Saturday, May 19, 2012

Noninteracting Magisteria and the Bechdel Test

The Bechdel test is a very simple test that, when results are looked at in aggregate, points out some serious deficiencies in the current state of movies (and other stuff too, but it was originally applied to movies.)

A movie passes if it meets three criteria:
  1. There are at least two female characters
  2. They have a conversation with each other
  3. The conversation is about something other than a man or men
The reason that one looks at results in aggregate is that for any given movie there can be all sorts of perfectly legitimate reasons for it not to pass.  In a perfectly egalitarian world not every movie would pass, and there's nothing wrong with that, but a lot more movies would pass than currently do.

Flip the genders of the test and almost everything passes, keep them the same and very little does.  That's a problem.  It means a very serious skew in one direction.

Anyway, The Avengers and Firefly.

The Avengers doesn't pass, Firefly doesn't pass as often as you'd expect it to given the number of female characters.  There is a reason for this, and it's that in both things the female characters are isolated from other members of their gender by their roles in a way that male characters are not.

I want to start with Maria Hill because she's who got me thinking about this this go round*.  Maria Hill is a pretty awesome character.  She notably is able to take on brainwashed Hawkeye, Loki, and assorted armed other brainwashed people in a high speed gunfire filled chase while reality itself is collapsing in the general area.  She doesn't win but winning required assembling a team of superheroes for the first time in human history and she's just one person.  She held her own and survived, that's impressive.  She continues to be an interesting and engaging character throughout the movie in spite of not being one of the primary characters.

Everything she does revolves around Nick Fury.

Her role is as Nick Fury's sidekick and she never steps outside of that role.  She has all of two lines not delivered to Nick Fury himself.  One is a two word answer to Tony Stark's question to her about Nick Fury, and the other is during the Oh-My-God-We're-Falling-From-The-Sky moment.  I don't remember the exact wording, but as I recall it was basically a bit of exposition meant to deliver the information: "Oh my god, we're falling from the sky, but as long as we keep three out of four engines working we won't actually fall all the way."

Given that, she is never involved in a Bechdel test passing conversation.  She was so wrapped up in the role of being Fury's sidekick that the only way she could have had one is if Fury had been female.

This is not necessarily unrealistic, there are definitely people who don't do much of anything that takes them outside of the roles they've found themselves in, but what's interesting (and not in a good way) is the way that female characters seem to be isolated by their roles from other female characters in a way that doesn't apply to male characters at all.

Nick Fury, Tony Stark, Steve Rodgers, Bruce Banner, Thor, Hawkeye, Agent Coulson, Erik Selvig, and Loki don't have a choice.  They have to interact with other male characters.  Now part of this is that Avengers is skewed in a very maleward direction, and I'm going to take a moment to talk about that now, but when we turn to Firefly we'll see that that isn't a sufficient explanation.  (I'll put a break in the text so you can find it easily if you want to skip to that part.)

Ok, so, before we get to Firefly which is much more balanced in terms of male and female characters, look at how unbalanced Avengers is.  See that list of 9 male names I just made?  We can balance that against two female characters of note: Maria Hill and the Black Widow.  So already if everything were equal (it isn't) there would be only one female-female conversation for every thirty six male-male conversations**.  Maybe I could add Pepper Potts to the mix, in which case the expected number goes up to 3ff to 36mm, which is a ratio of 1 female-female conversation for every twelve male-male.  Still very male skewed.

So first off it's worth asking, why so few women?

It's not like there weren't other women available.

Consider Jane Foster from the first Thor movie.  She's one of the few people on earth who has experience with the kinds of portals that are at work in the movie.  The very kind of portal that the heroes are trying to stop Loki from bringing an army through.  She's been studying it since before Thor and been doing it with even more determination since Thor ended.  She's one of the foremost experts on all of earth and Loki just brainwashed and kidnapped the other.

In the movie it is stated that the moment the other expert, Erik Selvig, was kidnapped the good guys lured Jane to a far away place with a temporary (fictional) job so that she might be kept safe.  Thor accepts this because he wants Jane to be kept safe (Loki has specifically threatened her, though only Thor and Loki know that.)  The people in war torn New York would probably be somewhat less accepting of the fact that one of the few people on earth who might have been able to understand and possibly even counteract the portal used to bring an alien army to their city was sent away rather than hired to actually look at the problem.

Wouldn't it make more sense to respond to Loki abducting one of the foremost experts in field by getting the other foremost expert to come and join them in one of their labs?  Why allow Loki to be on the advantage-having side of a portal expertise gap?

If Jane had shown up she might have brought her sidekick, in which case there would be two women working in the same area.  Even if she hadn't it would be another woman in the movie (expected conversation ratio becomes 1ff to 6mm.)  The Black Widow talks to Selvig about the portal, maybe she could have talked to Jane about it as well.  Though she probably wouldn't have (note her utter disinterest in Banner's work.)  She just stuck to her role, which we'll get back to, but for the moment I'm still on there being so few women.

