The Least We Can Do

The only way we can stop sexism in TV and movies is to notice (and then stop giving them our money).


Orange Is The New Black. Original show title: “Hey look, women are different! Who knew.”

Dear women (yes, all of you),

It’s not up to us alone to fix sexism. But we can do our part. The fact is: there are fewer women cast in TV and movies, and fewer starring roles for women. And that’s because we allow it. We women watch male-monopolized television and movies in droves. As 50% of the population, if we didn’t watch that stuff, they wouldn’t make enough money to continue creating them. But we keep giving them our money and we don’t say anything when women take a back seat to men. And sometimes we don’t say anything simply because we don’t notice.

Before we can do anything else to change how media portrays women, we have to notice. We have to notice when movies don’t pass the Bechdel test (two women talking to each other about something besides a man). We have to notice when there aren’t women being represented, or represented fairly, and we have to stop putting up with it. We cannot be placated by one kickass female character surrounded by a sea of males. One Scarlett Johansson does not a feminist movie make.

Geena Davis talks about this phenomenon (and by phenomenon I mean constant occurrence) of women being mysteriously absent from films, even as extras in a crowd scene. We have to stop allowing women to be outnumbered. We have to notice that HBO’s Silicon Valley has a women problem, and instead of shrugging our shoulders and saying they’re just reflecting reality, we need to remember that a fictional show can do whatever it wants, including recreating a (still realistic) start-up that employs female humans, not just regular humans.

Grey’s Anatomy could have cast almost all men and made a “reflecting reality” excuse, spouting numbers about the ratio of men to women in surgery, but instead they created a better world where women hack into bones and men care about babies. However you feel about Grey’s Anatomy doesn’t matter—the fact is, it can be done. We aren’t going to get more equality in the workforce if people can’t imagine themselves doing it. As Ms. Davis says, “You can’t snap your fingers and suddenly half of Congress is women. But there’s one category where the underrepresentation of women can be fixed tomorrow: onscreen. In the time it takes to make a movie or create a television show, we can change what the future looks like.”

Sometimes I start to feel guilty for sounding like a broken record when, after yet another movie, I point out that no woman spoke to another woman for 2 whole hours. Everyone thought the movie was good, I argue to myself, why rain on their parade? But then I remember that it’s the film’s fault for needing to be called out, not mine. If you want me to shut up about the unfair treatment of women in TV and film, I’m happy to. Just treat women fairly in TV and film.

We need to call bullshit, or nothing is going to change. If you want to do something about the way women are represented, there’s actually a lot you can do (besides becoming a writer or director, which–please do that, too). Here’s what you should be watching for, and what to do when you notice something fishy:

What to watch for:

1. What’s the ratio of male to female? Not just in the lead characters, but among the supporting roles, and even the extras. Who gets to speak around here, and what kinds of things are they talking about?

2. Watch out for people who claim something is “just reflecting reality” and don’t put up with it. You are watching a fake world, and they can add women. Even if the show is about science nerds or tech nerds or cops, that show chooses their cast.

What can you do once you notice?

1. Say it out loud. Make it ok for us to talk about how frustrating it is to have to watch men all the time. (Personally, I’m not sure I can make it through one more all-male fight scene. Who cares? Just tell me who wins so we can move on with the story.) If someone asks you if you watch {insert popular male-centric TV show here}, don’t be afraid to say that you don’t because of feminism. Because as soon as you say it, you force everyone else to notice it, and to think about it.

2. Say it with your eyeballs. Don’t watch shows that treat women like commodities. And do watch shows where women take the stage. Show the networks and the movie studios what you care about. Because in the end, they’ll do whatever makes them money. This has been looking up lately, but we can do better.

3. Say it with your keyboard. Make a stink. Post something on Twitter. Comment on Facebook. Write your local congresswoman—whatever. Let them know that it’s not ok. Or if you’d rather focus on the positive, use those channels to show them how enthused you are by Frozen and Mindy Kaling and Beyonce.

Let’s make it clear that Hollywood can’t just cast a while male lead and expect us to fall in line anymore. We don’t want to be led out of the mire by a knight on a white horse—we want to pull ourselves up out of the mire: mud in our hair, grass in our teeth, and not taking their sexist bullshit.


If you’d like to know what TV to support with your previously-mentioned eyeballs, here are a few of my personal favorites: The Mindy Project, Girls, Orange Is The New Black, Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, Scandal…hmm. What else?

Christmas Movies and The Bechdel Test

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:

  1. The movie must have at least two female characters in it
  2. These women have to talk to each other
  3. 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

It's A Wonderful Life5

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

shoot your eye out

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.

3. Elf


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

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

piggy 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

Home Alone 1990 - Catherine O'Hara screams

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

Tim Allen and Paige Tamada in 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

Rudoph Mrs Donner Clarice women

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

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

little women PM

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:

ma otter

This Muppet movie does make the cut: Ma Otter has a couple conversations with other female Muppets.

3. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

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?

So What?

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.