At some point this year, I learned about The Bechdel Test. And now that I know about it, Christmas is ruined. Well, the movies anyway.
The Bechdel Test gauges gender bias in movies. For a movie to pass the test, it must meet three simple requirements:
- The movie must have at least two female characters in it
- These women have to talk to each other
- The conversation has to be about something besides a man
It’s a laughable list, which makes it all the more sad when you realize how many movies—including current movies—fail the test. As my friend Emily said, “The point is that the female characters are not decoration, are not foils or objects. They have agency, autonomy, and lives that clearly exist independently from the male characters on screen.”
So with this in test mind, I’ve started watching my annual Christmas movies, and I’ve been amazed at how many movies don’t make the cut. From the classics to films from this century, almost every Christmas film either fails the test or barely skates by.
Christmas movies that fail the Bechdel Test
1. It’s a Wonderful Life
Unsurprising for how old this movie is, and the fact that the entire movie revolves around one man. But considering how many women are in this film, it’s a little silly that none of them speak to each other. Mary, George’s mom, that blonde hussy, George’s daughters…none of them. And Mary becoming a librarian spinster? I mean REALLY.
2. A Christmas Story
Unless you count the mom and teacher cackling “You’ll shoot your eye out!” while dressed as a witch and jester. Which I don’t.
While this movie is amazing, as far as this test goes, it’s a miserable failure. Along with Love Actually, it’s the newest film on either list, at (prepare yourself) 2003 (I warned you). Until the mom starts singing with Zooey Deschanel at the end of the movie, no two women even look at each other, let alone have a conversation.
4. Love Actually
Granted, it’s theoretically hard to have two women talk to each other when the movie is about heterosexual love, so I ALMOST give this one a pass. But then you remember all the conversations that men have with each other in this movie–Billy Mack’s radio interview, Mr. Bean creating so much more than a bag, Billy Bob as President Clintbush—and it’s a lot less okay that no women speak to one another.
5. A Charlie Brown Christmas
Lucy passes out roles for the play, and the girls respond to their roles. But these are not conversations, they are interactions at best.
6. Any version of A Christmas Carol, including A Muppet Christmas Carol
I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about the Muppets, and this movie is my absolute favorite Christmas movie, possibly my favorite movie of all time. But the only conversation between two women in Muppet Christmas Carol is between Miss Piggy and her daughters, Belinda and Betina. They discuss when Tiny Tim and their father (Kermit) is coming home. It pains me to put this movie in a disparaging list of any kind, but I can’t in good conscience say that it passes the test. I would blame Dickens, but this is a movie with two Marleys. They could have made it work.
7. Home Alone
The only conversation between two women happens when Catherine O’Hara tries to get back home. These conversations revolve around her son, a male character.
8. The Santa Clause
The first one is a flop (Bechdel Test-wise, of course). The second and third installments might do better, but I really don’t feel like watching them to find out. Anyone want to enlighten me on those?
9. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
I assume Mrs. Donner and Clarice have lots of conversations during their hunt for Rudolph. Sadly, we don’t get to hear any of them.
10. Frosty The Snowman
Poor Karen. No other girls to talk to, and her only friend is murdered in front of her eyes by a magician. Seriously, this movie has bigger issues than the Bechdel Test.
11. White Christmas
There are three brief conversations between women in this film:
1. A conversation between the sisters about the men, which evolves into calling Rosemary Clooney a mother hen who worries too much.
2. Mary Wickes tells the women that the hotel won’t need them to perform.
3. Judy tells Rosemary Clooney that she should eat something before bed, a trick to get her to see Bing Crosby in the kitchen.
It’s a debatable one, but I just couldn’t count any of these three as a real conversation between two women about non-men. Also, Bing Crosby mentions dragging the women off the train by their hair. It has nothing to do with the Test, but it doesn’t help their case.
Christmas movies that pass the Bechdel Test
1. Little Women
This movie is the only one on this list that really, truly passes the Bechdel Test (the rest are at D-levels), and some may argue it’s not even a Christmas film. Marmee essentially summarizes the entire point of the test: “Do you feel your value lies in being merely decorative, I fear that some day you might find yourself believing it’s all that you really are. Time erodes all such beauty. But what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind. Your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage. These are the things I cherish so in you.”
2. Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas:
This Muppet movie does make the cut: Ma Otter has a couple conversations with other female Muppets.
3. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
This one passes the test thanks to the one conversation between two women: the mother and daughter have a conversation about how the extra house guests are ruining the daughter’s life. Although this conversation mentions four different men, so, you can decide if it should pass.
4. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (with Jim Carrey)
This one is also debatable, and I’d love to hear you weigh in. Now, the cartoon Grinch isn’t on either list–since there is one tiny exchange in the entire movie, I’m leaving it neutral (although I guess technically it fails according to the Test). But the feature film has a few added female characters and more opportunity for conversation. There is one brief exchange between Martha May and Molly Shannon about their Christmas lights. Is it enough to count? That’s for you to decide.
5. Miracle on 34th Street (both versions)
Another near fail for both versions. The mother and daughter speak almost exclusively about Santa Claus. And the lawyers, the judge, and the businesspeople (beside the mom) are all men. There are a lot of conversations between men. But in both movies, the mom and daughter do speak about faith, a concept arguably bigger than Santa as a man. What do you think? Does talking about believing in Santa count?
For those keeping score at home, that’s 11 fails and 5 passes, with only one strong pass, Little Women. Maybe unsurprisingly, Little Women is also the only film in either list with a female as the main character (except for Love Actually, which has no main character). Something to ponder.
And so what? Are Christmas movies really ruined? Does it mean we can’t watch the movies that don’t pass? Absolutely not. You can take away Muppet Christmas Carol when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. And even then, I would really prefer to be buried with it. But what the Bechdel Test means to me is awareness. Awareness of how women are viewed in a given movie, and the roles they’re allowed to play. Who is giving them a voice, and what does that voice sound like? How much worth is being placed on women and the things they have to say? And what can we do to make sure every movie, not just the Christmas ones, passes that simple test from here on? That’s what this test is all about, Charlie Brown.
For those interested in further discussions about gender inequality in film, check out this infographic or this article by Geena Davis.