For a time it was unclear whether or not the Black Widow's actress would be available and so Whedon was forced to consider other options, he turned to Wasp, a founding member of the Avengers in the comics and apparently fell in love with the character.  Wasp happens to be female.  When they found out that they really could get Black Widow, Wasp as dropped.

Can't have two female superheroes on the team, apparently.

Now I've been talking about the whole movie, but for a moment just consider the team.  Captain America, Black Widow, The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye.  Five male, one female.  All of them, because of their roles as team members, have reason to talk to each other.  For each of the male characters that means their role leaves them talking to four other men, for the Black Widow it means her role leaves her with no woman to talk to.  And, with the exception of two interrogations, the only talking the Black Widow ever does is team related.

That's why she never talks to Maria Hill.  Maria Hill isn't on the team, Maria Hill doesn't need to be talked to about the team.  That's why she probably wouldn't have talked to Jane if Jane had been allowed in the movie, Jane wouldn't be on the team, Jane wouldn't need to be talked to about team related things.  (Tony Stark might have cause to talk to Jane because he's been studying up on portal related stuff as part of his role as one of the resident geniuses.)

It's not just that the women never leave their roles, it's that the roles are isolating them from other women to the point that when it became clear Black Widow could be on the team, the other woman on the team was dropped.  Instead of having the roles of two women interact, one of them was kicked out of the movie.

I haven't said much about Pepper, but her role was entirely tied up in he relationship with Tony Stark and you never see her doing anything not related to that role.  I'm pretty sure she's never even in the same city as the other women in the movie.

But even if Jane and Wasp had been in the movie, it would still be 2 women to 5 men on the team, and 5 women to 9 men overall.  (Or 6 to 9 if Jane brought her sidekick.)†  Very lopsided, which somewhat masks what I'm saying about roles.  So, onto Firefly.

† It is worth pointing out that characters need to be trimmed for space.  You can't just add two or three characters to a movie, something else needs to be cut out to make room (that's the stated explanation for why Wasp isn't in) it but it is worth asking why it's the female characters who are scrapped for space.


Firefly has a pretty balanced cast.  Four women, Five men.  It's as close as you can get to equal without actually making it, though the skew is still in the male direction.  That difference of one does make a noticeable difference, (of the 36 possible ways to have a two person conversation, 10 are male-male and 6 are female-female) but it really can't account for the rarity of conversations between women.

To account for that you have to look at how the roles of the various characters interact.  I started to do this person by person, but I think it might be better to look at it area by area.

Mal, Zoe, and Jayne are the team who do things outside the ship.  Whether it's salvaging stuff or shooting things, they're the ones to do it.

Wash and Kaylee are the ones involved in the actual business of making the ship go.

Book, Inara and Simon are the outsiders of sound mind who have secured passage on the ship.

River is a member of Simon's party.  Originally a part of Simon's luggage.

Mal's role as captain requires him to interact with all of the three main groups.  Inara rents from him, Book and Simon are his passengers (River is too but her business is handled by Simon) everyone else he supervises.  Zoe, being married to Wash and also, to a lesser extent, her status as second in command give her reasons to interact with him.  Simon and River's relationship is the only reason either of them is there.  Apart from that roles don't connect people across groups.

Notice something about the groups?  There's only one woman in each of them.

If you look at relationships just based upon the roles they're filling (including the connections that transcend groups listed two paragraphs up) there are five connections between men, zero connections between women, and eight cross gender connections.  38%, 0%, 62% compared to an expected value of 28%, 17%, 56% (I rounded, hence they extra percent.)  The zero stands out.  Now we could change those numbers somewhat*** if I threw River in with Inara, Book, and Simon, but I don't think that makes sense because she really can't interact with any of them the way that any two of them can interact with each other.

There are only really two characters that step outside of their roles.  One is Book, the other is Kaylee.  Kaylee is notable because she is responsible for the vast majority of the Bechdel test passing conversations in Firefly.  She talks to Inara, she talks to Zoe, she talks to River, she talks to stuck up women at the party.  She talks to people in general.

Without Kaylee there would be, unless I'm forgetting something, all of four Bechdel test passing conversations in all of Firefly.  Two between Inara and Saffron.  One between Inara and Zoe about Saffron, and one between Inara and her female client.

But the point here is not "Yay! Kaylee isn't defined by her role," it's instead more of why is that the only way two women can talk to each other?  There is no man in the cast who has to venture outside his role to talk to another man.  Part of that is because Mal has reasons to talk to everyone, but even if that weren't the case four out of five men would have other men they could talk to without stepping beyond the bounds of their role while four out of four women can't talk to another woman unless they step outside those bounds.

