Today’s contribution from the Grandiose Claims Department: the most meaningful change that the Bechdel Test might be capable of bringing to media’s representation of gender is one that almost no one is talking about.
First unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in a 1985 issue of Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, the Bechdel Test is a simple test of a movie’s gender bias. As outlined in its originator strip, a film passes the test if it 1. features at least two named female characters who 2. have a conversation with one another 3. about something other than a man. These three factors are a sort of base minimum in evaluating whether a film presents female characters that have a life outside of supporting a male protagonist. The joke in the original strip is that a character refuses to see any film that doesn’t pass this test and, as a result, has not been able to see anything in theaters since the release of Alien six years prior.
In spite, or perhaps because, of its simplicity, the Bechdel Test has become a Baedeker of sorts for western filmmaking’s most endemic illness: poor representation. This basically comes down to the idea that the world’s population is made up of people of diverse races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, wealth levels, and genders (amongst many, many, many other things), but that only a small portion of those people seem to make their way into films, particularly in starring roles.
In more concrete terms, if we look back at the past one hundred and nineteen years of filmmaking, we see a lot of movies starring Caucasian, cisgendered, heterosexual males. If you don’t fit into all these categories, chances are the only times you’ll see people like yourself in movies is as a romantic interest, sidekick, BFF, mentor, follower, villain, or some other kind of supporting capacity to a protagonist who does fit that very narrow description. And before we get into any kind of a “Not all movies…” tangent: yes, yes, we are making generalizations here and it’s getting easier to stumble upon exceptions. Nevertheless, the fact remains that in general it is rather difficult to find films that show ethnic minorities, queer individuals, or even women as subjects rather than objects.
This trend is a problem for about a million different reasons, but perhaps most saliently for the tacit message that it sends out about the reality that we are dramatizing in our films. If art really does, as Hamlet would put it, hold a mirror up to nature and shape our understanding of ourselves, the reflection we have been getting is one that over-simplifies, warps, or just outright erases a large portion of our global society. Now, it’s tempting to say, “Oh come on. People know that films aren’t real in that way. No one takes film as a one-to-one representation of the real world.” And that’s true – but only up to a point. Yes, from an early age we’re taught to identify certain elements of film and story construction as false, but others are generally treated as reproductions of reality. In other words, practically everyone in the filmgoing public can tell that the fire-breathing dragon, the rocket-toting raccoon, or the sharknado is entirely fictional, but the veracity of interpersonal dynamics, social structures, or depictions of real-life groups of people in those same films don’t tend to be questioned as rigorously. The problem, of course, is that sometimes these elements are extremely distorted. If the entire filmmaking landscape only has depictions of, say, women as treacherous femme fatales, we run the risk of all but the most critically thinking members of the audience accepting that as real on some level and carrying the prescribed attitudes out of the theater and into real life. That’s a problem.
Enter the Bechdel Test, a metric designed to easily and instantly measure how much female presence there is in a film and how much they have a chance to engage with matters other than male preoccupations. It’s not even a test of how feminist a movie is, but rather a question of “Does this provide the most basic foundation for any sort of responsible female representation?” And with that framework in mind, the sheer number of films that fail the test every year is eye-opening. If nothing else, Bechdel’s creation has served to quantify an incredibly destructive but somewhat amorphous issue.
Which is not to say that the test doesn’t have its numerous, vocal detractors. Earlier this month, Glenn Kenny published this piece questioning whether pop-culture-focused measures like the Bechdel Test are misdirecting our energies and righteous anger towards the symptoms of problems rather than at their roots. Just last week, Flavorwire published this feature on how critical evaluation memes like the Bechdel Test give us a shorthand that keeps us from examining what is really going right or wrong in the films we’re watching. Masses of critics have pointed out how easy it is for the Bechdel Test to leave its inexperienced users with a corrosively reductive view of feminism. Simplifying things to the degree of the Bechdel Test test can be dangerous, both for what might be left out and what might be included.
As a result, the tide of popular opinion seems to be flowing towards the position that the true value of the test isn’t in writing off or accepting individual films, but in seeing the unacceptably high number of films that fail every year. Used this way, the test can draw attention towards the ongoing conversations about female representation.
