What is the Bechdel test?
The Bechdel test or Bechdel-Wallace test was first popularized by a comic strip by Alison Bechdel inspired by a conversation with her friend, Liz Wallace. The comic strip shows two women talking about movies as one explains the three rules she uses to rate movies. The rules are as follows:
- It has at least two named female characters
- Who talk to each other
- About something other than a man/men
The last point can be broadly interpreted to mean conversations that are centered around the female characters relationship to a male character and his goals. The test is meant to determine if a movie is sexist or not by seeing whether it can pass each of these requirements. Although seemingly simple, many movies do not pass the Bechdel-Wallace test.
Do good movies fail the Bechdel-Wallace test?
Yes! Just because a movie fails the Bechdel-Wallace test doesn’t mean it isn’t a good movie. There are some settings that make it impossible for a movie to pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, such as war movies that have few to no female characters at all. Dunkirk is a good example of this phenomenon as it is set on the battlefield for most of the movie’s duration and it’s female characters are regulated to a couple nurses that appear briefly on screen. While Dunkirk is still a great movie, it does not pass the Bechdel-Wallace test.
Studio Ghibli Animation Studios
If you’re an anime fan you probably need no introduction to Studio Ghibli, but if you’re new to anime Studio Ghibli movies are some of the best to start with. Studio Ghibli is a highly acclaimed Japanese animation studio that has produced some of the most well known anime movies of all time, including Spirited Away, Ponyo, and Howl’s Moving Castle.
Studio Ghibli has produced movies in a number of genres, almost all of which feature female lead characters. One of Studio Ghibli’s founding directors, Hayao Miyazaki explains this pattern in the following quote:
“Many of my movies have strong female leads—brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe with all their heart. They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a savior. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.”
Even with this clearly feminist approach, do Studio Ghibli films hold up under the Bechdel-Wallace test?
1. Spirited Away
Spirited Away follows a 10-year-old girl named Chihiro as she tries to save her parents from the witch Yubaba. She encounters people and spirits along the way who help her to achieve her goal, including Haku (a boy dragon spirit), her coworker Lin, the spirit No-Face, and Yubaba’s twin Zeniba.
Pass: There are many female characters who talk to each other, and a lot of the main characters are female. Since the main aim of the protagonist is in getting her parents back, and surviving the world she lives in, most of her conversations are not centered around her relationship to men.
More about the movie: https://ghibli.fandom.com/wiki/Spirited_Away
2. Princess Mononoke
This movie follows the struggle between supernatural spirits of a forest and humans consuming the resources of that forest. The main protagonist, Ashitaka, is thrown into the middle of this conflict during his travels to find the origin of the curse on his arm.
Pass: This is one of the few movies that features a male protagonist but there are still a number of prominent female characters. Many of the women do talk to each other, and are involved in the plot beyond the role of romantic partner/wife/etc.. What is interesting about this movie is the element of spirits that are coded as male or female as they take the shape of animals. However, the Kodama spirits which do not take a traditional animal shape are depicted as gender-neutral or nonbinary.
More about the movie: https://ghibli.fandom.com/wiki/Princess_Mononoke
3. Porco Rosso
Porco Rosso, formerly known as Marco Pagot, is a well-known ex-fighter pilot. A curse has turned him into the likeness of a pig, but that doesn’t stop his womanizing ways.
Fail: This movie has two named female characters, Gina and Fio. While they are strong characters on their own, their entire role in the movie revolves around Porco. They do not have a conversation together on screen, although Fio’s ending monologue says they became good friends.
More about the movie: https://ghibli.fandom.com/wiki/Porco_Rosso
4. Howl’s Moving Castle
Howl’s Moving Castle follows the plight of a young girl named Sophie as she is turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. During the course of the movie Sophie becomes entangled with the wizard Howl.
Pass: This was a close one. There are a number of strong female characters, but a lot of the conversations revolve around Howl. For example, the Witch of the Waste is obsessed with Howl so much of what she has to say is related to him, and Suliman summons Sophie to talk about Howl. However, there are a couple of shorter conversations about other topics that occur in the film.
More about the movie: https://ghibli.fandom.com/wiki/Howl%27s_Moving_Castle
5. Kiki’s Delivery Service
A young witch, Kiki, sets out to prove herself and her abilities in a new town. Along the way she meets different friends and helpers.
Pass: Kiki interacts with many other female characters throughout the movie. Barely any of her conversations revolve around men or male characters and her relationship to them. This story focuses on Kiki’s coming of age, and although there is some romance with Tombo (a boy Kiki met in town), there are many other aspects of Kiki’s story.
More about the movie: https://ghibli.fandom.com/wiki/Kiki%27s_Delivery_Service
6. Castle in the Sky
When a young girl falls from the sky into Pazu’s arms (a young miner who dreams of Laputa) he decides to help her escape her would be captors.
Pass: There are not a lot of main female characters in this movie in comparison with other Studio Ghibli works, but the female characters in the movie are distinct, and when they interact, discuss more than the men in their lives.
More about the movie: https://ghibli.fandom.com/wiki/Castle_in_the_Sky
7. My Neighbor Totoro
My Neighbor Totoro follows two young sisters, Satsuki and Mei, and their interactions with friendly woodland spirits.
Pass: The story follows the two young girls who talk to each other through a lot of the film. Since they are so young, their conversations are not centered on men and their relationship to them. Having spirits as main characters again adds an interesting element of gender interactions in this film, although Totoro has been gendered as male.
More about the movie: https://ghibli.fandom.com/wiki/My_Neighbor_Totoro
8. From up on Poppy Hill
The movie follows how Umi’s daily life as a high school girl changes when she encounters Shun, a boy from school, and works with other kids to save their newspaper clubhouse from being demolished.
Pass: Although this movie passes, it feels like it barely does. There are a couple of conversations between female characters about everyday subjects so it does fulfill the Bechdel-Wallace test at its core. The reason it feels like it barely passes is that a large part of the movie revolves around Umi’s connection to her father and her developing relationship with Shun. Many of her conversations with other characters revolve around these two subjects.
More about the movie: https://ghibli.fandom.com/wiki/From_Up_on_Poppy_Hill
9. Grave of the Fireflies
Follow the lives of siblings Seita and Setsuko Yokokawa as they are made orphans by the war and attempt to survive on their own.
Fail: Setsuko is the only named female character in the movie, and only talks with her brother on screen. Although this movie fails the Bechdel-Wallace test it nonetheless achieves its visionary goal of demonstrating the horrors of war as it effects young children.
More about the movie: https://ghibli.fandom.com/wiki/Grave_of_the_Fireflies
Why use the Bechdel-Wallace test?
The Bechdel-Wallace test is a way of measuring the inclusion of women in film overall. Rather than indicate how good a movie is, it is a useful tool for measuring how women are portrayed in media. The fact that 7 out of the 9 Studio Ghibli movies listed pass the Bechdel-Wallace test with flying colors demonstrates their dedication to portraying strong female characters and inclusive stories.
Interested in finding out what other movies pass or fail the Bechdel-Wallace test? Check out: https://bechdeltest.com
For more information about the Bechdel test and other movie rating tests check out: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/UsefulNotes/TheBechdelTest
Why call it the Bechdel-Wallace test: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/please-stop-calling-it-the-bechdel-test-says-alison-bechdel-10474730.html