How We Can Do Better than the Bechdel Test

we-can-do-it

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about the Bechdel Test and the terrible, horrible, misogynistic films that do not pass it. You know, those sexist meat-fests like The Lego Movie and Gravity. And most other films out there.

The Bechdel Test ignores the complexities within film, or whichever media it is being applied. If we apply it to something like Gravity, we ignore that the central character is a woman. There is no ‘honorary pass’ – you pass or you fail. And Gravity, despite its importance to women in science fiction, fails.

So we very well could call this test bunk. However, that would be ignoring the actual point of the test. There are three things I’m going to discuss in the following post:

1) The Bechdel Test is not about passing or failing.

2) It ignores too many aspects of a film to be a real criterion for the worth of a film.

3) A proposition for a ‘better’ system.

The Bechdel Test

The actual test consists of three criteria. It’s been the general idea that if the film does not pass the test, it’s sexist. If it does, more time than not, it is a decent representation of women. This test is as follows:

1) The film must include at least two female characters

2) who talk to each other

3) about something other than a man.

It’s a simple test, so it may come as a surprise that so many films fail it so completely. An important distinction to be made here is the test means what it says – the women cannot be talking about any sort of relationship or thoughts about any male characters. This includes boyfriends, fathers, brothers, cousins, and even friends who happen to be male. The point is to show women existing entirely without the thought of men, even allowing for stereotypically female conversations to occur (i.e. tampons, shoes, etc.). So what does it mean when we have something like Gravity failing the test, and something like Sex and the City passing?

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Well, it certainly means something. But it’s not a simple meaning. It speaks to the roles women play within a film reflecting the role women are perceived to play in society. All this does is point out a couple of the flaws of the test, while leaving space for a discussion of the actual point of the pass/fail rating.

It is meant to create a dialogue. It is not meant to tell you anything about a film so much as bring up a dialogue about society. We don’t need to say “This is bad” to a film that fails because it isn’t always a bad thing in the same way that we don’t need to say “This is good” to a film that passes because it really isn’t always a good thing. We need to ask “Why is this?” and move from there.

When we see films ‘objectifying women’ like The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that very clearly fails the test, the problem here is not the writers so much as it is a true story. It is something that actually happened. So, we have to step back and think “Why is this?” and “What can we do to fix it?” if we find it in a situation that needs fixing.

Thick and Thin Description

‘Thick description’ is a term made popular by anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his book The Interpretation of Cultures. Thick description is, very basically, viewing something within context. The simplest way to describe this way of viewing something is through an example.

images (4)

Wyldstyle in The Lego Movie

Let’s talk about The Lego Movie. This film technically fails the Bechdel Test. The following conclusion, ignoring the actual point of the test, would be to call the movie sexist. We start with an observation: the film includes two major female characters, but they never have a meaningful conversation with each other. Now, we must ask ourselves why that is in the context of the story. Did they hate each other? Did they even know each other? Were they friends at all? In the context of the story, Wyldstyle and Unikitty were not friends. In fact, Wyldstyle found Unikitty’s general disposition annoying. So the next question: does it actually mean anything that they weren’t talking to each other? Does it make sense that these characters weren’t spending a good amount of time talking to each other? When we say, no it doesn’t mean anything and yes it makes sense, we have to go deeper still. Why would we need them to speak to one another? The assumption here is that we consider it more important for a woman to talk to another woman about something other than a man than it is for a woman to talk to a man about something other than a man. Why is this distinction important? What does it tell us about the story and the society in which the story was written that women are not talking about men, but we’d prefer it if they weren’t talking about men with other women? Take one more look at the observation: The film includes two major female characters, but they never have a meaningful conversation with each other. Let me rephrase the final question: Why must a woman have a meaningful conversation with another woman for it to count? Why is it less important for a woman to have a meaningful conversation with a man, even when there were other prominent female characters? Why does it matter?

There is a lot more that goes into this than is implied by the questions of the Bechdel Test. I certainly have an answer to that question, but I can’t rightfully put it forth without having to then pose three more questions about the implications and meanings behind my answer. And so on and so forth.

A Different System

Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of the online publication Women and Hollywood had this to say: “The Bechdel Test is a starting point and not a finishing point. I don’t believe that two women talking to each other [about subjects] other than a man should be the bar we’re setting for our films. I want strong female characters.”

In my mind, this is what we should be attempting to measure. The Bechdel test has a purpose, but there are many more things we should be looking at before we judge the portrayal of women in film. With this in mind, I’d like to propose a different kind of system we may apply to get this across. I am going to draw inspiration from a test used to measure the strength of LGBT characters within media: The Russo Test. This system is also imagined to be put in application across media, include film, television, video games, and literature alike.

