Portrayal of men in the media: why there needs to be a reverse Bechdel test

The Bechdel Test is an informal rating system outlined by graphic novelist Alison Bechdel that classifies media with three simple criteria: to pass the test a plot must

  • “have at least two [named] women in it,
  • who talk to each other,
  • about something besides a man.”

Very few video games pass all the criteria of the Bechdel Test, and just over half of movies do.

The test is imperfect; a film could pass the test but still include sexist content; nevertheless some cinemas and organizations – such as the Swedish Film Institute – are taking the rating seriously, and using it to highlight gender bias against women.

Is there a similar, Bechdel-like test that shows bias against men? No, but there should be.

For far too long, men have been cast as duds, yet doing so has clearly been profitable, thus pressure to change such negative stereotypes will need to come from the outside. Of course this will only happen when people are willing to recognize gender biases affect men, too, or how earnestly young men need more positive male role models to look up to in the media.

What would a male version of the Bechdel Test look like? In our book, Man (Dis)connected, social psychologist Philip Zimbardo and I describe a possible option we call the “MacGyver Test” (named after the popular 90s television adventure series) that a film or television show passes if it meets any of these criteria about its male characters:

  • The absence of the mother is not required for the father to be portrayed as a competent dad.
  • An honest, hard-working man is in a successful or leadership position and is not portrayed as a hapless loser.
  • The female protagonist shows interest in male protagonist before he is the hero.
  • The male protagonist solves problems in creative ways, and only uses violence as a last resort to carry out his goals or mission.

The list of media that pass these modest criteria would no doubt be a short one.

Another way to raise awareness around the portrayal of men in the media would be to swap the male and female roles in movies and television shows, and then re-examine the plots.

For example, let’s reverse the roles of the “fearless” Princess Anna and the “rugged” iceman Kristoff in the Academy Award-winning animated children’s movie, Frozen.

In the movie, Anna’s older sister, Elsa, banishes herself from their castle because she can’t control her magical ability to produce ice and snow with her hands. Anna sets out to find her sister and bring her home.

Anna is offered help by the smooth-talking Prince Hans, whom she immediately falls in love with. But who ends up helping her? The penniless iceman Kristoff, whose sled and reindeer Anna decide she can use for her own agenda – never mind if he needs them (she doesn’t ask).

After nearly getting him killed, destroying his sled, and finally rescuing Elsa, Anna and Kristoff go their separate ways. It is only after Prince Hans proves himself to be evil, and Olaf – the dopey snowman sidekick – says to Anna that Kristoff would be a good match that Anna even bothers to consider Kristoff as a romantic partner.

Now imagine a movie where a prince felt entitled to use a hardworking woman whose only possessions were her sled and reindeer, which she uses to eke out a living, to go rescue his brother and after she voluntarily busts her butt to help him he goes back to his life without a second thought. Audiences would be up in arms! We would think “what’s wrong with him? Why can’t he get his act together?” Yet that thought doesn’t even cross our minds while watching Frozen. Instead, we think Anna is quirky and adventurous. By the way, Frozen does not pass the MacGyver Test…

When two out of five children are being born to single moms (the rate is one out of two for women under 30 years old), a third of boys are growing up in father-absent homes, and boys with fathers are only spending half an hour a week in one-on-one conversation with their fathers vs. 44 hours in front of a television or computer screen (see source 8 below), we need to ask ourselves what impact the negative media portrayals of men are having on them (as well as young women).

Is it possible for the idea of men being men responsibly to make its way back into popular culture?



  1. Bechdel Test Movie List (2014). Retrieved from Bechdel Test: http://bechdeltest.com.

  2. Agnello, A.J., Keiser, J., Nelson, S., Sanskrit, D., and Teti, J. (2012, July 18), ‘Something Other than a Man: 15 Games that Pass the Bechdel Test’. Retrieved from The Gameological Society: https://archive.is/P8Wbl.

  3. Stats (2014). Retrieved from Bechdel Test: http://bechdeltest.com/statistics/.

  4. ‘Swedish Cinemas Take Aim at Gender Bias with Bechdel Test Rating’ (2013, November 6). Retrieved from the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/06/swedish-cinemas-bechdel-test-films-gender-bias.

  5. Martin, J.A., Hamilton, B.E., Osterman, M.J., Curtin, S.C., and Mathews, T.J. (2013, December 30), Births: Final Data for 2012. Retrieved from National Vital Statistics Reports, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr62/nvsr62_09.pdf#table02.

  6. Note: US birth rates by race for women under 30 – Blacks: 73 per cent; Hispanics: 53 per cent; Whites: 29 per cent. See: DeParle, J. and Tavernise, S. (2012, February 17), ‘For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage’. Retrieved from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/18/us/for-women-under-30-most-births-occur-outside-marriage.html.

  7. Cribb, R. (2011, November 25), ‘The Grim Evidence That Men Have Fallen Behind Women’. Retrieved from Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/life/2011/11/25/rob_cribb_the_grim_evidence_that_men_have_fallen_behind_women.html.

  8. As stated by David Walsh, founder of Mind Positive Parenting. See: Borden, C. and Obsatz, K. (Directors) (2007), Journeyman [documentary]. United States, MirrorMan Films.

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