A story of love, loss and second chances by Nikita Singh, releasing this Valentine’s Day.
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We’ve laughed with them, we’ve cried over them – now, from Cinderella to Coco, let us examine whether our beloved children’s movies go on to pass the Bechdel test or not.
There are many movies that practically lit up my childhood. But, now that I am a well-informed adult, I know that they weren’t perfect. Especially, when looked at from a feminist perspective.
The Bechdel test is simple. Named after American cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, the test asks if a work of fiction has at least two named women (I’m also counting non-human female characters in movies which feature non-human main characters)who talk to each other about something other than a man. It’s surprising how many movies fail this very easy test. Sadly, for me, I realized that many of the children’s movies that were really close to my heart also failed the test. Here’s how eleven beloved children’s films that I revisited, fare on the Bechdel test:
Note: It is also important to consider the ‘spirit of the test’ which is to see how female characters are represented in a particular work of fiction. So, in some cases, films which pass the test turn out to be quite sexist. And a few that fail, do happen to be feminist. I’ll be discussing the ‘spirit of the test’ too in the films below.
A heart-warming tale of love and friendship, this film unfortunately fails the Bechdel test. There hardly seems to be any conversation between the few female characters. There is only one conversation which Faline (Bambi’s love interest) has with her unnamed mother, about Bambi. The most important female character in the film is probably Bambi’s mother, who remains unnamed. However, she has a lingering presence throughout the film, even after her death. She is practically a single parent and is the biggest influence on Bambi in the movie. She teaches him many things and keeps him safe. In my opinion, she is the single most important supporting character that you would remember long after you forget the other supporting characters.
However, the film unnecessary glorifies the stereotypical mother role which ultimately ends in sacrifice. And it also has two stags – Bambi and Ronno – fight over Faline, a doe, who ends up being the prize. While, Bambi has great character development, all the important female characters are either of the nourishing mother or the romantic partner. All in all, Bambi could have done better with female representation.
This movie passes the Bechdel test with flying colours! Cinderella talks with both her step-sisters and step-mothers – all of whom are named – about a lot of things which do not involve a man. But, it seems to have a passive female protagonist who turns out to be a damsel-in-distress having to be saved by the male mice, dog, and of course, the prince.
On closer inspection though, it becomes much more complicated. The film does promote unfair beauty standards and unhealthy ideals of love – prince Charming and Cinderella have known each other for only one night when he decides he wants to marry her – as happens in other Disney movies. But, some of the other criticisms are just blaming the victim in an abusive situation. For instance, people ask why Cinderella didn’t just stand up to her step-mother earlier. Well, she probably would have been kicked out – she even says this to the dog once – resulting in life on the streets – a truly dangerous situation for a woman in those days.
Instead, Cinderella uses her imagination and dreams (which do not revolve around a man, by the way) as a coping mechanism and chooses kindness. Her good nature leads to her final escape because her animal friends help her in return for her kindness. She even tries to make her own dress to wear to the ball and only loses hope when her step-sister and step-mother tear it off her body before leaving. Sure, she finally escapes with the prince, but blaming her for it does not account for the times she was living in – it was the best possible route for her. Cinderella is a character who embodies creativity, optimism, kindness, and resourcefulness and is therefore, not such a bad role model after all!
The Lion King has hardly any female characters and only one of any significance – Nala. Unsurprisingly, it fails the Bechdel test. There is a very short conversation between Nala and Simba’s named moms (when Nala asks for permission to go with Simba) discussing whether their kids should be allowed to go somewhere. However, it still involves Simba and hence, fails the test. It is worth noting that Nala is portrayed as someone who can beat Simba in fights, she is adventurous and smart. She doesn’t get to play much of a role in fighting the villain though. And in the end, she is reduced to a mere love interest of Simba. An endearing movie with great music that stays in your heart, The Lion King is not a feminist film or even one with full representation of women.
This film has just five named female characters – Darla, Pearl, Deb, Peach, and Dory. And exactly two lines are exchanged between Peach and Deb – that’s it. Deb wants to know what the dentist is treating and Peach says it’s a root canal. The conversation is about the tooth problem and not about a male. Yet, it seems a little fishy (pun intended) because it’s not a genuine conversation and the group in the fish tank as a whole seems to be excited only because they have grown used to seeing what the dentist is doing. And he happens to be male. Also, this particular patient seems to be a male too.
I’ll let you be the judge of whether this movie passes or fails the Bechdel test. On the positive side, Finding Nemo does depict people with disabilities in a positive light (including Nemo), with one of the main characters being a female fish who suffers from short-term memory loss. This character – Dory – is not a love interest, which is rare. And she was popular enough to be the star of a successful sequel – Finding Dory. Finding Dory passes the Bechdel test, so yay!