Part 1

1) There is a major female character

2) She is tied in the plot in such a way that her removal would have a significant effect on the film

3) She is expressed independently

By ‘independently’ I mean she exists without relying on another character to affirm her existence. The gender of this character does not matter. She is capable of standing alone, and this is made clear in the film. Some examples of a female characters that would pass Part 1 of this system are: Isabella and Aveline from Dragon Age 2, Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars, and Olivia Pope from Scandal.

Part 2

1) The female character is the leader of a major faction or organization

2) OR she is in high command of a faction

3) AND she continues to express leadership and earn reverence

4) AND she gains reverence despite or independently of the actual leader of the faction

Part 1 and Part 2 can exist independent of one another. Not every character is written to be a leader, so it would be ridiculous to apply this part of the test to every female character. However, if you look at the first part, both Aveline and Olivia Pope pass both parts of the test.

Part 3

1) The female character expresses her sexuality despite the will of another character

2) She enjoys expressing her femininity despite the will of society

3) She enjoys wants to be a mother, enjoys cooking, or enjoys any other stereotypically female trait for reasons other than ‘she’s a girl’

4) AND she is defined by more than this trait

olivia-pope1-378x400

Kerry Washington as Scandal’s Olivia Pope

This part of the test is more about women not being afraid to dive into a stereotype. They do these things not because society demands it, but because they legitimately enjoy doing it. The character does not have to have each trait listed here, and will be considered a pass if she has just one trait in addition to the fourth trait. Isabella from Dragon Age passes Part 1 and Part 3 because she is a hugely independent character that really likes sex, but has thoughts and motivation that go beyond this. Olivia Pope passes in all three parts. This does not make her an inherently stronger character, and we could take three thousands more words finding all the questions we need to expand our description of the importance of these questions to a female character.

I could list out a hundred more questions to fit into this system, a hundred more questions to help us define the way in which we want to look at female characters. But, when it comes down to it, I believe in one extremely important factor that can determine whether an idea can fit within this system.

We don’t need to compare a female character to a male character to determine her worth. Because, the truth of the matter is, the strongest character of any gender is a character that is heavily layered with different thoughts and motivations. Character A should have different thoughts and motivations than Character B. The strength of a character, at this point, should be viewed almost independently of gender. A female character is not weak because a male character is strong. A female character is not strong because she is seen as stronger than her male counterpart. And vice versa.

The Bechdel Test certainly has a purpose, a time, and a place. But it should not be our goal, and the fact that we treat it with this sort of black and white disdain vs. reverence speaks volumes about our society. What exactly it’s saying, I’m not sure I can say. But I do know there is a lot more that we could be talking about, a lot more we should be talking about.

It can begin in the Bechdel Test, but that is definitely not where it needs to end. If we end it there, we’ve cheated ourselves out of the examination of truly strong characters, and we’ve cheated ourselves out of some amazing society-examining conversations. We can do better.

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14 comments

  1. I agree that the Bechdel test has major flaws in it. But the Bechdel test it’s not meant to represent a feminist or a good movie, but the representation of them.

    Feminism doesn’t fight for the “empowerment” of women any longer. It’s not about constructing strong, independant female characters. It’s about portraying a more vary representation.

    Using Sherlock as an example, Molly Hooper it’s a more advanced character (from a representation point of view) than Irene Adler.

    In Doctor Who, River Song’s episodes mostly don’t pass the Bechdel test, and it’s mostly because she’s a character defined by her relationship with the doctor, rather than being a character on her own. A “weaker” character could be any other companion, since River song it’s possibly the most “independant” strong woman in the show, but they all pass the test better than her.

    So, the POINT of the Bechdel test it’s not empowering women, but presenting more female points of view.

    In the case of Gravity and some others, what I usually apply is the *reverse* Bechdel test, and if is passes the reverse version but not the other one, then it lacks female representation.

    Gravity, if I can recall correctly, doesn’t pass the reverse Bechdel test OR the Bechdel test, because it’s a movie about a single character in fucking space. That doesn’t mean that this is still a systematic problem regarding representation of half the population of the planet.

    1. That’s an interesting thought. But that’s just not how I’ve seen the Bechdel Test used. Even with that purpose in mind, it should only be a starting point. I just want to make sure I’m clear on what you’re trying to say. So you’re saying that feminism is less concerned with the individual strength of the female characters and more concerned with the number of them? If I misunderstood, I’m sorry.

