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Gender, Patriarchy, and Wheaton College Class Films

After watching the recent class films, I was left wanting more. Not more movies or jokes, but more characterization of women. In the four films that premiered April 8th, two of them prominently featured female characters. These characters fell flat due to either their little screen time or the fact that the audience only saw their character develop in relation to a male counterpart. It was sad to see all of these films fail the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test was named after Alison Bechdel and designed as a cursory marker to see how women are portrayed in any type of fiction. This test simply asks if there are at least two female characters who, at any point in the work, talk to each other about anything other than a man. This is, clearly, very rudimentary. However, due in part to the fact that the film industry is a male-dominated field, many films fail this test. Over 50% of Hollywood movies fail this test. Though this is a staggering percentage, blame should not be lifted off of Wheaton filmmakers.

In many classes at Wheaton, we are told to use gender-inclusive language and there is a lot of attention put to women’s issues. Wheaton College has one of the most progressive definitions of consent, in the way that it includes body language, and yet, the  student filmmakers have failed to follow the example set forth to them by the Wheaton institution.

Every class film* that I was able to get my hands on failed the Bechdel Test. Furthermore, every film featured a predominantly male cast and crew. These are films that are written by men and look more into men’s problems. Many of the films centered around a guy wanting to go out with a girl and then ended with them living happily ever after. Though one film this year mocked this convention (à la Frozen) its driving force was that of a guy falling in love with a girl. This kind of story can be very emotional, funny, and heartwarming, but the class films do not uphold both ends of the bargain. The male character is the ‘actor’ and is the one that drives the narrative forward, with the women presented as a goal or reward.

Wheaton College class films do diverge from the romantic comedy genre but they do not tread in the territory of gender diversity and equality. One film consisted of a montage of trailers. This particular one can be mostly forgiven for failing the Bechdel Test but it should be noted that there were very few female characters in it. Furthermore, it would seem as though the 2016 Sophomore Film would pass the Bechdel Test because it featured women talking to each other about a story and not a man. However, this was fully unscripted and thus was not a work of fiction. Only when it transitioned into the fictional portion did it fall under the constraints of the Bechdel Test where it ultimately failed.

What these examples show is that women are not being taken as seriously as they should be. Their participation and views are not fully considered when a class film is undertaken. The Bechdel Test was never meant to be a set of rules to strive for or something that is difficult to achieve and pass. Its standards are remarkably low and superficial. Nonetheless, Wheaton continues to disappoint those standards year after year. Filmmakers at Wheaton College must take more deliberate actions so as to ensure that women are being equally represented. It is high time that students become more intentional in the way that they engage with stories. Women must be shown equal representation in the films that are chosen to represent each of our respective classes.


* I watched all four films from 2016, the Freshman film from 2015, and several other dating back to the early 2000’s.

Filed under: Articles

About the Author

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Philip is a first year student seeking a Business/Economics major and an English minor at Wheaton College. Living in Washington D.C., he spends a lot of his time in the city going to concerts, various sporting events, and shopping way too much.


  1. Connor Jenkins

    I was a part of the making of the sophomore class film and from the beginning to end we had the Bechdel Test in our minds. It was brought up at every single meeting we had as a production team. We had a unique perspective in that ours was entirely dictated by the 8 people that crafted the film in the “reality” portion of the film. We were entirely at the hands of the 8 screenwriters and even tried to cast blind of typical genders. There are much more complex happenings behind the scenes that cannot be explained by the Bechdel Test in our film. This may sound like a poor attempt at defending a film I was a part of, but as a group of close friends put in charge of the sophomore class film, we truly made an effort to have more representation and egalitarian values in our film.


  2. Drew

    Philip, I find it interesting that you found our Sophomore film failing the test. You mentioned that we failed during the fictional portion of the film, yet I don’t recall a section of either short fictonal film that had two female characters interacting whatsoever, much less talking about a male. While our film may have had a predominatly male presence, I believe that just shows the demographic that was interested in participating this year. Equal opportunity was given to all members of the sophomore class multiple times. Thanks for your insightful article though, well written and thought provoking!


