Sexism and Story: Rethinking the Bechdel Test

How is this not feminist?
Feminist enough? Or does she need to talk to Hawk-Girl about costume detergent?

The misogynistic undercurrents in comics, TV, and cinema are so voluminous they barely need indicating. Where would one even begin? The fact that Disney still hasn’t shaken its male-savior complex? The Fact that in X-Men: First Class there was not a single female character not shown in her underwear at some point? Or perhaps the the fact that quadruple K is pretty much the only size in the comic book universe? The negative impact these themes have on women is obvious, but it also traps the male community in a vicious cycle. We’re often too shy to talk to women, and the media we view objectifies them to the point where the prospect of seeing a woman as a human being is as distant as the Mars Rover. If you’re the righteous indignation type like I am, you no doubt feel the fury.

But long ago, from this tempestuous sexual/political turbulence, arose the Bechdel test.

The original may not look like much, but it sounded a revolution
The original may not look like much, but it sounded a revolution.

The test originally appearing in the comic Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel, and sought to pass judgment over films that could be considered ‘non-feminist’. A dramatic work (usually a movie) passes the test when it contains the following criteria:

1. At least two female characters with speaking roles.

2. A scene in which these two female characters talk to each other.

3. During said conversation, they do not discuss a man.

A movie conforming to this test makes the artistic statement that women can exist and affect the world independently, and not only in relation to a man. It’s an admirable test to be sure, both courageous in intent and elegant in it’s simplicity, so it’s no wonder why those films that fail get a slap on the wrist from the Washington Post. The beauty of the test lies in exposing the subconscious belief that women are only of value in regards to their sexuality. So few films have a female character that isn’t either a man’s accomplice or trophy to be won.

But the problem with the test is in it’s execution, not its intention. Though the majority of films ‘dinged’ by the test are certainly ‘ding-worthy,’ some movies I would never let my daughter watch pass the test on technicalities (Heavy Metal, Sleeping BeautyAmerican Hustle) while other, more progressive films fail due to a male protagonist or a concise script. (Star Wars, Mulan, Gravity) Most romantic comedies fail the test since, as Shakespeare taught us, in a RomCom, nothing’s juicier than hearing what women think of men and vice versa. The new generation of feminist horror is out almost completely, since sexual politics and group dynamics are always cleverly deconstructed.

As much as politics in film may excite us, we have to realize that movies, television and the like are stories first and political pulpits second. Screenwriting 101 teaches us to be wary of the unessential, and it isn’t misogynistic to make decisions that serve the story. Take Return of the Jedi for example: While a scene in which Mon Mothma and Princess Leia discuss the assault on the Second Death Star may have been nice, there was a more elegant way of explaining the plan that also served as a means to reintroduce Luke Skywalker into the group, and so it was.

Herein lies the rub, dear reader: The Bechdel test, though noble, cannot measure content, and it is the content in a work of fiction that determines its message. Therefore, I propose something of a friendly alternative to the Bechdel test. Not an obsoletion, per se, but rather a caveat that doesn’t punish a script with a male protagonist or brevity of plot. The ‘Narrative Bechdel’ as I choose to call it, has two criteria:

1. There must be at least one female character who’s objective in the film is unrelated to her acquisition of, or her service to, a male character UNLESS that male character’s objective is related to the acquisition or service of her (making room for the great romances).

2. It would be impossible to remove her character from the plot without completely dismantling the story. (To eliminate walk-ons, henchwomen, and so-on)

In some ways, this test is more difficult. Often times the Bechdel test can be circumvented with idle chitchat, but the ‘Narrative Bechdel’ asks more of the filmmaker. It asks them to think of women as people, with wants and desires that go beyond the instinct to settle down and nest. Admittedly, some of my favorite films fail this newly constructed hurdle. Although they do indeed talk to each other, the two Silk Specters in The Watchmen only have objectives in relation to their romantic entanglements. If you remove Black Widow from The Avengers you still have the overall plot in tact. And Casablanca… Well… That actually was never one of my favorites.

Though far from perfect, this variation on the longtime feminist standard could help movies aligned with the independent spirit of the Bechdel test, and point out the weaknesses of films that weasel their way through it. Films with great female characters could easily pass this trial-by-narrative. Films where all the woman cares about is her her position relative to a man are drop-kicked into the outfield of misogyny. And let’s face it, isn’t that all the Alison Bechdel wanted from a movie in the first place?

And if you’re wondering, yes, Alien still passes.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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My real name is Sander Gusinow. I'm a critic, blogger, and playwright just trying to make my way in NYC.

