It seems just about everyone tuned into the lives of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman this August for the season premiere of “Breaking Bad.” When it comes to White and Pinkman, viewers are captivated — but what about the women in the show? We catch up with Skyler and Marie, but the majority of the season revolves around the “almighty” Heisenberg. This is a common characterization found between men and women in films and television that was recognized as an issue by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985. Bechdel expressed this phenomenon of women being overshadowed by their male counterparts and created the Bechdel Test when she drew a comic that depicted characters chatting about how they would only see a movie if it followed three specific sets of criteria.
These criteria consist of: (1) at least two female characters; (2) those characters must have a conversation; (3) this conversation must be about something other than a man. If these three details align then the show or film passes the test.
The test has effectively worked with assessing movies, as seen by the 4,000 films found on the Bechdel Test online database, but what about television? As a primary media outlet, television can always use evaluation and skepticism.
After talking to a handful of ASU students, both men and women, the results for the most watched television shows within the past five years centered around four shows; “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Girls.”
Even though it is one of the most popular shows in the past five years, “Breaking Bad” on the AMC network only has two female characters that have appeared in nearly every episode. Walter’s wife, Skyler White, played by Anna Gunn, is the primary female character in the show. In addition to Skyler, Marie Schrader, portrayed by Betsy Brandt, also gets a good deal of screen time. While Skyler and Marie do speak occasionally throughout the series, most of the time the conversation leads back to the men in their lives. While there are other women in the show, consistency is vital when it comes to applying the Bechdel Test to television. “Breaking Bad” passes two and a half out of three of the criteria because there are at least two women and they talk to each other, but most of their conversations revolve around men. “Breaking Bad” fails the test.
Another AMC show, “Mad Men” is primarily about main character Don Draper, an advertising mogul. However, a great percentage of “Mad Men” characters are women. Peggy, Joan, Betty and Megan are the female characters that recur most often. Despite the fact that it all takes place in the 1960s, there is a fair amount of women involved at the advertising firm and in Don’s life. As for the Bechdel Test, “Mad Men” is a definite pass. At least every other episode includes a follow-up story on one of the female leads.
The saving grace of “Mad Men” is the fact that there are women involved in business. Joan and Peggy, portrayed by Christina Hendricks and Elizabeth Moss, are impressive characters because they are key players at the advertising firm and also have romantic relationships.
“Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are two of the most watched television shows according to tvguide.com. “Mad Men,” even though it is set in the 1960s, a time a when women were deprived of some of the rights they have today, has more intricate female characters than “Breaking Bad.” Although “Breaking Bad” is set around modern day, the women in the show hardly hold a conversation about anything other than Walter White. While the premises of “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” do not include much room for strong female roles, “Mad Men” does a better job at including women in the first season than “Breaking Bad” did throughout the entire run of the show.
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”
For those who haven’t seen the show, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is about five friends who own a pub in Philadelphia. These five friends include Charlie, Dennis, Mac, Frank and Dee. Dee Reynolds, played by Kaitlin Olson, is nearly the only woman character in the show. Yes, Dee brings a female presence to the show, but there are episodes where even she is scarce. Danny DeVito (Frank) and Charlie Day (Charlie Kelly on the show) are relatively well-known actors/comedians, but what about the countless other women involved in alternative comedy who would jump at the chance to be included in this show? “It’s Always Sunny” gets an “F” on the Bechdel Test.
Alison Bechdel herself once stated in a May 2012 interview with Buzzfeed that she enjoyed watching Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” Why is this show so progressive for the world of women? Well, if it is not obvious from the title, it undoubtedly passes every rule of the Bechdel Test. The plot centers around four young women who live in New York City and their experiences with life, love and other blunders. While it may sound like a cheesier version of “Sex and the City,” “Girls” incorporates less fashion and more themes of feminine struggle and friendship. Even though the women in the show do have plenty of conversations about men, “Girls” is not primarily concerned with that aspect of their lives. “Girls” passes the Bechdel Test by a long shot.
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “Girls” can both be considered fairly dark-humored comedies. With the help of the Bechdel Test, however, it becomes clear that these two shows implement vastly different types of humor. The entire attitude of the show changes when more women are in the cast. The show becomes relatable to a larger audience.
The Bechdel Test is one way to call out diversity inequalities in media, but there are many more, and there is still a lot of work to do.
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