Film Forward

Onscreen Diversity Can Be A Complex Topic. So Is The Way We Measure It.

From the Bechdel Test and beyond.

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

If there's one thing many of us can agree on, it's the need for more diversity in entertainment. But how do we determine when the ideal level of representation has been reached?

In some ways, it's simple — does the number of women, minorities, LGBTQ people, and other underrepresented groups accurately reflect society? In other ways, it's more complicated — are these groups represented respectfully and truthfully, in a variety of roles? 

We can answer some of these questions for the industry at large, thanks to regular studies that offer (frequently disheartening, occasionally encouraging) statistics. But when it comes to judging media on an individual basis, things aren't always so straightforward. It's unrealistic to expect every movie or television series to be a perfect reflection of the real world. At the same time, these individual works contribute to a larger whole — one which is regularly analyzed according to the aforementioned standards.


Can we a judge a movie's diversity in the same way we judge its quality? Or in the same way we judge the industry as a whole? For those who adhere to various tests, grading systems, or ratings, the answer is yes. 

Arguably the most famous of these methods is the Bechdel Test. Taken from a 1985 comic by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the test requires a movie to include 1.) two or more (named) women 2.) who speak to each other 3.) about something other than a man. In more recent years, some moviegoers have adopted this as a sort of feminist litmus test for films. A chain of Swedish movie theaters even started giving films that pass the test A ratings. There have also been spin-off tests, such as the Vito Russo Test for LGBTQ representation, and the Maisy Test for sexism in children's programming.

At the same time, many have argued over the intended seriousness of the test. Some see it as simply a commentary on how disappointing women's representation is at the movies (and how, even with the lowest standards, many titles still fail). Thalia Kehoe Rowden, the blogger who created the Maisy Test, told A Plus that she finds the original comic to be "satirical," and chose to set the bar much higher in her own version. Even Bechdel herself has said she feels "ambivalent" about the test's viral popularity. 

Robbie Collin of the Telegraph wrote in 2013 that the test is "damaging to the way we think about film," and argued that "it prizes box-ticking and stat-hoarding over analysis and appreciation."

The Bechdel Test is by no means a foolproof indicator of feminist media or quality. However, while Collin disagrees with the argument that the test has started conversations about the state of women in entertainment, it's safe to say its popularity has inspired many people to think more critically about the media they consume, and the larger patterns that contribute to inequality. "Why do so many movies fail this test?" is certainly a question worth asking, although plenty of other questions should probably accompany it.

The same is true of other methods of measurement, such as tracking the amount of dialogue spoken by certain characters. Recently, a Twitter user who goes by "moth dad" counted the number of lines spoken by men and women in the first episode of Netflix series Godless, which, notably, features a town inhabited only by women. He found that men spoke 73 percent of the lines, compared to women's 27 percent.

Much like the Bechdel Test, these tallies shouldn't be the sole determination of equal and positive representation in a piece of media, but they can speak to a larger issue. Even moth dad, in a follow-up tweet, clarified, "I don't have a problem with this show in particular so much as a problem with representation in media as a whole."

If no method exists to hold individual works accountable, it makes large-scale change — the kind measured in yearly statistics — more difficult. The number of women in speaking roles in 2016's highest-grossing movies, for example, was found to be 32 percent. Looking at concrete examples of this discrepancy can be an important step in advocating for change.

Whereas the Bechdel Test and the practice of counting dialogue — as well as other measurements, such as the F-rating for movies made by or starring women — are rather narrow in their definitions of acceptable representation, Mediaversity Reviews takes a more holistic approach.

The site examines the inclusivity of popular films and television series by assigning letter grades based on various criteria, in much the same way mainstream reviews consider overall quality. As founder Li Lai explained to A Plus, the goal isn't merely to steer viewers toward the most diverse content, but also to encourage them to think differently about what they watch.

"The more conscious we become as consumers, the more likely we are to recognize what an entrenched bias is, how they happen in reality, and why we should ask for something better," Lai said. "When we vote with our wallets in accordance with that awareness, entertainment media will follow."

That change may not always be quick, but it is possible. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, for example, pushed the Academy to commit to doubling the number of women and minority members by 2020. Across the pond, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) also introduced diversity standards which will limit awards eligibility and hopefully encourage filmmakers to be more inclusive in their storytelling.

A more statistical measurement of the current state of the industry has also proven impactful. The Geena Davis Institute reported that 68 percent of entertainment executives familiar with the organization's research on women in media changed two or more of their projects, and 41 percent changed four or more — to include more female characters, or improve their dialogue and development.

Obviously, no piece of media is perfect, either in terms of diversity or overall quality. Similarly, no method of assessing a work's inclusivity will be foolproof. But if we read movie reviews and check Rotten Tomatoes scores before seeing a film, why shouldn't we examine diversity in the same way? (Of course, amplifying the voices of a more diverse group of critics could kill both birds with one stone.)

"While no story will ever be an exact microcosm of America — nor should it be — our reviews strive to be a tool for people who consume their media pro-actively instead of passively," reads Mediaversity's mission statement

Pointing out where an individual work succeeds or fails in representing a diverse society may not always be the deciding factor in whether someone sees a movie — or, indeed, whether that movie is worth seeing in the first place. But if it provides the viewer with a system to confront the issue on an individual basis, that can be an important first step in changing the big picture.


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