Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sunshine Cleaning Passes The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies!

Over the holidays I met Anita at a party and we were discussing our love/hate relationship with media. We both love Buffy. We are both a little sad at what Joss Whedon has done since then. She told me I should watch Farscape. I admitted to liking the new Star Trek even though it falls into some serious cliches. For instance, we can update the ship and make it look all flashy, but we can't let women wear pants?! To say the least, we hit it off.

I had never heard of The Bechdel Test until I checked out her vlog yesterday. It was developed in the 1980s to test whether or not there are substantial female characters in a film. The test is simple:
  1. Are there at least two female characters in the film?
  2. Do they have names?
  3. Do they talk to each other?
  4. Do they talk about something other than men?
If you are like me then you are immediately racking your brain to try and think of films that pass the test. It isn't easy. If you watch Anita's vlog clip then you can see an extensive list of films that do not pass; a lot of which are modern classics that I grew up on and loved without even thinking about how there was little for me, as a young girl, to identify with.

At the party, Anita and I both admitted that we tend to, as academics, feminists, and media lovers, attack and criticize things without talking enough about there are things out there that we love. So, last night, since it was difficult for me to think of a film off the top of my head that would pass The Bechdel Test, I took my research to my Netflix cue. And I low and behold I found a film that passed - Sunshine Cleaning. And I liked it immensely.

The story revolves around Rose (Amy Adams) who is a struggling single mother in Albuquerque. Through connections that Rose has at the local police department (re: married cop whom she has regular relations with) she transitions from being a maid to operating her own business cleaning up crime scenes with the help of her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt). Even though the work is disgusting Rose finds happiness in helping people at moments in their lives when something horrible has happened.

I am purposely leaving out details here, because there are many very tried and true ways that the characters in this movie could change and grow. However, Sunshine Cleaning at almost every turn refuses to take the easy way out. This makes the main characters, the sister duo of Norah and Rose, more complex and interesting than female characters in the vast majority of films. Additionally, if you were to look at them through the critique of The Bechdel Test, that they are also unique in the fact that most of their interactions have little to do with the men in their lives even though their romantic entanglements are also complex.

I am not saying that the film is superior to all others, but it is touching and a great example of how to follow a classic, plot-driven, screenplay structure that media makers who've been through scriptwriting 101 have had drilled into their head and still come out with female characters who are well developed. It is, in effect, a ray of sunshine in regards to its inclusion and development of multiple, interesting female characters. Also interesting to note, is that the film was written and directed by two women, Megan Holley and Christin Jeffs, as well!


  1. It's funny. I had never heard of this test before but within two days I have two different people tell me about it (you being one of them)!

    I'm going to definitely think about this more while watching movies. I'm sad to say I think my own film fails the test - just barely though... :-)

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  2. Ooo, ooo, ooo! What about "Whip it"? I think that fits the rules - and it is directed by a woman!

  3. True. Whip It works. It is actually a little anti-romance as well!

    I also have to say that there are moments in P10 that they do not talk about men. Like when Mara goes to the bar and runs into Liz Smith and they talk about how Liz and her friends made fun of Mara in HS. Granted, then Danny walks in, but I think your films passes the test.