It is no secret that women are still underrepresented in cinema – whether they work behind or in front of the camera. They are also, as the Independent’s alternative all-female list of nominees for the 2019 Academy Awards shows, under-recognised during awards season.
The latest data from the BBC shows that fewer than half of the 89 films named best picture at the Oscars since 1929 have even passed the measure of on-screen female representation known as the Bechdel Test. For a film to pass the Bechdel test, it must satisfy three criteria: 1) does it have at least two named female characters? 2) Do they have a conversation with each other? 3) Is that conversation about something other than a man?
This only needs to happen once to count as a pass, so it’s even more astonishing that so few films manage it. There are 8,052 movies in the Bechdel Test database, a user-generated archive, of which 4,640 (57.6%) meet the three criteria, 817 (10.1%) meet two of them and 1,781 (22.1%) meet one. Another 814 (10.1%) meet none of the criteria at all. Again, that’s just one single conversation between just two women that is not about a man.
The Bechdel test has been a good catalyst for talking about women’s representation in film. But it is a rough-and-ready measure that doesn’t analyse the quality of the representation of the women or allow for an intersectional perspective on women’s representation, which would consider how gender intersects with race, class, sexuality, religion or ability.
So this is a list that highlights the work of women behind the camera, but that also pays attention to the quality of representation of the women projected onto the screen. It includes a variety of genres, from historical drama to contemporary comedy, but all were written, directed or produced by women and have a sustained focus on women and their lives.
The second-wave feminist movement in North America and Western Europe opened the path for a new generation of female writers and directors in cinema. The first ground-breaking film on the list is Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970).