It's a problem.

I ended my last post on this topic by pointing out that I wasn't sure if anything I'd said made sense, I'm in sort of the same position now.  I honestly don't know if any of this was worth typing, but it's been on my mind.


* Previous go round, which was entirely thinking about Firefly, can be found in the thread at Ana Mardoll's I already linked to.

** Very simple math here.  I'm just looking at two person conversations because that simplifies things a lot.  I'm also just looking at single gender conversations.  That's not for simplification as it's actually very easy to calculate the number of mixed gender conversations, it's because I'm looking specifically at conversations that would pass the Bechdel test and things that would pass the reverse Bechdel.

Any two of the nine males could have a conversation, so there are as many possible conversations as there are ways to choose two individuals from a set of nine.  This figure is literally called "nine choose two" and happens to be 36.  There is only one way to choose two elements from a set of two, thus there's only one way that there could be a conversation between two women in the movie.

The math for n choose k is n!/[k!(n-k)!] Since we're always usin k=2 that simplifies a bit:
n!/[2*(n-2)!] = n*(n-1)/2

This is also the formula for a complete graph of n vertices (which is essentially what we're forming) and the formula for the (n-1)th triangular number (which has no bearing on this conversation whatsoever.)

Anyway, it's like this:
2 people means 1 possible conversation
3 people means 3 possible conversations
4 people means 6 possible conversations
5 people means 10 possible conversations
6 people means 15 possible conversations
7 people means 21 possible conversations
8 people means 28 possible conversations
9 people means 36 possible conversations

And so on.  So if you've got two women and 9 men, male-male conversations are 36 times as likely as female-female conversations because there's only one way for women to have a conversation (you need both of them) where there are 36 ways for the men to have a male only conversation because you can have any two of the the nine involved.

Which is a good argument for not under-representing people.

*** It becomes 5, 1, 9 which is 33%, 7%, 60%.


  1. I love this post so much, so I'm glad you wrote it. There seems to me to be a practice of defining women and POC in movies as !ROLE and men as !CHARACTERS and it's really starting to weird me out, so I'm glad other people see it too.

    Well, for various definitions of "glad".

    1. First, Wahoo! You have come here and said something. (I know it's not the first time, but still.)

      Second, it's probably redundant for me to say things here since we've been discussing the same subject elsewhere.

      Third, I think that, in these cases at least*, it goes beyond even having them be roles. Even if you think of the characters only as roles there's no reason that the roles can't be such that they interact.

      It seems like there's something more at work. Like two women can't have roles that bring them into contact because somehow one of them fills up the space leaving no room for another.


      * I'm not really sure if this is a specifically Whedon thing (The Avengers and Firefly are both Whedon's handiwork), or if it's part of the larger culture. It's definitely not ubiquitous. I watched two very bad made for the Sci Fi Channel movies today and both passed the Bechdel test. The women talked to each other about the aliens in both of them.

      Also, some things definitely go to the opposite extreme and throw all women into the same job in which case they interact (Yay!) but you're also sending the message that women can only fill narrowly defined gender based roles (Boo!).

  2. Just on a point of information, I believe Jane wasn't in the movie because Natalie Portman was either pregnant or a new mother at the time. Otherwise she should have been in there. But that's pedantry.

    As for Avengers gender balance, I'm willing to give a half-pass to the Avengers for four out of the six of them having their own movies. That left two floating spots (the film was already too long to have a seven person team). And everyone would have hit the roof if Loki had mind-controlled the Wasp, or even the Black Widow, and for a very good reason.

    But you're absolutely right that there should have been a link between Maria Hill and the Black Widow. And about the roles in Firefly.

    1. Having written most of the post I realize it could come off as argumentative or worse still "No. You're wrong," and I wanted to say right here at the front that that's not what I'm trying to do here. I really appreciated your post, I thought it was a good post, and I hope you post more in the future.

      I believe Jane wasn't in the movie because Natalie Portman was either pregnant or a new mother at the time.

      Actually my understanding is that Whedon simply didn't want her. Nothing personal to her, he didn't want any supporting characters from the individual heroes' movies. He wanted the characters isolated so he says he wasn't planning to bring any non-hero characters back. Apparently Robert Downey Jr. had to push hard to get Pepper Potts included.

      The problem with ditching Jane on the justification that "you need to separate the characters from their support systems" is that Jane isn't just Thor's support system, she's a character in her own right and as a character she's one of the two foremost experts on the weird magic-science crossover portal stuff that plays a vital world altering role in the film. And the other one wasn't available having been brainwash-kidnapped.

      So if you look at it from a "Thor's love interest didn't show up" perspective, then it's a stylistic choice made by Whedon and who am I to criticize his style?* But if you look at it from a "Jane Foster didn't show up" perspective, then it makes no sense. Because she's the person you would call the moment Selvig was kidnapped by a portal transported alien. Instead they send her away.


