It’s likely that you’re familiar with the Bechdel test. As a measure of gender bias, this simple test based on a comic strip by Alison Bechdel is in vogue lately (no, literally – in Vogue). In its simplest form, the test only asks whether a movie includes two women talking about something other than a man. If it does, the film passes the test. Hold up the most praised award-winning films from the past decade to this test, and you’ll find very few that pass.
Despite the fact that I identify as a feminist, this fails to make me angry. In fact, the more I read about the Bechdel test, the more irritated I become with the test and those who use it as a measure of a film’s worth. Three reasons the Bechdel test annoys me:
1. It doesn’t take into account character complexity or conversation depth.
Two flat characters can have a really stupid conversation about something other than a man. Shoes, for instance, or the nature of the human soul. Inversely, two complex and real women can have an intelligent conversation about a man – even about a romantic relationship with a man. Yet, a movie featuring, say, my friend and I talking about which pen we prefer to use would pass, while a movie featuring us discussing real challenges we face in our marriages and professional relationships would not pass, even though the latter would touch on the uphill battle women still face against expectations placed on them – at work and at home – purely because of their gender.
2. It is used to shame women for liking movies of a certain type.
For a tool that is purported to be feminist, the Bechdel test is used too often to shame women and to dismiss their preferences as “less than.” Oh, it’s not overt… but the implication is that if you do happen to like a movie in which women are discussing men, or in which the women primarily interact with men rather than with each other, then you’re not truly a feminist. “You like P.S. I Love You? I guess you don’t care about women’s issues and are totally okay with betraying your sex. : /” One could easily dismiss entire genres using this interpretation – especially genres stereotypically preferred by women, like romance – yet doing so marginalizes many strong female characters. The film
Doctor Zhivago, for example, does not pass the Bechdel test, even though Lara and Tonya are two complex and strong women. To reject this movie because they show their strength in their roles as wives and mothers (and thus in relation to men) is to both deny the importance of wives and mothers and to dismiss a large part of what it is to be a female human being.
3. It’s been appropriated by the unthoughtful as a way of proving their feminism.
The Bechdel test is an interesting talking point – and that’s actually something I like about it: it gets people thinking about women in film, the kind of roles they play, and how frequently. Unfortunately, there are those that latch onto it as a measure of a film’s worth and of its feminist message, and simply end their arguments with, “Well, that film doesn’t pass. You may congratulate me now for my awareness of gender issues.” It is this kind of surface-level application of the Bechdel test that leads to numbers one and two on my list… so, really, perhaps I only needed one item on my list (but two is not a fun number). A Bechdel pass doesn’t make a movie good, or pro-feminism, or thoughtful, or entertaining, and a Bechdel fail doesn’t make a movie bad, or misogynist, or offensive. The mistake is in using the Bechdel test as a measure of a film’s worth, or as a way of limiting, instead of as a general measure of how much coverage women get in film today.
As others have pointed out, the Bechdel test is simply a place to start. Rather than using it to dismiss entire genres, or to limit the kinds of films being made, we should take the fact that so few films pass as a directive to give coverage to the full scope of a woman’s experience (while not trivializing heterosexual relationships or motherhood). For fun, I created a totally objective (read: subjective) breakdown of topics I discuss with my friends (of any gender).
30% – Children (either the having or the not having of them)
30% – Career
25% – Relationships (romantic)
8% – Politics*
5% – Health
2% – Hobbies*
*Note that I don’t live or work among people who share my political viewpoint or my hobbies, so I tend to avoid discussing either – which probably skewed my estimated numbers.
I believe we have the heterosexual relationship covered, cinematically speaking, as well as the nuclear family. For me, a WASPy heterosexual woman, this leaves about 50% of my experience not really covered in popular movies. Is there a career movie I can identify with? Not that I can think of. Is there a movie about a woman in politics or involved in activism that I really find compelling? No. (Unless you count Battlestar Galactica). And I’m a woman of the age group, skin color, and background quite likely to show up as the lead! If the story is focused on a woman, that is. If that much of my experience is excluded, just imagine how little there is for viewers who are not of the privileged group. There is so much untouched real estate for filmmakers–so much opportunity for greater variety and, most importantly, good stories.
The thread connecting all of my experience is my friendships, which are so far more enduring than any romantic relationship or job I’ve had, and which are part of the foundation upon which I build my identity. Luckily, this part of my experience is starting to show up more in film and television, and is providing women with roles other than wife/girlfriend of male lead, mother of male lead, or victim. Still, there should be more women’s roles (with greater variety), and women in supporting roles should be written with more depth. This, I think, is the real point of the Bechdel test, when used responsibly. Not to exclude, dismiss, or judge, but simply to start a conversation about where we are, and where we’re not, and how to make film better.
Featured Image: Dr. Zhivago, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer