Good news: Blockbuster films with meaningful female characters made more money in 2013 than films that focused exclusively on dudes.
Pop culture website Vocativ crunched the numbers on box office revenue for the top-grossing films of the year with an eye on which films pass the Bechdel test and which didn’t.
Of the 50 top-grossing films of 2013, 24 technically pass the Bechdel test. The combined box office revenue of those 24 films is a whopping $4.22 billion. The combined gross of the films that failed the Bechdel test was $2.66 billion.
One take-away from that list of top 50 films of the year? Geez, the top-earning films in America are horrible. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 made $116 million and our society is crumbling at its very foundations.
But anyway, the Bechdel test isn’t a perfect judge of how women are portrayed in a film, but it’s useful for a couple reasons. First, it helps just put gender on the radar of movie-goers. Secondly, it can be a sign of good writing. Often, failing the Bechdel test is a sign of lazy writing. There are certainly great films that don’t include two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than men, but I see it as a red flag when screenwriters can’t imagine a plotline that includes dynamic female characters who are integral to the story.
Even many of the top-grossing films that passed the Bechdel test this year revolve around men’s stories. While they include female characters, blockbuster films like Man of Steel, Elysium, The Great and Powerful Oz, The Hangover Part III, The Wolverine, Iron Man 3, Thor 2, World War Z, The Great Gatsby all focus on the journey of male main characters. Actress Kamala Lopez summed up this depressing dynamic when I talked with her about gender and Hollywood this fall, “Hollywood’s not interested in stories about women. Hollywood is interested in women as parts of stories that are driven by men.” It’s interesting to consider how some of these films—particularly Elysium—could have been more creative and compelling films if they were told from the perspective of women. That was essentially the selling point of The Heat, which was pretty much just a regular buddy cop film made more original by starring two funny women.
One more thing about this list of top-grossing films is that men directed 49.5 of the 50 films—Disney princess film Frozen was co-directed by Jennifer Lee. While men working in the film industry outnumber women five to one, women did directed lots of great movies in 2013 (Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, Lake Bell’s In a World…, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, and Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda come to mind)—just not the kinds that make $100 million. Instead, the majority of women directors create independent, lower-budget films. As film critic Courtney Sheehan explained during Oscar season last year, “The size of production budgets frequently go hand-in-hand with the number of theaters to which distribution companies send a film. Since women tend to direct small-budget, independent fare, most moviegoers never get the opportunity to see many of the films made by women.”