January 4, 2016 | ,

Lucy, the Bechdel Test, and Gender Bias in Film

lucy
From the 2014 film, Lucy, directed by Luc Besson.

I.

Many movies today still do not pass the Bechdel Test, which asks that two, named female characters speak to each other during a film about something other than a man. Created by American cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, the initial idea for the test came from her 1985 cartoon strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. Because of the prevalent gender inequality in the early 1900s, the films made during this time do not frequently pass the Bechdel Test. Starting around the 1940s, more films started to pass, such as the 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath and the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire. However, as cinema pushed into the 21st century, large budget contemporary films failed to pass, raising questions of gender bias in the film industry. Contemporary movies with smaller budgets, such as Winter’s Bone (2010), pass this test far more frequently, and are consequently found to have a comparable or better financial performance.

As more people are becoming aware of gender bias, thanks to the new wave of feminism, it is becoming increasingly important for movies to pass this test, especially when it comes to action movies. Action movies are notorious for having male leads and stock female characters who only contribute to the hero’s progression of the story. The 2014 film Lucy is a science fiction/action movie that was acclaimed for having a female protagonist. While the female protagonist interacts mostly with men in the movie, there are a few exchanges with her mother and roommate that permit this movie pass the Bechdel Test. Nonetheless the movie was a slight step in the right direction, leading to more female characters in action and science fiction film genres today—such as in the continued Hunger Games trilogy and, most notably just this past month, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The Bechdel Test aims to close the gender gap by encouraging the exposure of women’s stories; women make up half of the world, and so have half the world’s stories to offer.

II.

Lucy is the story of an average woman who accidentally gets dosed with a drug called CPH4, allowing her to access 100% of her brain and do many things thought impossible, like instantly learning languages, reading minds, and changing her appearance. Lucy was much anticipated, not least because Scarlett Johansson was featuring as the female protagonist. After starring in action movies as a female lead in an ensemble, but not as the protagonist, many fans of Johansson and of action movies looked forward to this film, hoping Johansson’s star power would help drive movement towards filming more action movies with female protagonists. In a similar vein, movies like Divergent (2014) and The Hunger Games (2012) were heralded for their female leads, though the films were also criticized about the strength of their protagonists. Time ran an article about Johansson’s career and her starring role in the film, praising her for being among the small collective of women who can carry a successful action movie.

However, there seems still some debate on whether having a female protagonist is enough to tell women’s stories. In a 2008 article by Jennifer Kesler of the Hathor Legacy—her website about gender bias in film—she explains her experience in a UCLA screenwriting class, and how she was taught that having multiple female characters talking together was something audiences would find “distracting” from the male leads. Ant the film industry has continued focus on male leads for action/adventure projects, producing movies that do not pass the test. (Though the numbers are improving.)

With the resurgence of feminism in the past decade—especially in entertainment areas such as literature, film, and video games—audiences are demanding more female protagonists. And screenwriters who attended film programs where they were taught not to write strong female protagonists are now facing the critiques of those who understand the importance of women’s stories and want to see movies with female leads that pass Bechdel’s test.

III.

As much as I would love to praise Lucy for developing a strong female protagonist and passing the Bechdel Test, the interactions Lucy has with other female characters do not really tell the stories of women, but are instead short exchanges that only technically allow the film to pass. And while Johansson showcases fighting skills, brilliant tenacity, and the depth of her acting abilities, her character is still rather one dimensional; the audience does not experience her past, her hardships, or other character defining features. Throughout most of the film, the audience gets the sense her actions are being dictated by the CPH4 in Lucy’s system, instead of her actions as being part of and emerging from her character. For example, before having the CPH4 in her system, Lucy’s character shows mostly fear and a instinct for “flight” rather than to “fight” (or even to talk) her way out of a situation. After the CPH4, Lucy’s first instinct is to trick her enemies and then fight them, as she does when she is being held captive, to be transported to another country. Instead of trying to reason her way out of the situation, Lucy lures her jailer to her, then knocks him unconscious and escapes—actions not at all reminiscent of Lucy’s character from the beginning, but seem to be an obvious effect of the drug, questioning as to whether this is a story about a woman going through a hardship, or a story about the effects of a drug.

The times we see Lucy’s true character are as few as the times this movie passes the Bechdel Test. Lucy has two conversations with other women in the movie, and while both allow the movie to pass the test, they do not embody the purpose of the test; they do not help tell the stories of women. The first conversation Lucy has with another woman is with her mother. They talk about how Lucy is doing, and how she is looking after herself. Her mother makes a remark about her father missing her, and Lucy goes on to discuss the change that is happening due to the CPH4. Her memory has become stronger and Lucy recalls the feeling of growing up and her mother’s care for her. In the second conversation Lucy has with another woman, she is speaking with her roommate, Caroline. Lucy hands Caroline a prescription for medication and explains that Caroline’s kidneys and liver are failing. She explains how Caroline should diet and eat organically, and then everything will be fine.

Even though these conversations help the movie pass the test, they do not carry the emphasis that the test encourages. Lucy and her relationship to her mother and roommate are not shown very well; the film does not get at the heart of what it is to be them. Despite the existence of these conversations with other women, this film does not embody the point of the Bechdel Test, emphasizing the stories women have to tell.

While showing greater interactions with other women and a deeper reflection of Lucy’s character would have enhanced the film and more fully told Lucy’s story, this movie still afforded more visibility and positive representation for women on the screen in roles predominantly afforded to men. New generations have begun a louder outcry against poor portrayal of women and minorities, and screenwriters and directors are starting to respond.


Juliana Lyon is a senior at York College of Pennsylvania, majoring in Professional Writing. She enjoys writing music and novels, loves both Marvel and DC Comics, and is hopelessly addicted to caffeine.