The famous Bechdel Test, created by graphic artist, Fun Home author, and MacArthur “Genius” Alison Bechdel, sets a low bar for female representation in entertainment with three basic criteria: (1) The work has two named women; (2) who talk to each other; (3) about something other than a man. In the last year, according to bechdeltest.com, two-thirds of new films pass, but the BBC News determined that only 49 percent of every Best Picture Oscar-nominated film in history passes the test.
A truly woke inclusivity test for women in TV and film would measure everything: race, sexual orientation, ability—but especially age. Forty-six percent of the U.S. female population is over 45. Are nearly half the women on TV middle age? Not by a long shot. At NextTribe, we would love to see more older women on screen, talking to each other, and doing anything besides baking, decorating, cheerleading kids, forgiving husbands, getting Botox, and crashing computers.
We decided to create our own version of an inclusivity test—The NextTribe Test—so that we can celebrate and recommend movies and shows that meet the three criteria we came up with:
(1) The work has two named women over 45
(2) who talk about something other than their spouse/kids/home/aging body/fading looks/fear of technology
(3) and are shown dressing stylishly, doing physical activity, or having a sex life that is not just a punch line.
Rule of thumb, if a show or movie stars Julianne Moore or Meryl Streep, it will probably pass our test.
If it stars Leonardo De Caprio, it won’t.
Here are how some summer movies and favorite TV series stack up.
The film, which stars Emma Thompson, 60, is about a network late-night comedy show host clinging to her job while the network president, played by Amy Ryan, 51, wants to replace her with a younger man. It passes our test, with a caveat. Thompson’s character was too mean, as if she were gunning to replace Miranda Priestly in our collective conscience as the ultimate bad boss. Not to say that women can’t be horrible. They can be and sometimes are. But if you’re going to make one movie all year with a female in power, does she have to be such a bitch?
A resounding pass goes to Ma, which stars Octavia Spencer (47), Allison Janney (59), Juliette Lewis, (46) and Missy Pyle (46). For much of her career, Spencer was relegated to supporting parts. She became a producer to avoid racial- and gender-biased roles and developed Ma for herself. The plot is about a woman who was bullied in high school and felt invisible in her life as a vet tech. When old hurts resurface, she spirals. As one does in such a situation, Ma goes on a bloody rampage. (Murdering a bunch of people definitely qualifies as “doing physical activity” in rule three of our test.)
Along with scares and gore, Ma showcased Spencer’s nuanced emotional shifts. Not many actors of any age can turn a long take of looking in a mirror into exquisite edge-of-seat tension for the audience. It might take decades of actually being overlooked in real life to pull that off.
Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood—FAIL
The upcoming Quentin Tarantino film stars Leonardo DiCaprio (45), Brad Pitt (56), Timothy Olyphant (51), Al Pacino (79), Kurt Russell (68), Damian Lewis (48), Luke Perry (52 at his death), Bruce Dern (83), and Michael Madsen (61). As for women, it stars Margot Robbie (28), Dakota Fanning (25), Dreama Walker (33), and Margaret Qualley (24). Tarantino’s 1969 is populated by nubile babes and the old coots who lust for them.
What? The Beatles never existed? It’s a fate many accomplished women through the centuries have suffered, according to history books. Out of all the female speaking roles only two go to women who aren’t young and nubile, which is a bummer, but the consolation is that Kate McKinnon is divine as a greedy, wild-eyed record producer.
The only woman over 45 is Elton’s granny, who is shown nurturing Elton’s talent, which we’re really glad she did. But this is not a universe where older women live.
Men in Black: International and The Avengers: End Game
Do we even have to say it?
We love the Netflix series Glow, a comedy about women fighting (wrestling, whatever) for relevancy and visibility in a male-dominated field. The cast is bursting with unique and well-developed female characters, but apart from the season three addition of Geena Davis as an events promoter, none of them are over 45. Davis has been sounding the bias alarm for years. In 2004, she created the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to research gender bias and imbalance in children’s entertainment. So we expected better.
The Handmaid’s Tale—PASS
The series dramatizes a future where women are stripped of all autonomy and rights. Fertile females are forced to breed with powerful men to give their infertile wives children. Lower class infertile women, if they’re not executed, become house servants called Marthas (which sounds a lot like “martyrs”). Some of the older women in the cast—wives, Marthas, aunts who train handmaids—get juicy parts to gnaw on, notably 63-year-old Ann Dowd as the sadistic Aunt Lydia. The characters subversively fight back against the oppressive patriarchy, suffer violent punishment for breaking the rules, and cling to the hope that one day, they will escape to the land of the free and home of the brave: Canada.
Orange is the New Black—PASS
The all-time champ for inclusive representation of women in a series ensemble has to be Orange Is the New Black. Kate Mulgrew, 64, as Red; Annie Golden, 67, as Norma; Lori Petty, 55, as Lolly; and Alysa Reiner, 48, as Natalie the narcissistic assistant warden. So many actors got their breakout role on this show about women in prison (oh, the irony)—Taylor Schilling, Uzo Aduba, Ruby Rose, the list goes on. The characters subversively fight back against the oppressive patriarchy, suffer violent punishment for … well, you get it. Somehow, this show about hopelessness manages to be so freaking funny.
Big Little Lies—PASS
With an A-list cast that includes Meryl Streep (70), Nicole Kidman (52), and Laura Dern (52), this HBO show passes. Although the show is about relationships and the strain of being a woman/success/mother/wife, the conversations between the characters are rarely about their kids or spouses, per se. They’re about mixed emotions, internal conflicts, thwarted or realized ambitions, and personal histories as flawed decision-making guides—aka the complexities we all deal with to get through life as best we can. When they’re not going deep about their feelings, the characters talk about simpler things, like how to cover up the murder of the abuser/rapist who brought them together.
On the surface, Big Little Lies follows a Toxic Male Plot in that one bad man is a catalyst for action. But the story isn’t about him. It’s about women sorting out their own motivation and justification for doing brutal, awful things. We’ve already seen umpteen stories about good women and bad men. This series is about flawed women making bad choices, which they talk about endlessly with each other.
In other words, great TV.
We’re looking forward to some big female-led movies coming later this summer and into the fall, namely Where’d You Go Bernadette? with Cate Blanchett and Kristin Wiig and The Kitchen with Melissa McCarthy and the greatest character actor of all time Margo Martindale. We’ll catch up with some shows and movies in a few weeks and see what Hollywood has to offer us. In the meantime, go see Toy Story 4, featuring the voice work of some of our heroes—Annie Potts, Joan Cusack, Laurie Metcalf, Bonnie Hunt, Estelle Harris, and Betty White.
Watch this space for future postings about movies and shows that pass the Next Tribe Test. Comment away about your faves (or flops) on our new Facebook TV & Film Group.
Valerie Frankel is a ghostwriter who has collaborated with iconic celebrities and VIPs on bestselling novels and non-fiction projects, including Joan Rivers (New York Times bestseller Men Are Stupid And They Like Big Boobs), Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi (New York Times bestseller A Shore Thing), Ivana Trump (Raising Trump), Jeanine Pirro (He Killed Them All: Robert Durst and My Quest for Justice) and others. Under her own name, Val has published 15 novels and is an award-winning journalist. She was articles editor at Mademoiselle magazine and as a freelance writer, she has been a regular contributor to Self, Parenting, Good Housekeeping, Glamour, and the New York Times.