Starting with the Bechdel Test

Let’s start a conversation with the Bechdel Test. Now I might be beating a dead horse here, but I’ve recently realized that knowledge of the Bechdel Test is not as widespread as I thought it was. I’ll drop it into conversation and people will suddenly look confused and I’ll have to backtrack and explain what it is.

The Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test, alternately called the Bechdel/Wallace Test, the Bechdel Rule, Bechdel’s Law, or the Mo Movie Measure, is a simple set of rules that creates a rudimentary set of standards for female representation in movies (personally, I apply it to television as well). It made it’s appearance in 1985 in Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For.

Dykes to Watch Out For, 1985.

It has three rules:

1. A movie must have 2 female characters

2. They must have a conversation.

3. About something other than a man.

In theory this shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve. I would like to invite you now to take a moment and think back on the last five movies you saw and see if they pass the Bechdel Test.

Done? How well did they do? Most of you who are trying this out for the first time might be surprised by how very badly those movies did. Most of them probably didn’t even manage to make it past the first requirement.

Now, as iO9’s Charlie Jane Anders has pointed out, the Bechdel Test is often under fire by people who complain that it ends more conversations that it starts:

“Perhaps the greatest complaint about the Bechdel Test, though, is the notion that it ends conversations instead of starting them. You just check the boxes and mark a movie ‘pass’ or ‘fail’.”

But, she continues, that’s not really the point of the Bechdel Test, and I would like to add my support to what Ms. Anders is saying:

“But that one is definitely not true — the Bechdel Test is often a part, or the beginning, of a larger and more complicated conversation about female representation in movies. […] It’s not a film-by-film metric, it’s a barometer showing where we are in general. And it forces you to think, in aggregate, about why so many films would fail.”

And that is why I always invite people to think back on the last 5 movies they’ve seen. Because I want them to think about the implications of the kind of representation, or lack thereof, we’re seeing.

(Find out more about the movies you’ve seen and how they relate to the Bechdel Test at bechdeltest.com.)

Last night I was talking with a friend and we were trying to pull apart a number of thorny issues all tangled up in the question of representation, particularly female representation. For example,

Is no representation better than bad representation?

Take the 2011 Roman-conquest epic The Eagle. The movie stars Channing Tatum as a wounded Roman soldier who when discharged finds himself the owner of  British slave, played by Jamie Bell. This movie has no women in it. (I’m not kidding.) I think, in total, 5 women appear on screen, and none of them are in the foreground, and none of them have speaking parts. Two of them are part of a crowd scene. There are no women in this film. On the other hand, that means we avoid the struggles of writing well-rounded female characters, no women are presented in isolation, and no women are objectified. It’s more than a male-dominated landscape, it’s a male-exclusive landscape.

Obviously, it can be problematic to argue that we should have a policy of non-representation if we’re not going to be doing a good job representing half the human population: invisibility is quite a bit worse than being seen through a funhouse mirror.

On the other hand, it can be a relief to not have to watch female characters get used and discarded, most often as sex objects and occasionally as plot devices. And often, the response to male-exclusive spaces is the acceptance of female exclusive ones (you won’t let a woman attend the same university as her male peers? She’ll start her own, and exclude men from attending). So probably not a good solution.

Then there is,

The Disney Princess Movie

We can’t talk about female representation and especially the effect it has on its audience without touching on the Disney Princess Movie, which while aimed at little girls often fails to represent more than one female character. (Or at least, female characters who can relate to each other without jealously coveting the youth, beauty, or kindness of the other (Ursula). Or female characters that are plot devices in their own stories (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Belle)).

That conversation last night touched on the Prince. So often the prince in a Disney movie is a two dimensional character. He probably doesn’t have a name, he occasionally doesn’t even do anything, some of them don’t even talk. Isn’t this damaging in some way? Isn’t this a problem? If the female characters get to be better developed and the male characters are props in their story isn’t that some kind of equality?

Except it’s not an equivalent two-dimensionality. Most female objectification in a male dominated narrative means she’s a piece to be used and discarded, sexually, politically, or maybe she’s your mother and she’s an obstacle to be overcome. The problem with the two dimensional prince in Snow White, who rides up at the end, kisses the princess, and rides off with her: he’s the goal of the entire story. He doesn’t have to say anything (or much of anything), and Snow White rides off with him to get married. She’s stuck with the object of theoretical manly, honorable perfection.

Furthermore, representation is never about a film-by-film analysis: it’s about the various narratives as a whole. So for every silent prince-object, we’ll have an Aladdin, and (worse) a Beast, and the young man from Frozen. Boys are not lacking in alternate narratives.

Little girls will be lucky if they get a Black Widow or the parts where Gamora gets to kick ass (read about those struggles at Salon), or if they see a film like Gravity.

But we have to keep our heads up, and we need to look for solutions. So here’s what I offer you:

A film recommendation

Everyone and their mother who cares about film is talking about Boyhood, the amazing feat of cinema that was filmed over 12 years. Instead, see if you can find a showing of the Swedish We Are the Best! it’s about three 13-year-old girls who start a punk rock band. They have to carry their friendship and their musical aspirations through crushes, meddling mothers, obnoxious comments from older boys, and more.

It’s not that options aren’t out there, it’s that we have work to find them. Go see We are the Best!

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