  3. Robert

    The junior class film included many details and scenes in the script that carefully explored the female characters with a considerable amount of depth because our film team believed in these values and wanted to disrupt the usual pattern of women’s roles in storytelling. In fact, most of our time working on the script was solely focused on developing the female characters. But when it came down to shaving 10 minutes off the script and final cut to meet the class film time limit, most of those important scenes had to go, and what inevitably remained was the vital plot elements that were only related to the protagonist, a male. It was a lengthy superhero story, with a lot of action, and I don’t think any character (male or female) was explored at a satisfactory length. If we were dealing with a female superhero, it would have been easy to make your class film experience more enjoyable after our full story and sophisticated characters and relationships had to be tremendously filtered down – because the film would have been focused on a woman, of course. But it so happens that Daniel was inspired about an idea with a male protagonist, and I wouldn’t imagine anyone would have a problem with that. This was a very superficial article. Your article, Philip, certainly didn’t explore the filmmakers in his article with enough “characterization” or depth. I was left “wanting more”. I would have gladly spoken to you about this legitimate issue. I’m sure Connor and Drew, who left some good comments, would have too.


  4. Daniel Travis

    Philip, thank you for taking the time to offer your opinion into how the class films handled the issue of gender. As the producer and writer of the Junior Class Film, Fruit Man, I would just like to address a few of the concerns you brought up. As I know from previous years’ experience, while watching class films, it is very easy to just sit back and observe/enjoy/critique the 30 minute short film each class makes. However, what many people fail to recognize is the hundreds of hours (yes, hundreds of hours) that goes into a film like that. As director of Fruit Man, I was tasked with condensing an ENTIRE superhero film into 30 minutes. During production, not only were issues such as gender and race highly discussed, but 15 minutes of footage OUTSIDE of the 30 minute final product was also shot. These scenes included more than one scene that satisfied the Bechdel test. However, when push came to shove, in order to condense a 45 minute film into a 30 minute film, EVERY scene that was not absolutely essential to the development of the plot was nixed, including a number of scenes that we really liked. However, I would really like to challenge you to look beyond simply the criteria of the Bechdel test in determining if a film empowers women or not. Melanie, the lead actress in the film, was very intentionally portrayed as the strongest character. Not only did she end the relationship with Carl, but she defied all “movie happy ending laws” and stayed true to her decision in the end–even when she discovered that he was a superhero. And not just this…but she is actually the one who ends up defeating the main villain…saving Fruit Man. Throughout the film, Melanie is consistently portrayed as the most stable and strongest character. Yes, her character was not very developed. But neither was Carl’s…or Steve’s…or Dr. Jordan’s. It is simply an impossible to task to compact both a highly sophisticated plot AND sufficient character development into a 30 minute film. So yes, I am right alongside you in feeling that Melanie was an underdeveloped character, but I encourage you to think about if any of the characters were truly developed enough. I recognize that the film is not perfect and that it did not live up to the Bechdel test, and I speak for all of the production crew in saying that we were all disappointed with having had to cut some major scenes. But at the same time, I really challenge you to consider that perhaps the Bechdel test is not the only indicator of a film that properly portrays the female gender, but perhaps we need to look beyond the confined scope of one single test to view the film as a whole, the characters as a whole, and the overall limitations of fitting a feature length presentation into the span of 30 minutes. Analyzing the development of one character, to the exclusion to the rest of the film and characters altogether, does not produce an accurate and sound representation or critique of the overall portrayal of women, particularly when do so through the lens of a single test like the Bechdel test. Again, thank you for the time you took to watch, think about, and write a critique of our film. I am truly appreciative of your insight. But just as I was wary of the limitations our film had in production, I am also wary of the limitations of analyzing such a large topic such as gender by the criteria of a single test.


  5. CU

    Cyclops in Center Field: PASS || Sophomore film: PASS

    Or actually, not applicable. Two women never had a conversation with one another. You can’t apply the Bechtel Test when the criteria for the test is non-existent.

    This article is problematic because gender discrimination and the mis-representation of women in film (including the class films) is an issue. However, it doesn’t seem that this year’s films followed the same issues as we’ve seen in previous class films; certainly there were issues (women characters underdeveloped); however, trying to connect this year’s class films with gender discrimination in all films doesn’t follow. The line drawn in this article has the potential for individuals to misunderstand this issue.

    We should be talking about this, but we should cite better examples (DuPage Country Bike Race, Fruit Man, 101)


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