I’ve often wondered about how certain groups of movies would hold up to the Bechdel Test. So today, I’m going to start scrutinizing the films featuring the eleven official Disney princesses. Since there are eleven movies and I anticipate having a bit to say about each of them, I’m going to split this post into two.
What is the Bechdel Test?
The Bechdel Test is a series of pass or fail requirements applied to works of fiction, most frequently movies. It is named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel and first appeared in her long running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. It has since been taken up by the general public as a test of how realistically female characters are treated in a work of fiction. As many writers examining the Bechdel test have noted, it is not terribly useful as a judge of an individual film’s quality or even its value as a feminist work, since films that are not exactly shining examples of feminism have passed the test. The Bechdel Test is best for looking at groups of films – a particular year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees or the top grossing films of the year – or comparing the pass/fail rates between groups of films and seeing what trends emerge.
The original Bechdel Test consists of three qualifications:
1. The film must have at least two female characters. A common addition to this rule is that the characters must be named. Under most circumstances, I think that’s a perfectly reasonable request, but I’m leaving it off because it doesn’t appear in the original comic strip and for reasons that I’ll go into shortly.
2. The two female characters must have at least one conversation.
3. At least one of these conversations must be about something other than a male character. The original says “about a man,” but I’m changing it to “male character” since “a man” can suggest that the character in question has to be an adult or a romantic interest for one or both of the female characters.
Now that we all understand the rules, let’s get to the movies!
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – 1937
This film is a big part of the reason I didn’t want to require that the female characters be named. In a lot of cases, it helps to rule out minor roles like “woman with dog” or “lady getting parking ticket.” But in this case, you have a character known only as “The Queen” who is one of the most important characters in the movie. Plus, of the ten major characters in the film (discounting the various cute animals), three are unnamed and two of those are male: the Hunstman and the Prince.
The point where judging this film gets tricky is the third requirement. Both the prince and the dwarves are mentioned in the course of the interaction between Snow White and the disguised Queen, but the subject changes several times and it’s hard to tell if it should all be counted as one conversation. I’m going to say that their first exchange has more to do with confirming that Snow White is alone and getting her to try the apple than it does to do with the dwarves and give the film a narrow pass, though I’m open to alternate theories.
Cinderella – 1950
This one is surprisingly easy. Even if you wanted to be really harsh and say that every conversation Cinderella has with someone else about going to the ball is indirectly about a man, as meeting a man is her unstated reason for going to the ball, you’d still have the conversation where Lady Tremaine chides Cinderella and assigns her extra chores. There are even scenes with four way conversations between all female characters without one mention of any male character.
Sleeping Beauty – 1959
If passing the Bechdel Test were primarily up to Aurora, this film would be in trouble. Even at the point where she presumably hasn’t seen a male human being since she was an infant, she can’t help going on about some fantasy love interest. Fortunately, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather pick up the slack and spend most of the movie talking about Aurora. Another pass, but also a great example of how the Bechdel test is not a screen for feminism. Aurora is so passive that she’s hardly even the main character.
The Little Mermaid – 1989
This one is tough. Ariel and Ursula have a pretty extensive conversation, so that’s one and two down. But what is their conversation about? It’s about the terms for Ariel getting a spell from Ursula to turn her into a human. Nothing particularly male-centric there, until you get to the question of why Ariel wants to become human. That’s where things start to get murky.
On the one fin, Ariel has shown an interest in the human world through the entire movie. She has a whole song about wanting to go live in the human world, all before she has a clue that Eric exists. But then again, the size of her collection indicates that she’s been curious about dry land for a long time, yet she never did anything beyond exploring shipwrecks and popping up to the surface for visits with a clueless seagull. That is, she never did anything beyond that before she laid eyes on her first human and fell in love. Ursula even says that Ariel’s reason for coming to see her is Eric. It’s a close call, but I’m going to say this is the first princess film that doesn’t pass.
Beauty and the Beast
Given how much I love this movie, it’s a little distressing to see how close it comes to failing. Belle has two or three conversations with other female characters, namely Mrs. Potts and the Wardrobe. The topics of conversation are Belle’s current predicament, dressing for dinner, and tea. The problem is that male characters are always just present enough to make this a tough call. Chip is part of the conversation, so it’s not exclusively between female characters. But he is outnumbered three to one. Maurice is brought up briefly and though the Beast isn’t mentioned here, his presence does have an impact on the conversation. The “very brave thing” that Mrs. Potts compliments Belle on doing is giving up her freedom to save her father from the Beast. The wardrobe is trying to get Belle dressed up for dinner with the Beast. This is an even more difficult call than The Little Mermaid, but since the male characters aren’t really the end goal of these conversations, I’m going to call it a pass by a slim margin.
Now it gets easy again. ‘Aladdin’ clearly fails the Bechdel Test. Jasmine is the only female character of note in the entire movie and she never talks with any other female characters. I even double checked to see if she might have had a split second conversation with a lady merchant at the marketplace. No dice. Unless that little bird she snuggles with is female, Jasmine has exactly zero interactions with any other female characters of any species. That makes this the first Disney princess film to fail requirement number one.
So how do the remaining Disney princess films fare against the Bechdel Test? Check out Part Two to find out.