Thinking about the Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test is (was) a hot conversation topic at the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association (MAPACA) conference (last month, which is when I wrote this post I’m only now getting around to editing & posting).

In 1985, a strip from Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic titled “The Rule” featured two women talking about going to the movies. One explains her criteria for choosing a movie: it has to have at least 2 female characters, those characters have to talk to one another, and that dialogue has to be about something other than a man.

Recently, four Swedish Theaters announced they’ll be applying the Bechdel Test to the movies they show and giving movies that pass an “A” rating.

Yesterday – on her blog and in interviews with other media outlets – Bechdel expressed discomfort with the dogmatic way her work is being used.

For a very long time, The Rule wasn’t a widespread cultural phenomenon – it was a thing women and gender studies scholars talked about in bars. Over the last decade, the Bechdel Test, as it’s now known, has became something akin to one of those weird conventional wisdom-y popular science phenomenon.

Now everyone thinks it’s a great tool for studying gender film, except most of the people who study gender and film.

To many (most) of the feminist lit and culture scholars I know, the Bechdel Test has gone from a thought-provoking conversation starter to a reductionist tool.

I like the idea of the Bechdel Test. It could be a great tool for opening up conversations about women in film and on television as subjects and not objects, but as a blunt instrument it’s a lousy lens through which to actually analyze the representation of power, discrimination, oppression, or ideology on-screen. Or to discuss gender in ways that aren’t hetero-normative and divided into a strict male-female dichotomy, for that matter.

The test doesn’t take into account semiotics, character development, context, or the very fact that film is a visual medium. That’s hard to quantify.

Stefan Solomon’s post, “What the Bechdel test doesn’t tell us about women on film,” includes several film clips that speak louder than words about these problems.

A few months ago I watched a brutal argument on facebook wherein a group of Bechdel Test devotees shamed a female friend who was defending her fandom of Firefly. I hadn’t realized until then how poorly the show does on the test.

Now, in all this talk of feminist movies and tv shows that fail or misogynistic ones that pass, I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t plenty of movies that fail for well-deserved reasons.

A few days ago, a Guardian article included some relevant statistics on the movie business in 2013:

Of the top 100 US films in 2011, women accounted for 33% of all characters and only 11% of the protagonists, according to a study by the San Diego-based Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

Another study, by the Annenberg Public Policy Centre at the University of Pennsylvania, showed that the ratio of male to female characters in movies has remained at about two to one for at least six decades. That study, which examined 855 top box-office films from 1950-2006, showed female characters were twice as likely to be seen in explicit sexual scenes as males, while male characters were more likely to be seen as violent.

“Apparently Hollywood thinks that films with male characters will do better at the box office. It is also the case that most of the aspects of movie-making – writing, production, direction, and so on – are dominated by men, and so it is not a surprise that the stories we see are those that tend to revolve around men,” Amy Bleakley, the study’s lead author, said in an email.

I can understand why people who don’t want to spend their time thinking about critical analysis like the Bechdel Test – it’s a checklist.

If. Then. So.

This debate about whether Black Swan passes the test illustrates the multiplicity of ways one can interpret the test itself. As I learned at breakfast this morning, when it was in theaters this was one of those movies people seemed to enjoy railing at film scholars about it to “prove” the worth of the test.

(I don’t have enough conference-coffee coursing through my system yet to recall some of the other fascinating examples that were discussed this morning. Sorry).

As an example of why gaze and context and on-screen action (and wardrobe!) matters, Solomon discusses Alien, the film that has become the gold standard:

Bechdel’s original comic strip ends on an interesting note. For the cartoon character speaking, the last movie that passed the test (circa 1985) was Ridley Scott’s Alien. In that film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the other female crew-member, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), discuss the film’s monster (thereby passing the Bechdel test).

But for those of us who know the film, we will also know that it is not dialogue, but the lack of dialogue that makes Alien such a haunting experience. Indeed, who really remembers the words that pass between Ripley and Lambert on board the Nostromo?

Feminist film critics have been far more interested in how we interpret the final scene, in which Ripley – the lead character and sole survivor – is reduced to her underwear.

In these last shots, the camera, which until now has moved in such a fascinating way through the corridors of the ship, seems to revert to old Hollywood habits, embarrassingly ogling Weaver’s body (or does it?)

The TV Tropes entry on the Bechdel Test suggests some ways to apply the test with more nuance.

The Bechdel Test has, strangely, become something that (well-meaning) people use to try to belittle feminist film scholars into believing we don’t know shit about…you know, the things we study, teach, and write about.

