Reviews for Monsters University, the long-awaited sequel to Pixar’s classic 2001 film Monsters, Inc., have been mostly-positive, holding an average rating of 78% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But compared to Toy Story‘s 100%, 78% is Pixar underachieving. 78% is actually their second-lowest RT score, tied with Brave and just ahead of Cars at 74%. Some critics are calling the film average and unoriginal but hardly anyone is talking about the fact that Monsters University, just like its predecessor Monsters, Inc., fails the Bechdel test, along with the majority of Pixar’s back catalogue.
In order for something to pass the Bechdel test, partially invented by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own and later popularised by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, two female characters must talk to each other about something other than a man. Got that?
Two women (with names)
having a conversation
about something other than a man.
If we count ant-hropomorphic females, A Bug’s Life passes the Bechdel test. Brave also passes, as do The Incredibles and Toy Story 3. But Cars, Cars 2, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Up, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Monsters University and Wall-E all fail. One or two fails would be indicative of the story’s isolated world-view, particularly in the cases of Wall-E and Up, but 10 out of 14 children’s films from the same company all failing this basic test of female representation?
In these 14 movies (not including shorts) there are approximately 291 named individuals, of which 67 are ‘female’. This is extremely rough maths, admittedly. I challenge YOU to count every single character in 14 movies, then work out which ones are specifically named in the film as opposed to in the credits (as well as more complex problems, i.e. how many characters is a Barrel of Monkeys? I went with ’1′.) But yeah, I make that about 23%, which means:
Women represent less than ONE QUARTER of all Pixar characters.
This means that Pixar as a whole horribly flunks the Bechdel.
Historically, equal representation wasn’t a serious concern of the production teams behind animated children’s movies. Disney’s Hall of Fame is full of fail, yet this hasn’t hampered their popularity. Critics’ favourites Aladdin, The Jungle Book and The Lion King all miss the mark while others, such as The Little Mermaid, are highly disputed, hanging on contentious issues such as whether Ariel’s desire to get legs is born more of a need for freedom or her lust for the Prince. Some of this might be blamed on the source material (in this case, folk tales) but with modern adaptations comes freedom to interpret. Many new elements and characters are introduced, so the excuse doesn’t strictly hold. Ironically, it is the films most-often blamed for perpetuating anti-feminist ideas — Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty — that pass the Bechdel with flying colours, and these too were based on folktales. In recent years popular animated films produced by other studios, like Wreck-It Ralph, Despicable Me and How To Train Your Dragon all passed commendably, despite some being more ‘traditionally masculine’ in theme (video games, comic book villainy), while Studio Ghibli almost-always gets it right.
So where is Pixar going wrong?
The test doesn’t measure sexism exactly, but female presence. It is a simple method of examining how well women are represented in context. Context is key here. A film that passes the test may still be viewed as sexist, while a film that fails might still be considered to reflect a feminist perspective overall. No one really expects Akira or Watership Down to pass but 2013′s Monsters University has absolutely no reason to fail the Bechdel given its audience and the infinite scope of its setting.
But it does.
FAIL: Monsters University (2013)
Here we have an entire University full of women, some of whom are depicted on the poster, and there’s not a single Bechdel-qualifying conversation amongst them. Like all Pixar movies, Monsters University passes the reverse Bechdel test (two named men discussing something that isn’t a woman), and does so within the first fifteen minutes. Dean Hardscrabble is a two-dimensional stock antagonist who doesn’t deign to speak to any fellow females. There are two sororities full of weird-looking girls that might have been interesting if they’d been developed but none of these women interact with each other or otherwise remain nameless. The best female character is rock-loving Mom Sherri Squibbles but she spends all of her time onscreen with the Oozma Kappa fraternity. No love interests. No female friends. No notable female Scarer in the Scare Programme.
How it could have passed: Dean Hardscrabble instructs Claire Wheeler, Greek Council president, on how the Scare Games ought to unfold. Roz stands off against Hardscrabble during her brief appearance.
