WARNING: This article contains some spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
When I walked out of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I thought, "Wow, what a good movie! And Natasha Romanov kicked a whole lot of ass!" She and the other hardworking female characters in Winter Soldier -- ones who were not wives/girlfriends, mothers or prostitutes -- gave this superhero movie a realism not found in many other comic-book movies. But surprisingly, The Winter Soldier failed the Bechdel test.
Have you heard of the Bechdel test? It's an important thought experiment about women's roles in movies. In order for a movie to pass the Bechdel test, it has to have 1) two women, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man.
In The Winter Soldier, Natasha Romanov and Maria Hill may have shared a scene together -- Maria rescued Natasha, Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson in the back of a truck -- but they don't converse with each other.
Still, the movie's failure to pass the Bechdel test doesn't tell the whole story. Most of the female characters in the movie (Natasha Romanov, Maria Hill, Councilwoman Hawley and Sharon/Agent 13) were strong, competent and professional, and not a damsel in distress among them (the elderly Peggy Carter also appeared, but her age and infirmity put an end to her role as a love interest).
One of these women, Councilwoman Hawley, was powerful enough to threaten bad guy Alexander Pierce. Another, Maria Hill, Nick Fury's right-hand woman, was entrusted with knowledge about his death that not even the protagonists had.
Meanwhile, although Sharon had a semi-flirtatious moment with Steve Rogers, she was also secretly Agent 13, who was sent by S.H.I.E.L.D. to protect him. When Hydra revealed themselves in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s headquarters, Agent 13 pulled a gun rather than yield to evil.
Then, there's Natasha. Right before she engages with the enemy, she encourages Steve to date; their relationship is professional, yet friendly. At one point, while seemingly on a rescue with Steve, she goes off on her own mission under Nick Fury's orders -- and is unapologetic when Steve is rightfully annoyed.
Later, she tells Steve that she never likes to reveal much about her inner life, that she's fine being an enigma. She asks him, "What do you want me to be?" The line could have been delivered teasingly, with sexual undertones. But Natasha is too matter-of-fact for that. So, when Steve answers, "A friend," we know that they both mean it. And even though she and Steve did lock lips, it wasn't a romantic gesture but a self-defense technique (as a romantic myself, I do wonder if there's any meaning behind the arrow necklace she wore throughout the movie).
In the end, Natasha agrees to help expose the evil Hydra ... which also exposes her previous dark deeds. For a person who had also told Steve, "I find it easier to keep your true self buried under layers of untrue selves, to protect yourself," she's willing to compromise her personal beliefs to kick evil in the teeth.
All of these female characters are wonderful examples of roles that are typically filled by men.
There was one misstep, though it had nothing to do with the way the female characters were written: Hayley Atwell, who played Peggy, spent the movie in special effects makeup -- part of Hollywood's allergy to casting elderly women. But the casting directors redeemed themselves by hiring the wonderful Jenny Agutter, who happens to be 61, as Hawley.
The Bechdel test is easy to fail. The original Star Wars trilogy, The Lord of the Rings series, Avatar, etc. all have more than one strong female character, but they don't share scenes with each other. But by casting women for roles that men typically fill (policeman, best friend, coworker), it's also extremely easy to pass. Even though The Winter Soldier technically didn't, I argue that women played roles they can be proud of and that girls can aspire to.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier may have failed the Bechdel test. But in the spirit of the test, which is to bring attention to the visibilty of women onscreen as people and not just as accessories to the men, this movie is a winner.