      I said a lot here, but on checking I can't figure out where I read the thing I based it on, and can't confirm that it's actually true. So I've reworked and now there's a lot less in this section since it didn't seem worth it to say a lot based on something that may or may not be true.

      I read that there was some doubt as to whether the Hulk should come back, apparently the previous movies weren't considered as successful as they should have been.**

      If that's the case then only three of the spots were set in stone.

      Now I thought that Banner and the Hulk were great in the movie, and I certainly wouldn't want to be rid of them, but maybe if in their place had been the Wasp I would think the same thing about her.

      But, like I said, I can't confirm that. It was definitely planned for the Hulk to be in it for a long time (the Hulk was announced before Thor and Loki) but it's also the case that the original plan called for Norton. So maybe there was a time when they were considering ditching Banner/The Hulk, and maybe there wasn't.


      * Actually I do it all the time, but at the moment I'm not going to because I have other objections I find more important.

      ** By whatever standards are used to judge these things. I thought the Norton one was just fine and my mother still says, "Don't make me hungry, you wouldn't like me when I'm ... hungry." (For anyone who doesn't know the movie, Banner wasn't exactly fluent in the language he was speaking at the time.)

  3. This is really interesting to me, especially since I'm a writer.

    I also felt like something was off about Avengers and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. You've described it quite nicely.

  4. Your Firefly observation is extremely depressing. To take my mind off that, on to the Avengers.

    Yes, it's also depressing that the Avengers only has one female superhero. No room for Giant-Girl? However, what they did with the Black Widow took some of the sting out of it, or at least it cheered me up when my expectations had bottomed out. "Love is for children...I've got a lot of red in my ledger that I need to make black." At least her most fundamental motivation was not about a man, as it had seemed for a moment. Call it a semi-Bechdel.

  5. I don't quite understand why you're talking about the Avengers and Firefly, unless you're trying to talk about Joss Whedon.

    But, as you point out, that the Bechdel test is supposed to apply in aggregate. So I don't understand why you are talking only about Firefly, Whedon's shortest series. That series is, as you point out, structurally unlikely to have women interacting with each other. (At least the start. As River got better, the intent appeared to have her be friends with Kayla, although the show didn't get that far.)

    But, Joss Whedon also made Buffy, a show that failed the reverse Bechdel test more often than it failed the Bechdel test. Exactly due to the same structural issues...the main character was female, and everything was defined in how it related to her. The men were Buffy's friend/sidekick, Buffy's father-figure, Buffy's boyfriend, Buffy's enemy, etc.

    So I'm not quite sure what point you're making? Is this a point about Whedon, or a point that to make a work balanced, you have to not only have a balanced cast, you have to have a cast that relates to each other outside of the context of a single specific person? (This is really more a failure of movies and TV in general than anything about sexism.)

    As for the cast of the Avengers: The way I understand it, Whedon didn't want to use _any_ of the supporting cast of any of the movies. He thinks that supporting characters should stay in their own comic book and not wander around outside of it.

    But the studio made him use Erik, Jane, and Pepper. Except that Natalie Portman wasn't available anyway, so he weaseled out of using her. Frankly, even if she 'wasn't available', they could have had her for thirty seconds making a call from a safe-house if Whedeon had really wanted. He didn't.

  6. SRSLY? I just wrote three solid paragraphs about Jane Foster and other female characters in the Avengers and now you won't publish it because I didn't want to sign in through gmail? Frak you, blogger!

    1. I would like to point out that I, for one, am very interested in what you have to say and *turns to a specific part of the internet* bad blogger. Bad!


      What happened? Did it eat it, or did it say, "I don't like you," or what?

      Regardless of what happened, there's probably not much I can do about it as when it comes to the technical side of things I know nothing.

      The only thing I might be able to do is remove a post from the spam trap if it got spam filtered, but having just checked that, I can see that, at the moment, there is only spam in there.

  7. I've only seen a few episodes of Firefly, but one of them was the one with Patience. Who, as far as I can tell, had exactly zero women on the crew she brought with her to meet Mal.

    Excluding the pilot (although perhaps I shouldn't), the three female characters in Aliens - Ripley, Vasquez, and Newt - were all in different groups, but in that particular movie the groups weren't conversationally separated at all (which is why it passed the Bechdel Test). (Alien, on the other hand, had both its female characters in the same group.)

    Die Hard, while also heavily skewed male, actually had multiple female characters (as in: not extras) in a single group - one of Holly's coworkers was Ginny, the pregnant woman. They discuss whether the latter can safely have a drink at the party.

    I haven't seen The Siege in too long, but the two female characters I can remember in that movie were in different circles that did not interact.

    I think you've hit on something with this theory. This seems to be a pretty strong pattern, and it's not limited to works involving Joss Whedon.