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Where are the moms in movies? Bechdel Test explains

Published: Wednesday, May 8 2013 3:55 p.m. MDT

"The Dark Knight" is among the movies that have flunked the Bechdel Test.

AP Photo, Warner Bros. Pictures, Ron Phillips

SALT LAKE CITY — An enduring criticism of modern cinema is that “full-time moms” are underrepresented in movies. The criticism extends to Disney movies, which have their own Wikipedia page listing movies in which moms are absent or "bad surrogates."

But what if this apparent lack of happy, stay-at-home-mother roles is part of an even broader theatrical problem? A theory captured by something called the Bechdel Test suggests a substantial portion of contemporary films fail to portray any women with adequate emotional depth.

However, there are others asserting that moviemakers are doing justice to the time-honored tradition of motherhood every time a romance culminates in a happily-ever-after resolution.

The question of how Hollywood portrays motherhood appears to be an eye-of-the-beholder proposition — it just depends who you're asking.

The Bechdel Test

Film professor Brad Barber thinks motion pictures could and should do a better job of highlighting characters with strong maternal qualities.

“There haven’t been a lot of documentaries or movies that have told extremely compelling stories about moms,” said Barber, a graduate of the USC School of Cinema-Television and recent winner of a regional Emmy Award for the documentary series "Beehive Stories."

But Barber doesn’t stop there — he actually broadens the scope of the discussion by suggesting any shortage of realistic “mom roles” on the silver screen is actually a symptom of a much larger epidemic involving Hollywood’s generally skewed depiction of women.

“I tend to see (a lack of stories about moms) as part of the bigger problem of there not being enough stories written about women in general,” he said.

To illustrate the point, Barber referenced something called the Bechdel Test or Bechdel Rule. Initially arising from a feminist comic strip in 1985, the Bechdel Test is a fairly straightforward tool for gauging the realism of any given movie’s portrayal of women. There are only three prongs required for a film to “pass the test”: (1) The movie has to have at least two [named] women in it (2) who talk to each other (3) about something besides a man.

If that sounds like an easy enough test to pass, think again.

On the website BechdelTest.com there is a detailed database of 3,479 films. Among that lot no fewer than 46.1 percent of the movies flunked the Bechdel Test — including such pop-culture staples as “Shrek,” “Wall-E,” “The Dark Knight” and three of the four “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.

“Sadly, there’s not a ton of films you can think of that fulfill that (criteria),” said Barber, who teaches at BYU. “I think that’s something that needs to change. It’s something I talk to my students about a lot: representing women more realistically, having stories and roles for women that are more engaging and don’t just service the male central characters — which right now is just too often the case.”

Brad’s wife, Susan Krueger-Barber, is also an artist whose paintings explore feminine themes like how women change when they become mothers and the complex issues surrounding motherhood. In recent years, her artwork has been shown in Southern California at exhibits with names like “Postpartum Provocation” (2009) and “JACARANDA” (2012).

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