I was the biggest fan of Winnie-the-Pooh when I was younger. And this particular movie is absolutely adorable! But the Winnie-the-Pooh films and books always had only one female character – Kanga, who plays the stereotypical role of the nurturer in the group. This film adds one more female character in the form of a mother – Mama Heffalump, who rescues Roo and does not do much more.
Pooh’s Heffalump Movie has a great moral about not judging people before getting to know them and forming friendships with those different from yourself. But, it totally fails the Bechdel test. The film needs a feminist makeover and so does the rest of the Winnie-the-Pooh franchise!
The only non-animated film on this list, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could not have done a better job in bringing Roald Dahl’s amazing world to life! It also passes the Bechdel test, containing conversations unrelated to males between female characters. However, one would hardly call it a feminist film, it revolves mostly around male characters. The women have stereotypical roles (except for Violet participating in sports and martial arts and being very competitive) and don’t have much scope to do much. There are the loving mother and grandmothers and daddy’s little girl (Veruca). Even Violet’s competitive spirit is shown as a bad thing. This movie definitely could have done better with its female characters.
Up is the sort of film that is everyone’s favourite. It has a super lovable female character in the form of Ellie whose presence drives the film despite her death early on in the movie. Maybe, that’s why it’s so difficult to notice that the film fails the Bechdel test. I’ve noticed that several filmmakers make the mistake of assuming that it is enough to have one token awesome female character and only male characters apart from her. This is what happens in Up – Ellie is the only proper female character (the police officer who escorts Carl home and the Kevin the bird, really do not count) in the film and she dies within the first ten minutes.The movie has a non-white main character which is good but it fails in the representation of women.
A film that starts of with the male protagonist seemingly seeing a female character as his prize for when he becomes successful, it develops into much more. It could be argued, that the hero sees himself as not worthy of a woman who is much more of a successful Viking than he is and that’s why he wants to be successful. The female Vikings are just as cool and badass as their male counterparts. One of the best warriors happens to be the main female character – Astrid. Also, Hiccup’s feeling of inadequacy due to not having a girlfriend could be viewed as a comment on men being told that they have to have a female love to be manly.
Maybe Hiccup does view Astrid as some sort of caricature in the beginning, but as their relationship moves forward, this perspective seems to change. Hiccup does save Astrid at one point but that doesn’t mean she is a damsel-in-distress. She is so much more than just his love interest. The fact that she is taller than him also shows positive representation of different female body types because women are expected to be shorter than their male partners to appear ‘feminine’. It comes as no shock that this film passes the Bechdel test with conversations between female characters (Astrid and Ruffnut) on tattoos and how to defeat the main antagonist – the Red Death, who also happens to be female.
Both the antagonist and protagonist of Tangled are female and named. And they have the conversations that make the film pass the Bechdel test. Like Cinderella, the film might promote unhealthy beauty standards but it does manage to turn the damsel-in-distress trope more than once with Rapunzel overpowering Flynn early on and later rescuing him. She turns traditionally feminine objects such as a frying pan and her hair into weapons. Flynn might rescue her too at times but I think it’s great that they have an equal relationship in which they both save each other in different ways. On the whole, I think this movie is quite empowering.
An Academy award-winning film, Zootopia definitely deserves all the praise it gets. It is an extremely smart social commentary on race and also, sexism. The antagonist is female and she is quite clever (more so than many other antagonists I have seen in recent times), so sneaky that no one ever notices what she’s doing. As for the protagonist, she might just be my favourite Disney princess ever (in spite of her technically not being a Disney princess).
As a bunny, Judy often faces stereotypes like women do in the real world, like being told that bunnies are cute, not being taken seriously in the police force and being thought of as a bad driver. She overcomes all of them to save the day. What’s interesting is that the movie was originally meant to be about Nick, but Judy somehow kept on stealing the limelight, until the makers finally decided to make her the protagonist instead. The film has a healthy stock of both male and female characters and of course, it manages to pass the Bechdel test. Judy interacts with Bellweather, Fru Fru, and her mom, about stuff that does not involve men.
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Coco is the second movie on this list that has won an Academy award. It tells a story that I felt was thoughtful. But is it, really?The film is centered around a rather matriarchal family and it is named after a female character, but she is really more of a tool used by the two main male characters. None of the female characters are as important as these two male characters (despite the movie having some pretty strong female characters). It is debatable whether this film passes the Bechdel test.
The credits do not give the character, Abuelita, a name. But her mother, Coco, calls her Elena and they have a very brief exchange towards the end of the movie. They also have a brief exchange at the beginning when Coco does not remember who Elena is. I suppose you could consider this film as barely passing the test.
Several much-loved children’s films fail the Bechdel test. It is important to acknowledge the problematic gender aspect of many of these films (though loving them despite their flaws doesn’t make you a bad feminist either!)
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