Sexism and Story: Rethinking the Bechdel Test
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 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 Beauty, American 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.