One of the most popular ways to measure how well-balanced a film is in terms of gender representation is the Bechdel Test. Named after Alison Bechdel, the comic artist who created it, it features three simple classifications that surprisingly few movies meet: the movie has to have (1) at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something besides a man. It’s not a perfect measure, but does work as a good metric to see how cinema in general is treating female characters; in 2016, over half of the year’s highest grossing films passed the test.
However, some movies don’t even get close to passing the first hurdle; they have no women characters at all. Normally it’s in period war movies or other isolated situations where historically only men would appear, but some examples are a little more egregious. Here are fifteen of the most striking cases.
To qualify for the list, a film has to have no named or speaking female roles – extras in crowd scenes or allusions to unseen women are allowed as they (if anything) highlight a missed opportunity.
15. The Thing
John Carpenter’s The Thing is a masterful horror that mixes creature chills and extreme paranoia when a shapeshifting alien works its way into an Antarctic research station. Unless the monster’s female (presuming an extra-terrestrial species that reproduces through cell appropriation even has a gender), though, there’s not a single women character in the film; everyone manning the station is male.
Because of the remote setting this is somewhat logical, but is still a pointed creative choice. The novella on which the film’s based, Who Goes There?, also has an all-male Antarctic outpost, but the first adaptation – Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World – actually introduced a female lead, with Margaret Sheridan playing a secretary who helps the scientists take down the monster (how very fifties).
The prequel/remake in 2011 attempted to combat the gender imbalance by putting Mary Elizabeth Winstead at the helm. However, that wound up feeling rather forced given how she was a random American at what was meant to be a wholly Norwegian camp.
14. The Great Escape
The Steve McQueen-led prisoner of war movie is a staple of television re-runs and full of memorable moments – the bouncing a ball in the cooler, the “good luck” trick – and performances – it’s a who’s who of 1960s British cinema.
Of course, for all the striking turns, there are no memorable female characters in The Great Escape. The closest the film gets to focusing on a women is once the soldiers tunnel out and find themselves in provincial Germany – there are a few female extras in certain scenes, but none get any proper screentime, let alone a speaking role. That it has no featured female characters, even in supporting roles, doesn’t hurt the film, though, given how purely focused it is on the British soldiers’ attempts to escape.
13. First Blood
It’s easy to forget given that it’s the role that made Sylvester Stallone into a muscled action star, but Rambo wasn’t originally an over-the-top, adrenaline-fuelled series about one man’s love of guns. First Blood didn’t even have the Vietnam vet’s name in the title. To say it was a calmer movie would be a stretch and only true by extreme comparison, but for all the action it was one endeavoring to look at the effects of the war on a man’s life.
Even though it isn’t a straight-up war movie, through Rambo’s PTSD First Blood leans heavily on the tropes you’d expect of them, and as such doesn’t have any female characters, either in the character’s past or as part of the events. The lack of an essential woman in John Rambo’s life actually helps the film in some ways, keeping the focus tight on the effect of war on his psyche and meaning there’s no damsel just for the sake of it. Of course, whether this was intended is unclear.
12. My Dinner with Andre
Two people having a conversation. That’s it: My Dinner with Andre simply has Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory playing alt-universe versions of themselves enter into a meandering discussion that spirals around their ideological differences.
Being a conversation between two men, there’s little room for anyone else regardless of gender – only the waiter really gets a look in. It would definitely be possible to stage a similar exchange with women, but because of the focus on the actors it’s hardly an oversight.
As they are dining in a public restaurant there are female extras, but none of these are given anything more than a cursory glance. Indeed, he closest the film has to a female character is the recurring mention of Wally’s girlfriend Debbie, who is never seen. Rather humorously, the inspiration for the character – Deborah Eisenberg – is one of those extras in the background.
11. 12 Angry Men
12 Angry Men is one of the best examples of how to make a classic with only the simplest of ingredients – Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece is set entirely in one room (bar bookend scenes) and features only twelve men (of varying degrees of animosity). They’re the jurors on a murder case and their differing social outlook leads to a high-tension tale as they debate whether the accused should walk free or face a death sentence.
