There has been an on-going discussion about the Bechdel Test as it is applied to films. This test is named after Alison Bechdel, and it is a metric that originated with her comic “Dykes to Watch Out For”. So, what is the Bechdel test? It is a very simple 3-prong test spoken about in the comic strip. A film must meet all three points:
- It has to have at least two women in it (who have names),
- who talk to each other,
- about something besides a man.
You might imagine that most films would pass this test. But according to the site Film School Rejects, “…out of 2,500 films, only about half pass the test.” Ashe Cantrell, in “10 Famous Films that Surprisingly Fail the Bechdel Test”, lists films that might be a surprise. “Social Network”, for instance. I was surprised, since I’ve long admired Aaron Sorkin’s writing, and the female characters he’s created, especially on “The West Wing”. (I am aware that he’s come under some heated criticism for his portrayal of females more recently.) Of course the original “Star Wars” trilogy fails, since there was only ONE female consistently in the films. The others, Aunt Beru and Mon Mothma….well do we even remember them saying anything at all? Whether or not they talked, the point is that they never spoke to each other. The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy fails as well; although there are strong female characters, they never once speak to each other. Even “Run Lola Run” fails the test. The character, who is admittedly kick-ass, never once speaks to another woman.
So what, you might ask. Why should scripts and filmmakers be held to such a simplistic metric? Aren’t you just creating another reason for films to get more formulaic? Isn’t there enough of the recipe-style screenwriting out there? Charlie Jane Anders addresses this in “Why The Bechdel Test is More Important Than You Realize” in io9. Anders says, “Perhaps the greatest complaint about the Bechdel Test …is the notion that it ends conversations instead of starting them. You just check the boxes and mark a movie “pass” or “fail.” 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 is precisely the importance of the Bechdel Test as a generator of a conversation so long needed, she says, that makes it valuable. We should be astonished by, and then motivated to repair, the fact that women continue to be marginalized in film. Anders tells us, “What the Bechdel Test does really well is provide a bellwether, a general indicator of how the wind is blowing. It’s the start of a process. And once the number of films that pass goes up, on the whole, then the real work can begin.”
Bottom line, the Bechdel might offer a simple formula for what is either present or missing in a film; but it doesn’t tell a screenwriter how to meet the simple formula. In other words, it doesn’t demand that a certain story be followed, or some predictable reveal be used. The ways in which this simple formula can be met are myriad, really.
The capitalists, of course, will begin their rant, reminding us that film – especially in the U.S. – is a for-profit industry. The goal is to have a hit, bottom line. The more money earned at the box office and extended sales, the better.
The newsite, Vocativ, took that on.
About the half the films of 2013 passed the Bechdel test. And guess what? Versha Sharma and Hanna Sender in their Vocativ article reported that those films which passed the test earned a total of $4.22 billion in the U.S., while those which failed earned $2.66 billion. Take that, old white male hetero-capitalists.
Oh, and by the way? Sweden, with money from its state-funded Swedish Film Institute, is launching a Bechdel rating system. (Why don’t we all just move to Sweden? Seriously.)
So, the point of this blog is not only to discuss the Bechdel metric in regard to film, but to point out that the problem is not exclusive to film and TV. What about theatre, for instance? How many plays pass the Bechdel test? Julia Harman Cain claims that theatre does pretty well, especially in comparison to film, when you explore theatrical offerings using the metric. She suggests that you pick a theatre and test its season. Some theatres, admittedly, will do better than others. But the D.C. area, by her estimation, is doing itself proud.
Keith Gow has a less jolly conclusion. He writes, regarding Australian theatre, “Putting aside comparisons between the two mediums, using those three rules, 50% of the shows I’ve seen in the last twelve months pass the Bechdel Test. At last week’s Sunday Sessions at Belvoir St theatre in Sydney, playwright Tom Wright discussed analysing the plays of all the mainstage theatre companies in Australia every year – and his overall impression is that most years only 20% of shows pass the Bechdel test.”
So does that mean that the U.S. is doing a better job on its stages in presenting women in a variety of story-lines? Probably not. It probably depends on the individual theatre, and on the individual season. With the economy remaining in the toilet for the arts, and with theatres trying desperately to fill their seats, we might see a return to tried-and-true plays that fail, when what we might truly need (but fear to risk presenting) are brand new plays that pass.
