The Bechdel Test is one of the most generally used ways for judging how well-balanced a film’s gender representation is. It is named after Alison Bechdel, the comic artist who created it, and it has three simple criteria that surprisingly few movies meet: The film must have (1) at least two women in it who talk to each other, (2) be about something other than a man. It’s not a perfect metric, but it’s an excellent way to see how cinema in general treats female characters; in 2021, more than half of the top-grossing films passed the test.
On the other hand, some films don’t even make it past the first hurdle; they have no female characters at all. Usually, it’s in period war movies or other isolated situations where only men would appear in the past, but some examples are a little more egregious. Here are fifteen of the most eye-catching illustrations.
To be eligible for the list, A film must not have any named or speaking female characters – Extras in crowd scenes and allusions to unseen women are permitted if they highlight a missed opportunity.
1. The Thing (1982)
The Thing, directed by John Carpenter, is a masterful horror film that combines creature chills and extreme paranoia when a shapeshifting alien infiltrates an Antarctic research station. Unless the monster is female (assuming an extraterrestrial species that reproduces through cell appropriation has a gender), there isn’t a single female character in the film; everyone on the station is male.
This is somewhat logical given the remote setting, but it is still a bold creative choice.
The 2011 prequel/remake attempted to address the gender imbalance by putting Mary Elizabeth Winstead in charge. However, given that she was a random American at what was supposed to be a completely Norwegian camp, it felt a little forced.
2. The Great Escape (1963)
The Steve McQueen-led prisoner of a war film is a television re-run staple, and it’s full of rememorable moments – the bouncing a ball in the cooler, the “good luck” trick – and performances by a who’s who of 1960s British cinema.
Of course, despite all of the unexpected twists, The Great Escape lacks memorable female characters. The film’s closest to focusing on a woman is when the soldiers tunnel out and end up in provincial Germany – there are few female extras in certain scenes, but none of them get any screentime, let alone a speaking role. The fact that there are no featured female characters, even in supporting roles, doesn’t detract from the film’s focus on the British soldiers’ attempts to flee.
When the film was remastered as Chicken Run, Aardman changed the genders of the inmates to female (because hens), which could be interpreted as a jab.
3. First Blood (1982)
It’s easy to forget, given that it was Sylvester Stallone’s first role as a muscled action star, but Rambo wasn’t always an over-the-top, adrenaline-fueled series about one man’s love of guns. The Vietnam veteran’s name was not even mentioned in the title of First Blood. To say it was a calmer film would be a stretch and only valid in extreme comparison, but it attempted to examine the effects of war on a man’s life for all the action.
Even though it isn’t a straight up war movie, Rambo’s PTSD First Blood leans heavily on the tropes you’d expect of them, and as such, there are no women, either in the character’s past or as part of the movie. The lack of an important woman in John Rambo’s life helps the film in some ways, keeping the focus on the effect of war on his psyche and implying that there is no damsel in distress for the sake of it. Of course, it’s unclear whether this was the intention.
Later on Rambo films did begin to feature more women characters in increasingly prominent roles, indicating a shift toward broader appeal and, cynically, a more formulaic style.
4. My Dinner with Andre (1981)
A conversation between two people. That’s all there is to My Dinner with Andre: Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, playing alternate universe versions of themselves, engage in a meandering discussion centered on their ideological differences.
Because this is a conversation between two men, there is little room for anyone else, regardless of gender – only the waiter gets a chance to speak. It’s certainly possible to stage a similar exchange with women, but given the emphasis on the actors, it’s hardly an oversight.
There are female extras present because they are dining in a public restaurant, but none are given more than a passing glance. Indeed, the only female character in the film frequently mentions Wally’s girlfriend Debbie, who is never seen. Deborah Eisenberg, the character’s inspiration, is one of those extras in the background, which is rather amusing.