Defenders might argue that to apply the Bechdel test to a children’s cartoon is liberal overanalysis gone mad but cartoons matter. They appeal to young people in the most simple and straightforward way; they are representations of ourselves and how we live. Of all possible genres, children’s film is probably one of, if not the most important genre in terms of gender representation. It’s not too big of an ask, surely, that in a film with 20+ characters, two are named females who have at least a few lines of conversation about a non-male subject? Especially when that film is going to be seen by a relatively even split of girls and boys.
Let’s take a closer look at Pixar’s filmography, to see where they got it right and where they got it wrong.
FAIL: Toy Story (1995)
Indisputably one of the most popular movies of all-time, Toy Story nonetheless began Pixar’s Bechdel fail run. Of its approximately 23 characters (see issues above), only 6 are female and only 1 of those is considered a ‘main’ character: shepherdess Bo Peep, who plays the damsel in distress. None of the other female characters in Toy Story speak to each other. At one point Sid’s sister Hannah asks her mother where her Sally doll is. Though this hardly counts as a two-way conversation in any event, Hannah’s mother doesn’t have a name. Once again the reverse Bechdel test passes, this time within the first five minutes. Bo Peep sticks around to flirt boringly with Woody in Toy Story 2 but is eclipsed by the arrival of Jessie. By Part 3 she has been lost, sold or destroyed, her existence reduced to a single line of dialogue.
How it could have passed: During the credits, Molly’s new toy Mrs. Potato Head is introduced to Andy’s toys, including Bo, who makes some comment about MPH’s earrings (a plot point later used in Toy Story 2).
PASS: A Bug’s Life (1998)
Despite actually being insects, the women of Bug’s Life fare pretty well on the Bechdel test. Though the protagonist is once again male, three of the main characters are female — Princess Atta, Princess Dot and the Queen (though whether this counts as a name, I’m not entirely certain) — and by golly, they actually converse with each other. There are also three female supporting characters who are relatively well-defined: Gypsy the moth, Rosie the black widow and Dr. Flora. The matriarchal royal lineage makes a refreshing change, though not if you’ve already seen Antz. It also passes the reverse Bechdel test. With the third highest score for Pixar on Rotten Tomatoes at 92%, A Bug’s Life is one for the studio to be proud of on all accounts.
FAIL: Toy Story 2 (1999)
Toy Story 2 fails almost as badly as its older brother on the Bechdel test, though both are rated as 100% ‘fresh’ on Rotten Tomatoes. Jessie was obviously introduced to counteract the absence of a strong female character. She isn’t a love interest, and she has certain quirks and charms that mark her out as more than just Woody’s companion doll. Unfortunately, she doesn’t talk to Woody’s beau Bo, Bo doesn’t talk to Mrs. Potato Head, and Mrs. Potato Head talk to Jessie, which seems like a massively missed opportunity. As it is, the closest Toy Story 2 comes to an actual female conversation is this scene. Like Toy Story, the reverse Bechdel passes within five minutes. In summary, some progress for the franchise but still a fail.
How it could have passed: Bo talks to Mrs. Potato Head during the film’s beginning scenes. At the end of the movie, Jessie is introduced to Bo and Mrs. Potato Head.
FAIL: Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Monsters, Inc. is all about male bonding. There are three main characters and though one of them is a girl, she’s a toddler who can’t talk in full sentences yet, which makes her a bit redundant as far as the Bechdel test goes. We have Mike’s clingy snake-haired girlfriend Celia and Roz, the gravelly-voiced, slug-like battleaxe (who, admittedly, is pretty awesome) but they don’t talk to each other, even though Roz and Celia work together in an administrative capacity. Another female member of staff, Mrs. Flint, doesn’t speak to them either. In contrast, there are numerous conversations between male monsters about many things other than women, passing the reverse Bechdel test. (From now on assume that everything passes the reverse Bechdel test unless I explicitly state otherwise.)
How it could have passed: Roz tells Celia to get back to work when she’s haranguing Mike about their anniversary date.