Women feature heavily in the story from the dialogue – they’re essential to the case at hand – but the jurors themselves are all male. This may seem just an antiquated necessity, but in acutality New York – where the film’s set – had actually allowed women to serve on juries from 1937, twenty years before the film was made.
Of course, despite the title itself being gendered, there’s nothing to stop modern takes from redressing the balance. In fact, the script based on the film is now sold as 12 Angry Jurors with the cast of indeterminate gender.
10. No Escape
No, not the forgettable 2015 film starring Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan – the No Escape we’re talking about is the equally-forgettable 1994 film starring Ray Liotta and Lance Henriksen.
Set in the near-future, the film sees Liotta’s ex-marine sent to an island prison where the worst criminals in the penal system run riot in a more violent version of the Manhattan in Escape from New York. That Carpenter comparison does it no favors – the film is more Escape from LA than New York, sadly, basically a stream of dull action and sub-Mad Max designs.
Because it’s a prison movie, the film has an entirely male cast. This makes some sense, although given that we’re in a semi-dystopian 2022 there was nothing to stop them introducing female inmates – it would have definitely provided an extra layer of intrigue to the story and perhaps expanded the film from being so generic.
9. All Is Lost
There’s been a resurgence in “one-man” movies in recent years – films where only a single actor appears on screen for the entire runtime – although many of the popular examples like Ryan Reynolds in Buried or Tom Hardy in Locke, aren’t totally lone-actor shows: in both the cases mentioned, the isolated characters have a phone by which they contact several other characters voiced by other stars.
All is Lost is a bit different. Starring only Robert Redford, it follows a sailor dealing with a series of disasters on the open sea and, bar a hand of god at the end, features no other actors – male or female. The closest we get to another a character is a glimpse of the unnamed man’s wife, but that never goes beyond thematic motivation.
8. The Enemy Below
Even more so than typical war movies, you’d almost expect a period submarine film to be completely devoid of female characters: they deal with a small cast and, because isolation is usually the name of the game, spend very little time outside of the vessel. However, often to contrast the ensuing madness and cabin fever, films can often use women as emotional framing; claustrophobic classic Das Boot found space for some female characters in brief outside sequences (in that case, some hookers back on land).
One film that doesn’t do this is The Enemy Below. Set entirely on the two ships at its heart, the story looks at the torpedo-driven game of cat-and-mouse between the captains of an American destroyer and a German U-Boat, boasting tense interplay and some startling (for 1957) special effects. Given the context, the film works fine as it does at sea and has so much interplay between the crew there’s not much need to any land-based expansion.
7. The Lord of the Flies
The Lord of the Flies is rightly regarded as one of the great works of 20th Century literature, telling the now-iconic story of a group of schoolboys stranded on an island after a plane crash and descending into anarchy after mere days of isolation. While the various film adaptations don’t quite match William Golding’s writing, they do capture the ethos of the book well; both the 1963 and 1990 adaptation accurately showed the descent into barbarism perfectly (the former is the clear victor in terms of quality and ruthlessness though).
Neither film has a single girl in the cast, keeping the story an all-male adventure. However, there’s no definitive reason why there couldn’t be some female characters in there; no specific reason is given for the evacuation of the children and bar the antagonistic band, the kids all come from different schools and backgrounds, so there’s nothing to stop there being a mix of genders.
That said, there is something inherently powerful about the upper-class ideals that an all-boy environment evokes, so having a mixed-gender cast could actually have a negative effect on the point Flies is trying to make.
Bringing together acting greats Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, Sleuth is one of the best thrillers of the 1970s. A twisting story of a crime writer and his wife’s adulterer conniving together to trick her into divorce through faked murder and more, it’s got enough shocking turns to remain utterly engaging today.