5. 12 Angry Men (1957)
12 Angry Men is one of the top examples of creating a classic with only the most essential ingredients – Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece is set entirely in one room (except for bookend scenes). It features only twelve men (of varying degrees of hatred). They’re all the jurors on a murder case, and their opposing social views make for a tense story as they debate whether the accused should go free or face the death penalty.
Women are heavily featured in the story through dialogue – they are critical to the case at hand – but the jurors are all male. This may appear to be an archaic requirement, but in reality, New York – where the film is set – had allowed women to serve on juries since 1937, twenty years before the film was made.
Of course, even though the title is gendered, nothing stops modern interpretations from redressing the balance. The script that is based on the film is now being sold as 12 Angry Jurors, with an unknown cast.
6. No Escape (1994)
No, not the awful 2015 picture starring Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan; the No Escape we’re talking about is the equally forgettable 1994 thriller starring Ray Liotta and Lance Henriksen.
Set in the near future, the film follows Liotta’s ex-marine as he is transferred to an island jail where the worst criminals in the system riot in a more violent version of Manhattan.
Because it is a prison film, the cast is entirely male. This makes sense, though given that we’re in a semi-dystopian 2022, nothing stops them from introducing female inmates – it would have added an extra layer of intrigue to the story and possibly expanded the film from being so generic.
7. All Is Lost (2013)
In recent years, there has been a resurgence in “one-man” movies – films in which only one actor appears on screen for the entire film– though many of the famous examples, such as Ryan Reynolds in Buried or Tom Hardy in Locke, aren’t entirely lone-actor shows: in both cases, the isolated characters have a phone through which they contact several other characters voiced by other stars.
All Is Lost is an unusual film. It stars only Robert Redford and follows a sailor dealing with a series of disasters on the open sea, with no other actors – male or female – except for a hand from God at the end. The only glimpse we get of another character is the unnamed man’s wife, but this never goes beyond thematic motivation.
Even though the film only has one, mostly mute character, it is so tense, with Redford handling the mounting problems with dogged, methodical efficiency even as his morale deteriorates.
8. The Enemy Below (1957)
Even more than typical war films, you’d almost expect a period submarine film to be devoid of female characters: they have a small cast and spend very little time outside of the vessel because isolation is usually the name of the game. However, to contrast the ensuing insanity and cabin fever, films can frequently use women as emotional framing; the stuffy classic Das Boot found space for some female characters in brief outside sequences (in that case, some hookers back on land).
The Enemy Below is one example of a film that fails to do so. The movie is set entirely on the two ships at its heart, the story follows the captains of an American and a German ship in a torpedo-driven game of cat-and-mouse, with tense interplay and some unexpected (for 1957) special effects. Given the context, the film works just fine as it is at sea, with so much interplay between the crew that any land-based expansion is unnecessary.
9. Lord of the Flies (1963)
The Lord of the Flies is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of the 20th literature, telling the now-iconic story of a group of schoolboys stranded on an island after a plane crash and devolving into anarchy after only a few days. While the various film adaptations do not precisely match William Golding’s writing, they capture the book’s ethos well; both the 1963 and 1990 adaptations perfectly depicted the descent into barbarism (In terms of quality and cruelty, the former clearly wins.).
Neither film features a single female character, ensuring that the story remains an all-male adventure. There’s no reason why there couldn’t be some female characters in there; no specific reason is given for the evacuation of the children, and aside from the antagonistic band, the kids all come from different schools and backgrounds, so there’s nothing to prevent there from being a mix of genders.
However, there is something inherently powerful about the upper-class ideals that an all-boy environment evokes, so having a mixed-gender cast may actually work against the point Flies is attempting to make.
10. Sleuth (1972)
Sleuth, starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, is one of the best thrillers of the 1970s. It’s a twisting story about a crime writer and his wife’s adulterer conspiring to trick her into divorce through faked murder and other means, and it has enough shocking twists to keep you hooked even today.
