For feminist film lovers, it’s really, really hard to casually see a movie without being brutally aware of its shortcomings: specifically, it’s really hard not to notice when a film features fewer women than, say, your workplace does. The Bechdel test made it especially easy for us to enumerate these weaknesses. (For those of you who don’t know, the Bechdel test is a three-step process to determine whether or not a film is women-friendly: a film passes if it has 1) two named female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man. (To test if a film is people-of-color-friendly, replace “female” with “non-white” and “man” with “white person.”))
The Bechdel test, created by comics artist Alison Bechdel in 1985 for her strip Dykes to Watch Out For, is a quick and dirty meter of a film’s female-friendliness, but doesn’t encompass the full scope or complexity of what it takes for something to be pro-women. Zero Dark Thirty, which was both directed by an Oscar-winning woman and starred a woman as the HBIC in a male-dominated workplace, barely passes the Bechdel test, and fails it after the first half of the film. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo features possibly the biggest badass of the new millennium, but Lisbeth Salander is the film’s only named female character, and so the movie fails. Movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s pass, but only on technicalities; though Holly Golightly is a sweet society girl, her narrative arc relies on men – Paul Varjack, Sally Tomato, José da Silva Pereira – to come to resolution. (I’m not even going to go into manic pixie dream girls right now.)
So when Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim came out, Internet feminists who had high hopes for the film were dismayed by the lack of representation of women - it fails the Bechdel test on the first point. The only named female character is a badass babe named Mako Mori, a rookie pilot tasked with fighting off the Kaijus, huge monsters who have attacked Hong Kong. But Mori, played by Rinko Kikuchi, is neither a supporting character nor a blip in the film’s narrative; her story, like Lisbeth Salander’s, creates and defines the central, emotional tension of the film (and has nothing to do with getting a man). Of the character, del Toro said, “She's not going to be a sex kitten, she's not going to come out in cutoff shorts and a tank top, and [she’s] going to be a real, earnestly drawn character."
Watch the Pacific Rim trailer for more on what a Kaiju is
As Tumblr user Chaila asks in a smart rant/essay about the need for more complexity in feminist interpretation, “If Jane and Darcy talk about science for one minute at the beginning of Thor, Thor apparently is a more feminist movie than Pacific Rim?” Her frustration echoes my own and many others'. That’s why she proposes a Mako Mori test to coexist with the Bechdel test. A film passes the Mako Mori test if it has “1) one female character 2) who gets her own narrative arc 3) that is not about supporting a man’s story.” (Sorry, manic pixies.)
Where the Bechdel test emphasizes female relationships as ‘true’ feminist representations in film, the Mako Mori test would emphasize female independence and self-reliance, which, while still reductive and essentialist, would accept a broader range of feminist interpretation in film.
The original 1985 strip
While of course representations of female relationships are important as indications of a film’s women-friendliness, the importance of female independence can’t be understated, and for many women represented in action or sci-fi movies, their HBIC-ness is way more important than how many women they talk to.
(Though, obviously, there could stand to be more women in action, sci-fi, science, technology, and basically every other guy's club out there.)