Pacific Rim vs the Bechdel Test

Disclaimer: What follows is of course all based on a thing that made me go ‘heh’ in my brain as I rode my bicycle to work this morning and is in no way meant to suggest that Pacific Rim is a richly drawn portrait of the female lived experience, past present or future; or that it is anything other than a movie where a robot whacks a giant lizard with a boat even though the robot has a perfectly good chain sword that doesn’t get busted out till the very end when everyone else is dead.

For those of you that aren’t aware, the Bechdel* test is named for American cartoonist Alison Bechdel (she attributes its creation to a friend) and evaluates the degree of female characterization in a film (or other work). Basically your film passes the test if :

1.    It has at least two women in it,

2.    who talk to each other,

3.    about something besides a man.

A fourth point is sometimes added about the women having names. Most people would probably agree that that’s a fairly minimal standard for a work to meet if it’s attempting to portray reality in any way, and most people would probably not be that surprised that most films fail to meet this test (think of one, right now. Not Clueless).

For those of you that are further not aware (I’m amazed you managed to find the internet), Pacific Rim is a film about monsters coming out of the ocean (via a thing) and getting punched by robots with people in them.

If you haven’t seen it there are probably fairly major spoilers below.

So, on first blush, Pacific Rim is a pretty obvious fail on the Bechdel front. The three female characters I can remember are:

1.    Cartoonishly coquetteish Japanese pilot lady who is shown to be entirely capable of kicking ass then not really allowed to do so very much to allow the plot to have hero man save her.

2.    Russian pilot lady who is possibly the woman from Roxette who doesn’t really have anything to do except “look at things in a Russian manner” and “spout techno-babble before dying herio(ne)cally”.

3.    Hong Kong lady who yells at Charlie in the shelter.

There are others but they’re basically scenery.

To the scoring then:

1.    It has at least two women in it - just barely

2.    who talk to each other – never ever

3.    about something besides a man – see above

Not good. In fact the movie actively goes out of its way to avoid female relationships and be laden down with father figures and father/son – older brother/younger brother – Chinese triplet basketball dude dynamics. Sites such as the Jezebel have written on this at some length.



Here’s a thing:

Perhaps in our rush to condemn what is certainly a very ‘old fashioned’ movie that we rather liked in spite of it’s ‘get out of my way emotionally unstable dames/Australians! American man is here to save your honour/the day! with punching/ Nucular weapons! Cause they’re analogue!’ we may be forgetting one thing, in fact, more than one thing, a dozen or so things -

The Kaiju**

Which are female.

Well, at least one is, and they’re all clones so: while it’s not impossible to imagine that a malevolent alien race bent on stripping the earth of it’s natural resources by way of a handy inter-dimensional portal and a giant monster invasion could change the gender of said giant monsters at will, on the evidence at hand (one is pregnant with monster baby) it’s not unreasonable to assume that they’re all female.

But are they women?

Uh, no.

Obviously. Read the bit above dingus, they’re giant monsters from beyond the stars who came out of a hole in the ocean. But again – BUT. We are supposed to identify them as the antagonist characters of the piece, and they are at least somewhat identifiably humanoid (except the lobster one). There is ongoing debate within the Bechdel testing community (sure it’s a thing) as to whether non-human but humanly characterised characters count (see for example the heated My Little Pony debate). Some formulations of the test even state test 1. as ‘female characters’ as opposed to ‘women’ specifically. So let’s give that one a “yeah not really buying it Ben but I’ve read this far so let’s see where you’re going”.

Do they talk about things that aren’t men?

Well for one, they don’t talk. I guess they roar a bit? There’s spitting, that could be communicative. They do however have some kind of poorly explained brain meld plot McGuffin that means they’re all communicating with each other ALL OF THE TIME. It’s pretty unlikely that ALL of these conversations are about how hot Idris Alba is or how they need to lick Charlie for some reason. I mean two of them hang out around the bottom of the ocean for forty-five minutes just waiting for the plot to allow sufficient time for young Aussie to say goodbye to dad Aussie. Surely there’s some strategising going on? Some bemoaning of the fact that they already used the EMP thing and the acid thing so now they just have to be like fast? And big?

So to sum up – more than 2 alien monsters that may or may not be female (and/or dinosaurs) might be assumed in their telepathic communiques to have telephathsised on some subject other than the dudes, so long as we assume that the nominal gender of the robots wasn’t male. I’m not saying that this passes the Bechdel test. I am saying that maybe the conditions of the Bechdel test need to be revisited in the light of our ability to make movies where all the talky human characters are just exposition spewers between insane Gorilla Lizard on Ned Kellybot action.***

And they all definitely had names. Silly ones.


*I always end up googling béchamel test but I usually end up in the right place (The béchamel test is to ensure it doesn’t taste floury. You don’t want that.)

**Kaiju are the monsters. Seriously, how do you even own a computer. Are you reading this in a library?

***This obviously excludes any scene involving Ron Perlman and/or Charlie Day.


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