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24 Comments

  1. I just think it’s funny and a little gross that it seems to be only men talking about how silly the bechdel test is and how there is not a problem in Hollywood with showing women as people that don’t need a romantic reason to be involved in the story. It’s like saying there’s not a race problem because we have a black president. Take a Gender Studies class, and read a book on feminism. The reason for the bechdel test is to show how women are taught by your average film that women need to focus on a mans attention above all else. That’s the point. 

    • I don’t think the test is silly in the least! I’m just saying the test is imperfect because since it’s benchmark isn’t narrative, it doesn’t measure content. This allows films like ‘Gravity’ to fail and ‘American Hustle’ to pass.

      I am very much a feminist and have read Ferber, Nelson, Okin and a whole plethora of articles on the subject. I feel like this essay is in accordance with the current 3rd wave. Do you disagree?

  2. Al Erickson
    0

    I have read quite a number of books on feminism and have, at all turns found them to be factually absent propaganda. Women are not taught by your average film to think only of men just because they talk about a man- Gender Studies is just academically sanctified sexism…

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      As someone who took several classes on “Gender Studies,” I unfortunately have to agree with you…

      One time I wrote an essay for a professor highlighting women’s accomplishments in film, actually, and she gave me a B because it didn’t highlight how women have been wronged (which was not part of the assignment, mind you). Strange stuff…

  3. Well, most feminism books are theoretical, meaning they aren’t supposed to have ‘hard evidence’ facts. Locke, Mill and Hobbes aren’t ‘factual’ per se, and yet the United States government is based primarily on their writings.

    If you want empirical evidence of female-media oppression, look at psychiatric data, bulimia, anorexia, rates of depression, the list goes on and on. These data are not present because of intrinsic properties. They are present because of our culture.

  4. Ignacio
    0

    Speaking as a feminist, I believe The Bechdel test in itself is not at all close enough to illustrate a fair portrayal of women in that it in itself generalizes by assuming all conversations we have about men are the same.

    • Very true. But in movies they often go like:

      Woman A: “That man… I don’t know his deal”
      Woman B: “Here’s his deal, honey (tells her the deal)
      Woman A: “Wow! You’re right!”
      -or-
      “No! You’re wrong!”

  5. FilmVixen
    FilmVixen
    0

    Bridesmaids is a great film filled with women. In the background each of the two main characters are getting married and trying to get a boyfriend as a part of the plot, but many of their conversations are about life and friendship. More movies like that should be made.

  6. IMO it’s so sad that that feminism (the idea that women are equal to men) is being hijacked by some dumb philosophy that thinks women are so weak, that anything that shows them as less than perfect is evil and wrong, and that women should be unable to comprehend having flaws and being equal to men.

  7. Kimberely
    0

    Great post!

  8. Holloway
    0

    When first hearing about the Bechdel Test I kind of thought that that would be a thing of the past – until I started rating them myself. Since then I’m shocked how many films don’t make it. Give it a try yourself. Ask yourself after you’ve seen a film whether two (named) women talked to each other about something different then a man.

  9. Johanna Bowen
    0

    The Bechdel Test is interesting exercise to run, but it should never be taken as the be-all-and-end-all of feminist critiquing – or be used in isolation!

    If a film or show fails the test it can be useful to look at the reasons why. Was there a lack of female characters because the writer set up the action on a space ship and defaulted to the assumption that crew=male? Were the female characters un-named because they were simply written as appendages to the male characters?

    Some great works fail, or nearly fail, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s why they fail that matters.

    • Clarence
      0

      Or was the film set up on a space ship which had an equal mix of men and women, with neither sex being more important than the other, but because they were always in the same room together, there were always some men present.

    • I don’t think Bechdel really intended to initiate a rule, I think the point in the original strip was just to make the point that IF you were to follow that rule, there would be very few films you’d be able to watch. Something for people to think about in terms of female representation, not an actual rule for people to stick to.

      Other reasons a film might fail:

      – The setting or period in which it takes place negates the possibility of women being present.
      – It’s a two-hander with one man and one woman like Gravity, or, say, a three-hander with two men and one woman like The Disappearance of Alice Creed, where the plot necessitates that both the male characters are male.
      – It’s a film where the central focus is romance, hence the female characters only talk to each other about men, but the men also only talk to each other about women.

  10. I think you bring up a great and valid critique for addressing specific films for their content in an anti-sexist context. However, I think a problem exists in viewing the Bechdel Test as a measurement by which to judge individual films. I see it as a much more valuable test for evaluating the entire industry of film or a particular year’s successful films.

    In that way it can be compared to something like BMI which is tremendously useful for measure weight statistics for large populations but can be very inaccurate at the individual level.

