It’s time once again for the Bechdel Test, that ever-popular method of kind of sort of determining the feminist value of movies and other works of fiction. As I’ve said before, the Bechdel Test is actually better at identifying trends than it is at determining the quality or feminism of an individual film. So when I do the Bechdel Test, I like to apply it to groups of movies. Last time, the Disney princesses took the test. This time, it’s Pixar’s turn.
Why Pixar? Well, obviously I like animation. If I’m going to be spending some time scrutinizing a bunch of movies, it might as well be movies I’m interested in. Pixar also has a good-sized but still manageable catalog of films, enough to make for interesting analysis without taking me months to tackle. The Pixar films also make for a good comparison with the Disney Princess movies. They share many aspects beyond being animated, yet also differ in the kinds of stories they tell and the eras the movies come from. And finally, Pixar has been criticized in the past for making largely male-centric movies while relegating their female characters to secondary, though still strong, roles. While subjecting the Pixar movies to the Bechdel test may not support or refute this criticism, it could shed some light on the subject.
In case anyone has forgotten, the Bechdel Test consists of three rules. First, the movie in question must contain at least two female characters. Second, two female characters must have at least one conversation with each other. Third, at least one of these conversations must be about something other than a male character. The rules seem simple, but as I found out when applying the test to the Disney Princess movies, there’s a lot left to interpretation, such as what counts as a conversation, whether the mere mention of a male character disqualifies a conversation, whether the presence of a male character disqualifies a conversation, and so on. Since the Bechdel Test was originally written as the topic of a single page comic rather than a serious attempt to analyze film, there’s a lot of ambiguity.
So that’s the preliminaries out of the way. On to the films!
Toy Story – 1995
By Pixar’s own admission, their first film is very much about “boys and their toys.” This doesn’t mean there are no female characters, but they are heavily outnumbered by the males and they don’t get much interaction time. Some of them, such as Andy’s baby sister Molly and Hannah’s various unfortunate dolls, don’t really talk, making this film’s chances of passing pretty slim. The one possibility the movie has for a pass is a very short exchange between Hannah and her mother right before Hannah discovers the broken Buzz Lightyear. It could almost be considered enough to pass the film, but since Hannah’s mom only says “What was that?” I’m hesitant to count it as a conversation. And although I don’t use the named character rule, Hannah’s mother is neither seen nor named, making it hard to really count her as a character.
A Bug’s Life – 1998
Thanks to an entirely female royal family on Ant Island, Pixar’s second movie marks its first pass on the Bechdel Test. True, the ant queen, Princess Atta, and Princess Dot spend some of their time talking about Flik. But they also talk about the harvest, Dot’s attempt to fly, and various other subjects not related to the film’s male characters. In the commentary track for the movie (which is well worth a listen if you’ve never heard it), some of the filmmakers discuss being inspired to write stronger female characters for the movie, particularly Dot, when they started having little girls of their own.
Toy Story 2 – 1999
Pixar jumped on the sequel train early and set the standard for just how good an animated sequel could be. The additions of Mrs. Potato Head and Jessie to the cast made the male/female balance of the series a bit more even. And Jessie further demonstrates Pixar’s ability to create female characters just as interesting and well-defined as their male ones. But as far as the Bechdel Test goes, this is one for the fail column. There are more female characters than the first Toy Story had, but they still get very little time to interact. The only moment that comes close to fulfilling the test’s requirements is a brief conversation between an unnamed little girl who picks up Woody at the yard sale and her mother. And even then, they are talking about a male character, though neither of them realize he is a character rather than a cowboy shaped collection of wood, fabric, and stuffing.
Monsters, Inc. – 2001
Like the first Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. is primarily a buddy comedy, albeit one about two characters who get along and have their relationship tested rather than two characters who initially hate each other and have to learn to get along. So once again, we get a lot of dialogue between two male characters. There are female characters, at least three of whom have pretty major roles. But none of them really talk to one another. Once again, there is one possible conversation between two female characters, this time between Boo and the daycare monster. It’s only one line from each of them, but it could count were it not for the fact that Boo probably doesn’t know what she is saying or what is being said to her. It’s one of those cases where the vagaries of the Bechdel Test make for a tough call. But to my mind, a conversation requires both parties to be capable of understanding each other.
Finding Nemo – 2003
Another case where the combination of a film with way more male than female characters and the Bechdel Test’s lack of details make for a bit of a tough call. Deb and Peach are in conversations about subjects other than Nemo and the other male characters. The problem is that it’s a group conversation with the rest of the tank gang and there’s no moment where the two are clearly addressing each other as opposed to anyone else in the group. I’ve made allowances for conversations with two female characters and a male characters in the past, but only where the female characters are major players in the conversation and clearly talk to one another specifically. Deb and Peach’s limited interaction doesn’t fit that criteria.
The Incredibles – 2004
An easy call at last, and it’s a pass to boot. While you could argue that Helen’s conversations with Edna at least partially revolve around male characters, there’s no question that her talk with Violet fulfills the requirements of the Bechdel Test. On top of that, it’s a great scene in a phenomenal movie that I am assuming everyone has seen already. If not, get off the computer and go watch it. Now. You won’t regret it.
Cars – 2006
I actually had to go back and watch Cars to see if it passes or not. I probably haven’t seen the movie since it was in theaters and BechdelTest.com – the site I check for guidance when I’m not sure if a film should pass or fail – didn’t have a clear consensus. So after careful review, I have determined that Cars is a surprising pass, if only by a hair. During Lightning McQueen’s trial, Sally and Flo have a four line exchange of dialogue. Yes, it’s short, and yes, it’s part of a larger conversation that includes other characters. But Sally does single out Flo specifically and ask her two questions, which Flo answers. It’s not much, but it’s a conversation.
So that’s part one of the Pixar Bechdel Test. Check out part two for more Pixar films facing the Bechdel Test.