Character Development: What are We Subconsciously Teaching Our Children Through Movies?

What is the Bechdel Test?

There is something I learned about recently called “The Bechdel Test”. Alright, we’re late on the bandwagon since this rule has been around since 1985 when it was first introduced by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For“.

Image from Tribeca

The rule is basically about the unequal representation of women in films. Most female characters depicted are usually done so in relation to a man in the movie – mostly being the love interest and needing to be rescued. Even if there is a strong female lead in the movie, she usually lacks depth of character and is rarely shown having conversations with other female characters in the movie. If the women do have a conversation, it is almost always about a man. So for a movie to pass the Bechdel Test, it has to meet three criteria:

  1. Are there two or more women in the movie?
  2. Do these women talk to each other?
  3. Is the conversation about anything other than a man?

Subliminal Messages Our Children are Learning from the Movies they Watch

The test is simple enough (and even considered to be setting the bar too low), but it seems a lot of movies are failing it. Even one of my all-time favourite movies (the original Star Wars trilogy) flunked the test miserably! In fact, many of the movies I’ve watched and thoroughly enjoyed all fail the Bechdel test.

Until I had children, I have never really thought much about the messages we have been receiving from the movies we watch. Even then, I only looked for broader messages like fighting racism, building character with adversity, and developing a growth mindset. I also noticed and appreciated the improvements in the way movies portrayed the female characters in animated features like Brave, whose female protagonist is the unlady-like Merida climbing cliff faces and riding off on horses with her bow and arrows (whom I can totally relate to because that’s exactly the kind of girl I was growing up – without a single lady-like bone in my body)…

Image from FanPop

… and Eep from The Croods who represents the “larger girl” who is stronger than her love interest – Guy (although I still think she is a bit too gushy for my liking).

Image from FanPop

Beyond that, I have never given any thought to the subliminal messages that our children could be taking away from the movies they viewed – that woman are superficial, a prize to be won once you defeated the dark side, and only an accessory to a man – until I saw this video from Colin Stokes on TedxTalks:

Is this really what we want to be teaching our daughters? I know I don’t have any daughters but I do have three goddaughters and I would like them to grow up knowing how strong they are and what they are capable of achieving.

In addition to this, Colin Stokes makes another very valid point – although we can do a lot to empower our girls, we also need to teach our boys. Our boys are watching these movies as well – do we want them growing up viewing women in this way – shallow creatures that are merely prizes to be won and whom exist only as an accessory?

So whether we are parents of boys or girls, this message applies to all. What movie messages are your children taking away from the movies they are watching? If you want an easy way to find movies that pass the Bechdel Test, there is a list here.

Pitfalls of the Bechdel Test

Yes, like everything else in this world, nothing is perfect. The Bechdel Test, while an easy tool to use as a yardstick, is hardly the epitomic standard to go by. There are many ways a movie can still pass the Bechdel Test and still fail to convey the right messages – as highlighted by Jenny Trout in this blog post (although she was talking about books rather than movies):

Anyway, this got me thinking about what books and movies do pass the Bechdel test and yet are still packed with horrible, anti-female stereotypes and messages.  Like Sex and The City. One episode that stands out strongly in my mind is the one in which fashion-obsessed Carrie may lose her apartment because she’s spent all of her money on designer shoes, and her financial troubles cause a rift between herself and her friend Charlotte, who has alimony and a tony penthouse from the rich man she married. If we’re playing by the rules of “if it passes the Bechdel test, it’s feminist,” then there you have it.

You know what else passes the Bechdel test? Every. Single. 50 Shades of Grey book. All of them.

While the Bechdel Test represents a first hurdle to cross, we should still dig a little deeper if we want the right messages passing through to our children.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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