While the wife in question is mentioned, she only appears in painting form, based on Joanne Woodward’s likeness, and is credited as Eve Channing (named after characters from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve) in an attempt to mislead viewers going into the film. It’s an odd choice, with no narrative or comedic justification.
Despite arriving 35 years later, the 2007 remake (with Caine replacing Olivier and Jude Law playing the adulterer) did little to address the gender imbalance (not that the original did).
11. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Glengarry Glen Ross is now best known for Alec Baldwin’s unforgettable sales passionate speech, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, it’s a fantastic cameo (even better than his similar role in The Departed), but it also has the potential to overshadow the rest of the film.
The film, which follows a group of real estate salesmen trying to close big deals, is ostensibly an acting showcase, featuring some of Hollywood’s best at their best. But, yes, they’re all men – both the salespeople and the customers they’re trying to entice.
This, like 12 Angry Men, is more a reflection of professional norms than anything else – sales was traditionally a male-dominated field. However, as in The Lord of the Flies, it also helps tie into the film’s more prominent themes, lending machismo to the art of the sale.
12. Outpost (2008)
Everyone gravitates toward the Norwegian B-movie Dead Snow when it comes to the relatively specialized subgenre of Nazi zombies. Yet, despite all the fanfare, it wasn’t the first movie to toy with the notion.
Outpost was released a year earlier in 2008 and presented the same concept differently; a group of modern-day marines becomes entangled in a Nazi plot to resurrect World War II soldiers as invulnerable, super-strong fighters. It’s a low-budget film, so it’s very lean – it’s an animated 90-minute film that stays focused on the core story, with little room for sprawling sub-plots.
This also applies to female characters. There’d be room for women to appear in some capacity – It would be simple to change the gender of any of the characters with minimal rewrites. – but it seems to be a result of the pared-down production and limited resources more than anything else.
13. Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
In 2003, it appeared that naval-based action films were the way of the future. The summer saw the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, followed by Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which dominated Oscar season (it only won two statues, however, due to going up against The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Both are excellent, but the latter is undeniably the superior of the two.
In an ocean-spanning epic, the film chronicled the adventures of Jack Aubrey, the fictitious naval commander and protagonist of author Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. And, given that the majority of the action took place on the water and was set in the 1800s, a time when there weren’t many female sailors (despite what Alice Through the Looking Glass claimed), there were, predictably, no female characters.
As with most war films, there was a strong emphasis on authenticity, which the film certainly achieved.
14. Billy Budd (1962)
Herman Melville is best known for writing Moby Dick, adapted into a film in 1956 starring Gregory Peck. That film doesn’t quite cut it because it only has a few female characters in minor roles.
Billy Budd, another of his nautical film adaptations, cannot be said to be the same. The film is entirely set on the HMS Avenger and follows the eponymous crewman, a novice on the high seas who struggles against his superiors in an ultimately tragic story. It’s now best known for introducing the world to Terrence Stamp, but it’s still a compelling drama all around despite its flaws.
The setting on the high seas emphasizes Budd’s helplessness, but, as with Master and Commander, there is little room for women in the story. Because of the character’s youth, there isn’t even a female character in Billy’s past to look to for inspiration.
15. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Lawrence of Arabia is a colossal epic. It follows T.E. Lawrence from jokey English lieutenant to the shaken officer who united Arab tribes against their common enemy for nearly four hours and most of the First World War. It’s a filmmaking masterclass, with David Lean demonstrating that he’s equally adept at emotional character beats as he is at massive set-pieces.
Some of the greatest actors – Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, and a breakout performance from Peter O’Toole – appear in the film. But there isn’t a single female character to be found. The closest we get are a few women in the crowds of extras in some of the film’s most important scenes, but none of them are focused on beyond being part of the rabble.
Unlike other war films, Lawrence of Arabia could have easily accommodated some female speaking roles – there are many innocent bystanders in the conflict, and it would have been interesting to work a woman into one of the smaller moments to highlight Lawrence’s bloodthirsty arc.