Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight has applied its number-crunching curiosity to the problem of gender bias in the film industry, attempting to verify the hoary Hollywood wisdom that flicks with dames in ’em don’t do so good at the box office. FiveThirtyEight’s Walt Hickey analyzed the ticket sales for 1,615 films released since 1990, categorizing them on the basis of whether they pass or fail the Bechdel Test. This test, popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in a 1985 comic strip, sets simple criteria for a film’s inclusion of female characters. To pass, a movie must feature at least two women who have a conversation with each other about something other than a man. (Standard Bechdel Test disclaimer: It’s not a litmus test for feminism, just an interesting way to look at women in film. For instance, Hickey notes that Gravity fails while American Hustle passes, even if the former movie is considerably more woman-positive.) Hickey’s analysis found that, dollar for dollar, the movies that passed the Bechdel Test turned more of a profit than the Bechdel failures.
Hickey’s analysis also examines the idea that male characters dominate in films because international buyers turn up their nose at female protagonists. As it turns out, Bechdel-passing movies do about the same as their counterparts at the overseas box office. Hickey expresses a hope that Hollywood executives will take these insights to heart, and they just might, since the research was conducted by a man.