser value. This can contribute to feelings of invisibility and worthlessness among older women, affecting their mental well-being.


Secondly, the lack of representation perpetuates stereotypes that mature women are not active participants in a range of life experiences— from professional settings to social contexts— but are instead sidelined. This has real-world repercussions, from job discrimination to healthcare disparities.


Moreover, poor representation in the media limits role models for women over 50. While younger women have started seeing increased diversity in their representation, older women often lack these kinds of progressive models in mainstream media. This absence makes it more challenging for them to find relatable life situations and aspirational figures, contributing to a sense of isolation.


Finally, the implications also affect younger generations by presenting a skewed reality that undervalues the importance of older women in society. This impacts intergenerational relationships and sets a precedent for how younger women anticipate aging, often with dread and fear rather than with a sense of empowerment and optimism.


In essence, when the Bechdel Test is failed, particularly with respect to older women, it perpetuates a cycle of discrimination and stereotype that impacts not only how society views them but also how they view themselves. It plays a part in making them invisible and undervalued, exacerbating the ageism and sexism they already face.


Why Representation Matters

Think about this—how can we aspire for more if we never see "more" represented? Especially for women over 40, seeing empowered, complex characters in the media can serve as a catalyst for personal growth. This is crucial at a life stage where many are contemplating significant changes, whether it's a career shift or a new life chapter altogether.


Science, Positive Aging, and Breaking Stereotypes

Don't be misled by the doom and gloom; science is on our side! Research shows that women can experience unprecedented personal and professional growth in their 40s through 60s and beyond.[5] What's lacking is the societal narrative that supports this positive outlook, which is why changing media representation becomes even more essential.


It's Time for a Change, and You're It

Turning the tide begins with us. Start by consciously choosing to support media that portrays women, especially mature women, in a positive light. When we spend our money on these films and shows, we're essentially voting for the kind of representation we want. Let's also amplify the voices that are already advocating for change. Share articles, studies, and even memes that challenge stereotypes and highlight the realities and potentials of being a woman over 40.


Take Control: Positive Aging Life Coaching

If you've had enough of the stereotypes and are thirsty for a change, may I introduce the Positive Aging Life Coaching program? Specifically designed to equip women over 40 with evidence-based tools for personal growth, this program will make the next chapters of your life the most enriching yet.[6] Visualize conquering your pain points and unlocking a version of yourself that is invigorated, empowered, and unapologetically authentic.


Conclusion: Reclaim Your Narrative

The media has had a significant say in our story for far too long. It's high time we take the reins and redefine what it means to be a woman over 40 in today's world—strong, multi-faceted, and unapologetically ourselves. So go ahead, live your best life now. You've more than earned it.


Ready to unleash your potential and break free from societal molds? Click the link below and discover how the Positive Aging Life Coaching program can redefine your life's next chapter.




References

1. Lauzen, M. M. (2020). "The Celluloid Ceiling."

2. Bechdel, A. (1985). "The Rule."

3. Smith, S. L., Choueiti, M., & Pieper, K. (2020). "Inequality in 1,300 Popular Films."

4. Dweck, C. S. (2006). "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success."

6. Infographic on Gender Bias in Films from the New York Film Academy



Further Readings

Women over 50 in Western societies often confront a combination of ageism and sexism, which can present unique challenges. Here are some ways they might experience ageism:


Employment Discrimination: As women in our prime, we are frequently overlooked for job opportunities, promotions, or meaningful projects due to our age. Even with a wealth of experience, we may be considered "outdated" or "less adaptable" to new technologies.


Income Inequality: The gender pay gap can widen with age, affecting our financial security, especially as we approach retirement.


Invisibility in Media: As women over 50 we are underrepresented in media and advertising, and when we do appear, it’s often in roles that are stereotypical, marginal, or negative.


Social Isolation: As we age, we are more likely to experience social isolation, partly due to societal tendencies to value youth and marginalize the elderly.


Healthcare Bias: Women over 50 may encounter ageism in healthcare settings where their symptoms or complaints are attributed merely to the aging process, thereby potentially missing crucial diagnoses or treatment options.


Cultural Stereotypes: Mature women are often labeled with derogatory terms that their male counterparts don't face to the same extent. Phrases like "crazy old lady" or "cougar" contribute to harmful stereotypes.


Dating Discrimination: Mature women in the dating scene often experience a stigma that older men do not, exemplified by the cultural trope of the "eligible bachelor" versus the "spinster."


Body Image Pressure: There’s societal pressure for mature women to maintain a youthful appearance, leading to stress, poor self-esteem, and potential financial burden from cosmetic treatments.


Career Ceilings: Women over 50 in professional settings may find that they hit a "gray ceiling," a less talked about but real version of the glass ceiling, which can limit their career trajectory because of their age. A problem not encountered by our male counterparts.


Lack of Policy Protection: While age discrimination is illegal, it's often hard to prove, making it a less actionable form of discrimination that disproportionately affects women over 50.


Limited Role Models: Due to their underrepresentation in various fields, women in their prime have fewer role models to look up to, which can affect aspirations and self-esteem.


Political Disregard: The needs and perspectives of women over 50 are often ignored or marginalized in policy discussions, affecting areas like healthcare, employment, and social services.


Economic Vulnerability: As women in our prime, we are more likely to live in poverty than older men, partly due to lower lifetime earnings, gaps in work history due to caregiving, and longer life expectancy.



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