We also need more productions of plays written by women. The Kilroys have made quite a splash recently with the presentation of their list of the work of 46 female playwrights – barely nicking the surface of the mountain of female work out there – which goes unproduced. Their desire is to make easy-access for the producing artistic directors of theatre companies of the work of the under-represented female playwright. I’d venture to say that many of the plays written by women would pass the Bechdel test. All of my plays pass. That’s because, as a woman, I am writing about situations, challenges, stories that include complicated female characters. I write for all races and all ages of women; I write for all socio-economic strata of women. I’m sure that I’m not alone in doing so.
What about fiction?
Well, classic Western literature apparently fails big time. According to a piece in Jezebel, Frank Kovarik asks, after applying the metric to works like War and Peace, or The Odyssey, why should it matter? His conclusion is that, perhaps, it shouldn’t. That these works are snapshots of their time and place, of the realities experienced by the writers.
But, to the extent that the writers were predominantly of the male gender, and rarely of lower socio-economic status, aren’t we simply reinforcing the biases of the time in which those books were written by continuing to read them with unquestioning adoration? As Edward Taylor, much-revered scholar of literature at Columbia University has said, criticism of these works through a contemporary lens – whether that lens is feminist or socio-economic, or whatever – is largely beside the point. The question is whether or not the art suffers from its patriarchal perspective, nothing more.
But, I ask in return, what of the process of bringing our own sensibilities to the older sensibilities, as a way to more fully explore the realities both of our time and previous moments in history? That certainly doesn’t seem beside the point. How do we not look at The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and explore the racism of the text? Yes, many have argued that it is the intent of the author to be “anti-racist” through the racism he explores in his characters. But is that exploration, in a discussion of the book beside the point? I think not. Kovarik takes a different stance:
“When I realized that even War and Peace, a novel so vast, all-encompassing, profound, and moving, presents a seriously diminished portrait of the lives of women, I began to see that the deeper point of Bechdel’s test is not to accuse Homer, or Tolstoy, or me of being sexist.
Instead, the test reminds us that biases like sexism, racism, heterosexism, and classism are the water in which we swim. They pervade our culture. They are our culture, and to such an extent that we sometimes forget about them until someone like Bechdel reminds us.
Instead of seeing sexism — or racism, etc. — as “unspeakable sins” whose taint one must avoid at all costs, maybe it would be healthier to accept that it would be virtually impossible for an individual not to be thus tainted — in other words, to see these sins as not unspeakable but rather common as dirt.
Then, aware of our common dirtiness, we can get down to the business of studying how things get dirty, how dirtiness causes problems, and how, struggle though we may, we can never get ourselves or anything else permanently clean.”
I agree that we should not ban books of older time periods because of what is now perceived of as offensive; I think that using these books, as Kovarik suggests, to raise awareness of just how common such biases are should be part of how we explore these texts.
But what of contemporary fiction? We know that male books are reviewed more often in the major reviews. Lots of conversations have taken place about the lack of gender equality in the publishing industry itself. Claire Fallon writes, in The Huffington Post, that books, while they’ve largely escaped the Bechdel metric, are not immune to the same issues uncovered in the wider Bechdel discussion.
Since 2014 has been declared as “The Year of Reading Women”, perhaps it is time to have this discussion.
Fallon’s article offers twelve works of fiction (some contemporary, some classic) that meet the Bechdel test. I would venture to say that there are many more, many of which don’t hit the radar screen because they are being published by smaller presses, where it is much harder to get the promotion and find the reading audience than it might be if you are backed by a major publisher willing to spend money on PR and a national book launch. I would invite my readers to offer their own suggestions for works of fiction which pass the Bechdel test.
Other lists, like this one, refuse to apply the metric at all, exploring each female character individually, for her strengths, her complexities, and her overall kick-assed-ness.
So, to wrap up. Do we need the Bechdel test in all genres? I would say yes, sure, why not, since what it offers is a way to enter a conversation that is necessary across all genres. Are there more ways to measure the balance of male and female characters in art? Sure. How about the ways to measure the percentage of male and female writers being produced, presented, published? Yes. Metrics abound. But what is the harm of having yet another tool in the knapsack, helpful in not only offering a way of measuring but in reminding us that we need to continue taking measure?