What is the Bechdel Test and Why Should I care about it?

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Infographic on how films fare under the Bechdel test

Recently, Sweden announced that it would be giving an ‘A’ rating to films that pass the Bechdel Test, and before we start asking what kind of sexual content Sweden now allows (the lucky bastards) let me tell you what the Bechdel test is, and what it means to have the A rating.

The Bechdel Test (also known as the Mo Movie Measure, Bechdel-Wallace Test) was popularized by Alison Bechdel in her 1985 comic ‘The Rule’ in Dykes to Watch out For. Set as a conversation between two friends, the test has three simple conditions:

  1. Does a film have two named female characters?
  2. Do these characters have a conversation?
  3. Is the conversation about something other than a man?

I know, I know, we will all protest that simply passing or failing this test is not a sign of a feminist film, or even a good film – it has even been argued that porn flicks are likely to fulfill this criteria while films made by great female directors like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker are not, but hold your horses, I’m still getting to the point.

I don’t plan to make any sweeping remarks about the feminist connotations of films that pass this test – American Hustle, Philomena, Vampire Academy, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Frozen (yay!) or films that fail it – The Social Network, Avatar, Gravity, The Original Star Wars Trilogy, Run Lola Run, but here is what I am going to say about it:

There is no doubt that a good, even great film can be made without passing the Bechdel test. There are a number of places where a film is set, a men’s prison for instance (The Shawshank Redemption), where the absence of female characters is expected, nay, required. Similarly, a film like Mulan which is a great example of feminist cinema was set primarily in an army where only men could serve, so it is doubtful that a few conversations about marriage with female ancestors would pass the Bechdel test.

Moreover, the fulfillment of these three conditions does not make a film good or bad. I mean, I hate to break it to you, but no number of female characters talking to each other about a plethora of subjects is going to make the Twilight movies a good example of cinema, and similarly, failing the Bechdel test alone does not make great films like those of the Lord of the Rings trilogy bad cinema.

Having made these two things very clear, here is what I’d like to point out: that the fact that a few films pass or fail the test is not the issue, but rather the general tendency in film (and society) to ignore the female character. This is evidenced in Hollywood to a large extent, as the screenwriters are taught not to write female leads because no one wants to watch that (and who can blame them? Who wants to see a bunch of girls being hysterical and whiny on screen, amiright?) and screenwriters who write such stories are told quietly to do away with this nonsense and write a good manly film the audience would actually be interested in. If you don’t believe me, believe Jennifer Kessler.

You see, this test was never meant to be the cornerstone of feminism in cinema, it was merely supposed to be a way of demonstrating the ‘sociality’ of women, a testament to the fact that films should depict women who interact in other ways than in relation to the men in their lives, be it husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers or sons. How is it possible, how is it tolerable that popular fiction is satisfied with women being only a foil to their male counterparts? I don’t contend that this is THE test of feminist presence in films, but why is it so unacceptable that films should strive, as a rule, to have women who are named, have conversations, and have them about things other than men?

As soon as Sweden announced that it would be giving a Bechdel rating to films there was an immediate flurry of conversation on the subject; on the fact that the Bechdel test proves nothing, on the fact that a lot of quality cinema fails whilst terrible films pass, but the question is simple: What does it say about society where women can barely be imagined as having conversations on important subjects? Does it not have anything to do with the implicit quality and taste of the film? Admittedly, the test may be a tad simplistic in its view, but as the following dialogue from the film Seven Psychopaths demonstrates, it isn’t that hard to pen a conversation between two women.

Hans: Your women characters are awful. None of them have anything to say for themselves, and most of them either get shot or stabbed to death within five minutes… and the ones that don’t probably will later on.

Marty: Well… it’s a hard world for women. You know? I guess that’s what I’m trying to say.

Hans: Yeah, it’s a hard world for women, but most of the ones I know can string a sentence together.

Alison Bechdel has written a lot more since 1985, but speaking on this subject after the announcement by Sweden and the subsequent discussion, she says that while she’s glad that popular culture has finally caught up with what she’s dedicated her entire career to: the representation of women who are subjects and not objects; the idea itself is not novel. As Virginia Woolf in her 1926 A Room of One’s Own wrote:

“Chloe liked Olivia,” I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered had she done so! …

… Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them: how literature would suffer!”

I write to you, therefore, of the Bechdel test not as a rampant feminist on the loose (which I am, make no mistake) but as a film buff who wants to know why we have such a problem with women and how can we make it stop? Recently, there is a trend of making films that both pass the Test and do well commercially, and while this is a welcome change, I ask not for life-changing feminist cinema all the time, but merely that once in a while, mainstream cinema focus on Alice and Lizzy having a simple conversation about a beautiful pair of shoes instead of a penis-monster (by which I mean a man, and not Edward Penishands – NSFW; when I say Penishands, I am not exaggerating).

Stealing from Bechdel herself, if you read till the end of this 1160 word article, you pass the Nandan test!

(Readers are welcome to respond using the ‘Leave a Reply’ option below.)

 

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2 thoughts on “What is the Bechdel Test and Why Should I care about it?

  1. What if “nobody wants to watch that” is simply true? You paint it as if it was an evil conspiracy by film studios to neglect women. But what if they are simply following the market? There is also another implication in the Bechdel theory that thinking about a man somehow diminishes women. But relationships, dating, sex are an important factor in human life. In fact almost everything evolves around it – people worry about impressing the other sex all the time. Since it is such a huge topic, naturally a lot of films are being made about it. Namely the whole genre of “romantic comedy” – is that a ploy to keep women stupid, or are those films being made because people want to watch them? And what if, say, war movies outsell other genres 100 to 1 (just made up), so a lot more man dominated war movies are being made then other movies. Does that diminish women? Not at all – women will simply watch other movies, or spend their time in other ways.

    Note I am not against the Bechdel test per se – I am for freedom. If somebody wants to let a silly test control their enjoyment of a film, I don’t care. But a state intervention bothers me, as I don’t want the state to tell me what I should and shouldn’t like. Not sure what the implications are in Sweden. Perhaps it is just a note. But what if later on there is discussion of government support for cinemas, and they decide that only cinemas who show at least 70% A-rated movies get funding? I don’t think that is so harmless at all.

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  2. Pingback: Five Pro-Feminist TV Shows (And why you should watch them) | Glasnost

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