I wrote about ways to use the test for a zine years ago and we got a surprising barrage of criticism from readers who questioned my ability to “think scientifically” about film. This was before the test was particularly wide-spread – hence my surprise. I don’t have a copy of the article, but a friend and I continue to discuss the perception that to apply the Test is to “think scientifically.” It was a stunningly aggressive example of mansplaining, although at the time I didn’t have that word for it.

This is not to say that men have a monopoly on dogmatic Bechdel interpretations, but in that case in particular, it was a festival of mansplaining. There are plenty of female-identifying feminists who would argue it’s merits just as dogmatically.

(On a minor tangent: If I were to construct a scientific test for a social process, it would be to measure the inverse proportion between the amount of time someone rants about the value of their own education and authority and the amount of time they spend arguing that everyone else’s field is bullshit).

Media literacy is an important skill that I think anyone can acquire. It doesn’t require years of graduate school and I’m not trying to advance an elitist argument.

I’m mostly trying to explain why I get that pained look on my face every time a well-meaning person launches into, “I know for a fact that [brilliant feminist film X] is sexist because it fails the Bechdel Test. It’s science! I’m a chemist! I know these things!”

Nor am I arguing that only theorists get to interpret popular culture or are even right about their interpretations. They’re interpretations, after all. (You know, the kind of thing that the Bechdel Test can’t account for). Viewers feel deeply invested in popular culture. They have strong opinions and ideas. It’s what makes studying it so interesting.

What I am saying is that perhaps people who are passionate and devoted to the study of such things might just have a little insight now and then. And many of those people – myself included – strongly believe that the Bechdel test is a great place to start a conversation, but it’s just that: a conversation starter.

It’s understandable that questioning the Bechdel Test’s usefulness sends diehard proponents into a rage. Diehard proponents, on the other hand, should be happy – I’m told it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Yippee ki-yay, motherfuckers.

NSFW clip:

Sharing is caring!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Dr Dave

    I’ve been watching movies my entire life and have an amazing home theater. Yeah, I’m an engineer. Yeah, I’m a dude. But I’m one of the biggest feminist allies in my field and I feel qualified to say you don’t know jack about feminism or film theory. I won’t, however, because your genius at boxing me in so that anything I say will be discounted as “mainsplaining” comes through loud and clear.

    There is nothing wrong with a scientific means for assessing a film. A science class or 2 wouldn’t hurt you, it might change your perspective in the world.

    I didn’t find any of the links in your post valid in terms of a gotcha on the Bechdel Test. If anything, your liberal arts simpering could be constructed into a theorem proving j

  • Dr Dave

    I’ve been watching movies my entire life and have an amazing home theater. Yeah, I’m an engineer. Yeah, I’m a dude. But I’m one of the biggest feminist allies in my field and I feel qualified to say you don’t know jack about feminism or film theory. I won’t, however, because your genius at boxing me in so that anything I say will be discounted as “mainsplaining” comes through loud and clear.

    There is nothing wrong with a scientific means for assessing a film. A science class or 2 wouldn’t hurt you, it might change your perspective in the world.

    I didn’t find any of the links in your post valid in terms of a gotcha on the Bechdel Test. If anything, your liberal arts simpering could be constructed into a theorem proving how irrelevant film crit really is. Bitch all you want, little girl, but tools like Bechdel put the power of media criticism in the hands of the people.

    • meanlouise

      I’ll concede you may be right that this post reads in a way that may discourage conversation. The rest of your comment is obnoxious and I can only hope that you were trying to make a joke and don’t really believe that calling me “little girl” reinforces your status as a feminist ally. Additionally, I’ve taken a few sciences courses in my day. The Bechdel test is not science. None of this is science. That is part of my point.

      • Dr Dave

        I wouldn’t bother to comment if I wasn’t serious. This post is a lotta words you’re using to hide your intellectual inferiority. You study film because you aren’t able to hack it in a real field. Anyone who watches movies can do what you parasites do with your theory and your feelings and your babbling.

        Harsh? No, truth. This is your post. You picked this fight and when someone smarter than you with a better record of feminist action showed up you got defensive. Boo. Hoo.

        I’ve brought in more women as post-docs than any other team leader. I know what the real world is like. It has no time for navel gazing.

        • meanlouise

          I’m not going to argue about neurosexism here because it’s not something I understand a lot about, but this article is an important response to the argument that men & women have different skills because they have different brains:

          • meanlouise

            I left my reply under the wrong comment. I’m not going to move it though, because I’m lazy…and I’ll own that.

            I don’t intend to be defensive, but I’m willing to defend my ideas, which may sound hair-splitting but I think that’s 2 different things.

            If you want to discuss the content of the post and ways you believe Bechdel succeeds – with perhaps some examples – I’m all ears. If you’re going to continue with personal attacks I’m turning moderation back on.

            That’s not intended to sound like a threat, I have to log off to work for a while and since moderation is already off I’d rather leave it off so that anyone who wants to join in can, without waiting hours for their comment to be approved.

        • meanlouise

          Additionally, I find your responses condescending, rude, and, yes, highly sexist. You can’t use “I’m an ally” as a shield to say obnoxious stuff, it’s not a vaccine or a get out of jail free card.

          You want to think I’m an idiot? Feel free. I’m regretting forgetting that I left my comments unmoderated, but OTOH it has saved me having to debate whether to approve your comments. I used to approve all of them in the name of free speech and open discussion but I’m starting to question how useful or productive that is.

  • Dr Dave

    The Diehard conclusion was funny as he’ll, though. I will give you that. That’s the shit that keeps me reading. It’s all good. Women have different brains and they have different skills. Own it and embrace your power not your obvious limitations. And write a book already!

    • meanlouise

      Um. Thanks?

  • Dr Dave

    There’s ample evidence that the Bechdel test is an effective, scientific way to gauge the representation of women in media. The burden is on you to prove otherwise, which you have failed to do. Your argument that lit crit or media studies requires the same intelligence or time as a scientific pursuit is the tripe people who write bullshit “critiques” hide behind in the Academy but it holds no water here in the harsh light. Scientists have shown that gender scholars are irrelevant when the masses are equipped with assessment tools and allowed to measure media in a quantifiable comparable way. I do not know why this is hard for you to understand. Does it not appeal to your “anthropological theory approach?” What does that even mean out in the real world?

  • Ashley

    I’m confused DrDave. Are you modeling the behavior of arrogant non-humanities scholars in an effort to show the behaviors Meanlouise describes, or are you just one of the jerks she’s blogging about?

    I applaud this post because I teach literature and get blow back All.The.Time from our lawyer friends and my scientist brothers. “Anyone can read a book or watch a movie, but I have specialized training so you should privilege my knowledge over yours.” Gah.

    Look, my mechanic has hundreds of hours of specialized training working on transmissions. My hairdresser had tons if training in how to color hair without causing 3rd degree scalp burns. My dentist does root canals that I’m told are the best in NYC. I admire all of them BUT I WOULDNT ASK ANY OF THEM TO OPERATE ON A KIDNEY STONE.

    It’s great you think your intellectual pursuit is nobler or harder than any other, but you should have learned in the 1st grade to respect other people and that includes respecting that they may also have skills and abilities.



    Long time listener, first time caller. Amen.

    • meanlouise

      Yes. All of this and more. I subjected Husband to a lengthy tirade last night about how no one seems capable of respecting anyone else’s talents or skills anymore – or more specifically, no one seems to be able to even pretend to respect that maybe other people can do things they can’t…and that that’s okay.

      That was a long strange sentence. I need to go to bed.

  • Margaret Lewis

    What Ashley said.

  • meanlouise

    I’m disappointed in all of you. Not one person has called me out on the possibility that this whole entire post was a thinly veiled excuse for a Diehard joke.

  • Excellent discussion, and spot on, I think. The Bechdel test is a conversation starter, and an interesting and effective one, but that’s it.

    By the way, I remember hearing when Alien came out that the part was originally written for a male lead (as expected) but for some reason a female actor was chosen. This produced, it was said, an interesting and effective result. I’m not sure if that is true or not but the underwear part may have been an add-on after the casting.

    • meanlouise

      Thanks for reminding me, I need to add reading up on Alien to my to-do list since I’m writing about Prometheus a bit in my thesis.

      I’ve always found it annoying that Scott considers himself an auteur etc etc and then is all “It’s just a movie and it has no symbolism!” Which is not only ridiculous to say as a filmmaker, but suggests you have zero understanding of how people view or understand visual media. Which of course he absolutely understands, when it’s convenient to him. Bah.

  • This entire post is a thinly veiled excuse for a Die Hard joke.

    Happy now? :)

    • meanlouise

      extremely :-)

  • More seriously, I love this post. Because I’m a big believer in using the Bechdel Test as a conversation starter, and I find it an interesting metric – but it’s only one metric. There are lots of films that I think do a magnificent job of being empowering to women, or portraying them in a light that has nothing to do with being dependent on a man that do *not* pass the Bechdel Test, and I know there are films that are horribly demeaning and sexist that *do* pass the test.

    I found it particularly interesting that “The Avengers” doesn’t even come close. As amazing as Black Widow, Maria Hill and Pepper Potts are in that film, they never talk to each other.

    The test is an interesting way to look at a film from a feminist perspective, but it’s far from the only one. And it should be seen that way.

    • meanlouise

      Thanks for the kind words!