Which is great… except it misses out on the single most potent aspect of the Bechdel Test.
Subjecting each individual film we see to Bechdel’s brainchild gives us the ability to flip the conversation around from the negative to the positive. Go back to the beginning of this article and you’ll note that I talked about how the general trend for our first century of filmmaking has been towards poor representation, in spite of the fact that there are some exceptions to this pattern. The very fact that these are the words that feel natural to me when I describe the situation that we are facing is part of the systemic problem. We’ve come to naturally think of Hollywood as this money-grubbing, stereotype-perpetuating, vaguely xenophobic, and irredeemably sexist entity. The fact that their films fail at being the slightest bit inclusive is horrifying, but it’s also, well, business-as-usual. And the problem is that when we start to see a flaw as something that is just an inherent part of the machine it gets a lot harder for us to genuinely believe that we can change it. When we are socially conditioned to think of basic female representation as the triumphant exception rather than as a bare minimum, it has a profound effect on the way we ask for more of it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the filmmakers who have made the gems of socially responsible filmmaking we have gotten over the years don’t deserve credit. In fact, given the messed up system they were contending with, I’d argue they deserve a lot of credit. But the point is that as long as we keep thinking of these films as remarkable it’ll keep being hard to get the majority of filmmakers to operate at that level. In other words, we need to stop asking, “Why did this film have such a good representation of women?” and start asking, “Why didn’t all these films have strong representation of women.”
How do we achieve this? With the widespread use of standards and practices that call out these repeated failings every time that we see them. A tool like the Bechdel Test takes the lack of individualized, non-male dependent characters that has for so long been a norm and labels it for what it is: a failure. It allows us to break out of the compliant attitude that has let a profoundly destructive trend to prosper for generations and take a more militant attitude towards its existence. Call something a failure enough times, mercilessly, relentlessly, publicly, and eventually the point sinks in. We have the capacity to go from, “Ehhh, it sucks but what do you want me to do, stop going to the movies?” to “This is a failure and we need to stop.”
But what about those films that offer responsible representations of women yet still fail the Bechdel Test due to certain particularities of their constructions? Won’t their positive, progressive contributions be buried under the weight of their failure? No, they will not. Even if we do assign every film a label of “pass” or “fail” by the Bechdel standards, our critical engagement with them won’t stop there. Just like we can tell that Twilight is not a feminist masterpiece in spite of the fact that it passes the test, if a film deserves to be recognized as a positive depiction of women, it will assert itself as such. A movie will be able to overcome the temporary stigma of failing the Bechdel Test if:
-It devotes the vast majority of its screentime to a fully formed, three-dimensional female character, the way Gravity does.
-It focuses on a woman’s narrative arc without having that arc be exclusively about supporting a man’s story, the way Pacific Rim does.
-If it shows hyper competent women not only holding their own but excelling in fields typically dominated by men, the way Zero Dark Thirty or The Avengers does.
-If it shows unique, memorable, emotionally complicated female characters, the way Toy Story 2 does.
-If it centers on the psychological and emotional journey of a dynamic, complicated, unique female protagonist, the way Run Lola Run does.
-If it offers up a compelling portrait of a real life female historical figure or feminist icon, the way The Passion of Joan of Arc does.
And so on.
The times when the stigma won’t fade away are the cases in which Hollywood falls back on its age-old trends of sexism, lazy writing, and improper representation. The Bechdel Test is not a perfect rubric of feminist success, nor is it the be-all-end-all sign that we’ve accomplished everything that we’ve set out to do (oh, not even close. We still have this madness to deal with). Again, the journey towards inclusiveness and equality is a messy and complicated one. Who knows how long it’ll take to get anywhere close to a good place? This isn’t what the Bechdel Test offers us. What it does offer us is a weapon to fight against those who are unwilling to take the slightest budge towards improvement, to introduce a paradigm shift that orients our expectations towards the future rather than the status quo. For too long we’ve been beholden to cynicism, our righteous outraged dulled by all-enveloping familiarity. Time to shake that up. Time to start calling out failures when we see them.