FAIL: Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo introduces one of Pixar’s most beloved female characters: Dory, a Pacific regal Blue. Like Jessie, Dory isn’t a traditional love interest (yes-yes, she’s a fish, I know) and despite her slender frame she is far from being one-dimensional. But Dory is pretty much the only female character of note in Finding Nemo. Whether the film fails the Bechdel hangs on one line of dialogue between Peach (the starfish) and Deb (who thinks her reflection is her sister) in the dentist’s tank, though it’s as part of a group discussion and the answer directed at everyone. If it’s a pass, it’s an extremely sketchy pass. With the entire ocean to play with and a far-reaching plot with plenty of scope, there was ample room. Technically it’s a fail for Finding Nemo, despite Dory’s best efforts to just keep swimming. I hold out hope for the spin-off sequel, 2015′s Finding Dory.
How it could have passed: At some point during their long journey, Dory meets a female fish/crab/bird, who offers her name. Peach offers a witty retort to Deb during her search for ‘Flo’ when the tank is dirty, to which Deb directly replies.
PASS: The Incredibles (2004)
The Incredibles fuses some femininity into the macho arena of superheroes. While on the surface this ensemble film revolves around Mr. Incredible, the true hero emerges as his resourceful wife Helen, otherwise known as Elastigirl. We also have her shy, sarcastic daughter Violet, who repeatedly saves the entire family, duplicitous ‘spy’ Mirage and fashion designer Edna, all of whom are memorable and well-developed. Supporting characters include babysitter Kari McKeen and Frozone’s wife Honey, whose brief appearances also manage to convey a decent sense of identity. Discussions between Helen and Violet make this film a clean pass, though Helen also interacts with Mirage, Edna and Kari. Second only to Brave, this is one of Pixar’s best Bechdel successes.
FAIL: Cars (2006) & Cars 2 (2011)
I hate the Cars franchise. I think it’s a lazy, flabby exercise in commercialism that lacks the tender spirit of Pixar’s greatest works. That’s why I’ve carelessly combined both films into one entry. They both pretty obviously fail the Bechdel test, anyway. In the original Cars we have one woman central to the plot — Porsche-shaped love interest Sally — plus a few minor stock females who don’t talk to each other. It’s not that Sally is a terrible character exactly, but in the sequel she is reduced to a supporting role and replaced with Holley Shiftwell in a move we’ll call ‘the ole Bo Peep’. Only 1 of 9 main characters in Cars 2 is female. Of an enormous supporting cast of approximately 31, 4 are women (well, women-mobiles). One might argue that the Cars movies are tailored more towards boys but a) who says girls don’t like cars and b) millions of girls have seen both of these films, willingly or not. The Cars franchise is one of the worst Pixar fails for female presence, as well as in pretty much every other category.
How it could have passed: Sally and Holley converse in Cars 2.
FAIL: Ratatouille (2007)
It’s a real shame that Ratatouille fails the Bechdel test. Not only is it a great movie but Colette is a great character and her relationship with the hapless ‘Linguini’ is interesting, inverting the traditional power balance like Wall-E, below. But Colette is quite literally the ONLY real female character in Ratatouille, including Remy’s massive family of rats, which is frankly unrealistic considering the rodent need to breed. Only 3 of 18 named characters are female if you include Linguini’s mother Renata (who is never seen) and food critic Solene Leclair, who has a one-word line. An all-time low, women-wise.
How it could have passed: Colette has a female maître d’/waitress to spar with, or a friend to whom she complains about the male-dominated restaurant industry/Linguini’s incompetence.
FAIL: Wall-E (2008)
Wall-E gives us an atypical, mission-driven heroine in EVE and a plot so brilliantly conceived it won an Academy Award. But it straight-up fails the Bechdel test. There are two female characters, EVE and Mary (the fat, baby-catching lady), who don’t interact. However, if the Bechdel test ought to be ignored on any account, it’s here. There is a distinct lack of named characters in this movie in general. The gender types are also somewhat reversed, with EVE taking on the role of the gun-toting protector. But Wall-E just-about passes the reverse Bechdel test thanks to a brief introduction between Wall-E and Mo, the OCD-bot, as well as the ongoing dialogue between Captain B. McCrea and Auto, identified as a ‘he’. Of the supporting robot ensemble there are sadly no named women, though some of the malfunctioning ‘bots are clearly depicted as female. So in a purely technical sense it’s a fail, but all things considered, a moderately forgivable one.
How it could have passed: Wall-E introduces EVE to Mary and John.
FAIL: Up (2009)
Like Wall-E, Up is a masterpiece. Any film that reduces the viewer to a hysterical gibbering wreck within the first ten minutes can only be considered a highly accomplished work of art. For its understated sentimentality, its unpredictable plot, its quirky humour and the winning odd-couple combination of a old, grouchy widower and a chubby Asian Wilderness Explorer, Up passes every possible movie test except the Bechdel. Ellie Fredricksen is a fantastic heroine full of pluck and simple wisdom but unfortunately she’s dead, and the only person she is seen to talk to is her husband Carl. Other than the revelation that the weird bird Kevin is actually female, there’s absolutely nothing in the way of womanly interaction whatsoever. Nonetheless, any little girl that wants to be a famous explorer will always be a feminist hero in my book.
How it could have passed: I’m coming up blank. Anyone got a good idea?
PASS: Toy Story 3 (2010)
The third installment in the trilogy is Pixar’s highest-grossing film at the American box office and the highest-grossing animated film of all time worldwide. It’s also the only Toy Story film to pass the Bechdel test. We now have three main female characters, Jessie, Mrs. Potato Head and Barbie, and a qualifying conversation in which the other girls console Barbie about being donated. Hurrah! Barbie actually becomes an unexpectedly intelligent and independent character, turning her back on metrosexual Ken’s Dream House when she learns that her friends are being subjugated by the tyranny of Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear. She also surprises everyone by sounding like Thomas Jefferson at the end. A clean pass for the Toy Story franchise, and about time.
PASS: Brave (2012)
Brave is the one where Pixar really gets it right in regards to female representation, creating a wonderfully wayward princess character who defies defined gender roles, competing for her own hand in marriage through the medium of archery. Even better, it passes the Bechdel test within five minutes. It’s actually the first Pixar film with a female protagonist and not a second is wasted on a love story. It’s more ‘Disney’ than any of Pixar’s previous works yet it inverts Disney’s classically established tropes; it is a critique of the conventions of the princess genre. Merida’s conversations with Queen Elinor about responsibility vs. free will make this Pixar’s best Bechdel pass overall. On the downside, it has one of Pixar’s lowest scores on Rotten Tomatoes (78%). Possibly the whole Mam-turns-into-a-bear plot wasn’t for everyone.
At least Pixar are in good company. Of the films on IMDB’s top 250 movie list, approximately 158 fail the Bechdel test. Their lack of named, conversing women obviously hasn’t affected their box office gross or their critical review, thus failing the Bechdel test isn’t an indication of quality. But female directors and screenwriters are decidedly in the minority in Hollywood. That makes the Bechdel test somewhat relevant as a marker if we want to examine to what degree women are underrepresented (or misrepresented) in film.
Some argue that the test is a baseline of basic equality. Others claim the Bechdel is biased and doesn’t represent the full complexity of the issue, or worse, that it is an example of the most rigid and damaging kind of feminist thinking. I’ll admit, in certain Pixar films the qualifying conversations became increasingly difficult to define due to artistic decisions that I, as a film lover and fan of the studio, approved of. Perhaps the Bechdel criteria is too limiting? On the other hand, at one point during this epic stretch of cartoon-based research I entirely forgot that the conversations weren’t supposed to be about men, so rare was it that two women actually talked at all.
Can we say that Wall-E or Up are anti-feminist? Absolutely not. But can we say that the Toy Story, Monsters Inc and Cars franchises are lacking in female characters that interact as intimately as their male counterparts (e.g. Woody and Buzz)? Certainly, yes. If we are debating the qualification of a film based on one sentence between bit parts, as in the case of Finding Nemo, I’m inclined to say that simply isn’t good enough. Though as you can see from some of the suggestions I’ve provided above, even passing the Bechdel doesn’t ensure fair representation for women.
I am intolerant of feminism that picks all the wrong targets for its vitriol, but I can’t help thinking that the Bechdel is a pretty humble request, particularly from a company like Pixar, who are producing children’s franchises worth billions of dollars. Despite giving us some great female characters, I find it surprising and disappointing that so many of the studio’s movies break these basic Bechdel-set rules of female presence.