While the wife in question is a mentioned character, she only ever appears in painting form, based on the likeness of Joanne Woodward and 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 a rather strange choice, one that doesn’t really have a narrative or comedic reason.
Despite coming 35 years later, the 2007 remake (which had Caine in Olivier’s role and Jude Law playing the adulterer) did little to address the gender imbalance (not that the film was well-received on other levels either).
5. Glengarry Glen Ross
Glengarry Glen Ross is now best remembered for Alec Baldwin’s scintillating sales motivational speech, a fact that is both good and bad. On the one hand it’s a pretty awesome cameo (even better than his similar role in The Departed), but on the other it can overshadow the rest of the film.
Following a group of real estate salesmen trying to close big deals, the film is ostensibly an acting showcase, with a bunch of Hollywood’s finest at their very best. But, yes, they’re all men – both the salespeople themselves and the customers they’re attempting to get to bite.
Like with 12 Angry Men, this is more a choice indicative of professional norms than anything else – sales was a predominantly male-dominated field. However, more like in The Lord of the Flies, it also helps tie into the film’s wider themes, giving a weight of machismo to the art of the sell.
When it comes to the very niche subgenre of Nazi zombies, the film everyone gravitates towards is Norwegian B-movie Dead Snow, but despite all the hype it wasn’t the first movie to meddle with the concept.
Outpost came out a year earlier in 2008 and presented the whole idea in a different way; a group of modern day marines find themselves wrapped up as part of a Nazi plot to resurrect World War II soldiers as invulnerable, super-strong fighters. It’s a rather low-budget film, so is very lean – it’s a zippy 90 minutes and keeps it focus tightly on the core story, with little room for sprawling sub-plots.
And that extends to female characters. There’d definitely be room for women to feature in some form – it’d be easy to gender swap any of the characters with minimal rewrites – but it seems to ultimately be a product of the stripped back production and limited resources more than anything.
3. Master And Commander: The Far Side of the World
In 2003 it looked like naval-based action films were the future of cinema. The summer saw the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, then Oscar season was dominated by Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (it only won two statues, however, due to going up against The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Both are pretty great, but the latter is the undoubted stronger of the two.
Peter Weir’s film documented the adventures of Jack Aubrey, the fictitious naval commander and protagonist of author Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series in an ocean-spanning epic. And as pretty much all the action was water-logged and set in the 1800s, a time when there weren’t many female sailors (no matter what Alice Through the Looking Glass claimed), there were unsurprisingly no women characters in there.
2. Billy Budd
Herman Melville is best known for penning Moby Dick, which was made into a film starring Gregory Peck in 1956. That film doesn’t quite qualify for this list as it features a handful of female characters in very minor roles.
The same can’t be said of another of his nautical cinematic adaptations, Billy Budd. Set entirely on the HMS Avenger, the film follows the eponymous crewman, a novice on the seas who struggles against his higher-ups in an ultimately tragic story. It’s now best remembered for introducing the world to Terrence Stamp, but despite its rough edges pretty much holds up as an effective drama all round.
Being set on the high seas really highlights Budd’s helpless situation, but, of course, like Master and Commander means there’s little room for women in the story. Because of the character’s youth, there’s not even a female character in Billy’s past to hearken back to.
1. Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia is a sprawling epic. Nearly four hours long and spanning most of the First World War, it follows T.E. Lawrence from jokey English lieutenant to the shaken officer who united Arab tribes against their shared enemy. It’s a filmmaking masterclass, with David Lean showing he’s just as skilled with emotional character beats as he is massive set-pieces.
It also stars some of the greatest actors of the time – Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif and a breakout turn from Peter O’Toole. But there’s a not a female character in sight. The closest we get are a few women in the droves of extras in some of the film’s biggest scenes, but none are focused on beyond being part of the rabble.
Unlike other war movies, Lawrence of Arabia could have very easily fit in some female speaking roles – there’s a lot of innocent bystanders in the conflict and it would have been interesting to work a woman into one of those smaller moments to highlight Lawrence’s blood-thirsty arc.
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