A new Bechdel test by FiveThirtyEight reveals Latina characters are mostly uneducated, accented, and sexualized.

By Frances Solá-Santiago
January 17, 2018 12:28 PM
Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty

It’s been over 30 years since Alison Bechdel, a renowned cartoonist, created the Bechdel-Wallace Test with the intention of highlighting Hollywood’s persistent gender disparities on-screen. The original Bechdel test simply asked whether a film features two women talking to each other about something other than a man. 

But the Bechdel Test mostly addresses the way white women are portrayed in film, and expectations of diversity and representation have changed since the 1980s.

This is why FiveThirtyEight, a politics and economics website with a data journalism perspective, reached out to 13 women in the film and television industry and asked them to devise their own tests. Their conditions were then applied to the top 50 grossing films in the domestic box office in 2016. The result of the project is  “A New Bechdel Test,” a collection of more specific tests that not only look at gender but also at diversity indicators, including roles of women behind-the-scenes and the way women of color are portrayed on-screen.

When producer and writer Ligiah Villalobos (Go, Diego, Go!) created a Latina-based Bechdel test, none of the 50 movies passed the test. To pass they needed both 1) a Latina lead character and 2) a Latina lead portrayed as a college-educated professional speaking unaccented English and unsexualized. Only the animated Zootopia was close to fulfilling the requirements, but the female lead was considered sexualized (in this case a cartoon deer played by Shakira!).

“It is incredibly disappointing,” said Villalobos to FiveThirtyEight, “that we are at the end of 2017, that this country has over 50 million Latinos, and that these are the numbers relating to Latina characters in films.”

Another Latina participated in the new test to examine female protagonists. Producer Lindsey Villarreal (Mad Men and The Strain and Bates Motel) examined how leading ladies often fall under three stereotypes: sexualized, expressionless, or an overworked matriarch. But her test also included more nuanced view of character development, stating that a movie could “redeem itself” under certain conditions: The woman is either 1) a mother 2) a woman whose job or career involves a position of authority  3) one who is reckless or makes bad decisions 4) someone who chooses to be sexual. In the Villarreal test, 27 movies passed, while 23 failed.

Latinas are one of the most underrepresented demographics in film and television and Latina actresses are paid only 59 cents for every dollar a white man earns. Furthermore, only 5.8 percent of speaking characters on-screen are Hispanic or Latino, according to this study released in 2016 by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative. Latinos are also vastly underrepresented in awards ceremonies. No Latino entertainer has ever been awarded the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award and only five Latino actors have ever been nominated for an Academy Award.

FiveThirtyEight’s approach to the Bechdel test shows that more than one test is needed to understand the complexities and disparities in gender and race on and off the screen. “As a bare-minimum metric, the Bechdel Test does a good job of showing how amazingly far Hollywood is from gender equality,” wrote the team. “But it isn’t going to push the industry toward an identifiable goal. Many films that pass the Bechdel Test failed most of the new tests above.”