  11. I certainly agree that your idea for the ‘Narrative Bechdel’ test is more along the lines of what Bechdel herself wanted. The test itself was invented in a comic strip and was never meant to be taken as seriously as it was. I think this is a fresh and more reasonable brand of feminism you are proposing. As a self-proclaimed feminist myself, I cannot relate to women who bash men for the sake of man-bashing. Women should strive for equality and harmony with the opposite gender, not the dismantlement and takeover of men.

    Kudos.

  12. I appreciate the Bechdel test but I see it has a good deal of flaws. I agree that a film can pass based on technicalities, for example, female characters gossiping and not having a meaningful conversation or two female mooks greeting each other in passing.

    Also, discussing a man should not eliminate the film automatically. Consider a scene showing two women raising a male child together and discussing his grades or sisters discussing their father or brother.

    There was a proposal after Pacific Rim came out to implement a Mako Mori test as well. http://observationdeck.io9.com/the-mako-mori-test-1166387543 Using this I beleive Gravity and Mulan would pass. Although this is a great concept, I think passing it and the Bechdel test are not automatically indicative of a “feminist” story.

  13. from what i’ve experienced, nobody cites the Bechdel test as the final word on a movie being considered misogynistic. X-Men, for example, features three female characters with well written stories. it’d be tough to consider that a sexist movie (despite that the title “X-People” would simply be asking too much). the point is that these anomalies are nowhere near the standard for failed tests. last i heard, the failure rate was something like 80%. that’s astoundingly bad, especially considering how easy it is to pass. for example, an action movie: a crime is committed, two female cops show up and set up a crime scene, test passed. not difficult to do at all; yet for all the side characters that show up and talk about something besides the hero of the story, most movies just can’t manage to make two of them women. that’s where the problem lies and that’s what the Bechdel test illuminates.

  14. While I cannot claim to know whether or not the Bechdel test was meant to be applied with no other form of analysis involved, I highly doubt that this is the case. As somebody who has a degree in Gender in Women’s Studies, I can say that my particular training (and I am one person, from one University- so this is in no way a universal statement) was in intersectional analysis. Thus, the points raised in some of these other comments would be addressed in such a framework, especially the fact that there are instances where there may not be two female characters for a very legitimate reason (time period, roles of women in history/story, limited number of characters [2 person script], etc). That having been said, I think that the point of the test was not just to point to the lack of substantive, non “male-obsessed/centered” roles available to women, but to the number of roles available (or not available) to women, period. The sad fact of the matter is that there are far fewer leading roles for women than there are for men, these roles are more limited in scope and type, and- when they do occur- they often do not pass the test (in terms of being about women and their accomplishments/actions/faults/struggles/whatever, as opposed to being about what women say- or do for- the men in the film). This is what I believe the test was designed to show us- but what we choose to do with that information is completely up to us.

  15. Wow. This is totally crazy! This comment section! This is not in the slightest what I was expecting from an article with the word ‘sexism’ in the actual title. The Bechdel Test needs no rethinking precisely because of its concise nature. I’m baffled at the suggestion that a plot can be neither concise nor trim nor well narrated because it does not cater entirely to male characters. It often seems as if you simply cannot view this matter from the perspective of women. How would you feel if every strategy for progress you employed was continually met by this hedging, this negotiation? How would you feel if I had the authority to say, naw, I don’t actually think Luke needs to be re-introduced. In fact, let’s cut that character. No one’s interested in his arc any way, the average consumer can’t relate to it. Because he’s a boy. Let’s check in with Leia and the other gals. Actually, forget all this, let’s just make that movie…

  16. This test was not created to over all critic a movie as a whole, but rather, to show the role in film of woman over the years. The test was created back in 1985 and at that point of time with the feminist movement moving forward into the publication and view of women in general they were looking for a way to show people just what kind of view woman there placed inside of the film industry. The test as it is does that nicely, your proposed test though seems to be hitting the topic at a different angle. With this version you are focusing on a modern perspective that in a way does pull away from the movement that the author of this test was searching for with its creation. Do not get me wrong, I like this idea and as a writer I see where you are going with it, I am just not sure that it is a good substitute for the original idea of the test when it was created. It does, however, work very well for modern movies and as a challenge to modern writers and publishers to push forward a new scene in female rolls inside of modern movies.

  17. The Bechdel test is a test of representation. It has very low stakes and yet many films fail to pass it! Which only proves how under-represented women are in films. If there are at least two women, they don’t talk to each other, and if they do it’s just a couple of phrases. Sometimes it’s just one line during the entire movie! A lot of films considered to pass the Bechdel test have just one or two phrases exchanged between the women. That’s ridiculous. I think the test would be more complete if time was a factor. If the third rule was “talk about something other than a man for at least one minute” the majority of films would fail. And that`s sad. Women are the majority of the population on the planet, yet totally misrepresented on the media.

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