      Molly Hooper has had more time to be developed than Irene Adler. But they are both strong characters capable of handle scenes on their own. The same goes for River Song and many of the Doctor’s other companions. In Doctor Who, just about everyone is defined by their relationship with the Doctor. Men and women both.

      So the point of the Bechdel test isn’t about the strength of the characters but the number of them? If that is what you are saying, I see the point, but I also generally disagree with it’s use in that capacity. Female representation is important, but I would much rather see a few strong, compelling characters than a bunch of characters who are just there. What I am trying to get across in this post is that representation is nice, but we shouldn’t shoot for it without trying to do even better. The Bechdel Test is certainly useful, and should certainly serve as a starting point, but there is a lot more we can do to gauge representation and create compelling characters.

      I think that Gravity points out a flaw in the test. Women actually make up more than half of the population. After the first ten minutes, there are only two characters. One of them is a man, and the other a woman. By the time we’re halfway through the movie, it’s just a woman. And she doesn’t just happen to be in space. she was selected for the mission because she’s the best at what she does. I didn’t like the movie, and I didn’t think she was a very strong character, but I appreciate what it did. Because, although women make up only 52% of the population, at least 65% of the movie was devoted entirely to this female character, even in the presence of other characters. There don’t need to be two women in space for this to be important. does that make sense?

      Thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment. I would really love for you to elaborate on your ideas. =]

      1. I do agree, I prefer having few well-rounded characters (not necessarily “strong” or “weak”) than multiple decorating characters (femme fatale or not). But once again, I recommend taking both the test and the reverse version. It does highlight a difference, where we have a great variety of male portraits and personalities, and maybe fewer female options.

        The test doesn’t measure the quality of a work, and it’s not a mathematical test. Several movies I’d highly recommend don’t pass the test (Gravity, Wall-E, Mulan) and some of them are great in matters of representation. But it’s a wider scale what is trying to prove: there are way more male-centered stories.

        It’s not about quantity of female characters, but more about diversity, which is related to quantity because it’s an amount of different points of view, but it’s not exactly the same. It’s not about quantity, it’s about variety.

        The best example I find to express this is Game of Thrones. Some people tend to have an idea that feminism is trying to force female characters to be independant, strong and that don’t fit the house-wife stereotype (Brienne of Tarth, Arya or Daeneris). But actually, what the current wave of feminist studies it’s more about, it’s the variety of female characters, from Sansa Stark being a complete realistic and well rounded character, such as Margery and Cersei, and pretty much ANY female character in the show.

        In Doctor Who and Sherlock, River Song, in contraposition to Rose, fits more this “strong, independant woman” we are talking about, just as Irene Adler to Molly Hooper, but they are created as a support to the protagonist, rather than a character on her own. Molly Hooper and Rose, Martha or Donna are more complete characters in this case (and we are talking about Molly, who is in love with Sherlock, Rose, who is in a relationship with the doctor and Martha, who was in love with him).

        It’s the difference between a character who has a relationship with the protagonist, than a character made TO have a relationship with the protagonist. It ends up being a feminism mascot, than rather a complete character.

        Anyway. I’m rambling. What I’m trying to say it’s that the Bechdel Test it’s a tool intended to analize and reflect upon works of fiction, large patterns and inequality, to be used as an aide in critically thinking about a work and it’s representation of gender.

        If used as intended, it fulfils this function. This function being, balancing the gender unbalance there is in films. There will be a day, and slowly we are getting there, where this test will no longer be necessary, but right now it raises some questions every writer or consumer should ask to themselves to solve a larger problem.

        Thanks so much for replying! And sorry if there are any grammar mistakes. English is not my first language.

        And also, sometimes I see there’s a lot of misconception about what feminism actually is. I recommend this video, where in context of analizying B-MO’s character from Adventure Time, it explains the different waves of feminism, and what’s the difference between characters who serve as mascots and characters that actually are representatives of some ideals. And it’s really quick.

        (http://youtu.be/uqtNSdDFGBM)

        1. Ah, that makes a lot more sense. =]

          Thanks for taking so much time on a comment! I agree with you, and I like what you’ve said about the difference between a character in a relationship with the protagonist vs a character made to be in a relationship with the protagonist. I think it’s also important to point out the difference between a character being made to be with the protagonist, and two characters who were made to be with each other (even if one has a larger role to play in the story). There is also a different when we look at characters who end up with the protagonist, but serve a greater purpose in the story. Looking at all of these trends makes for very interesting ideas and conversations.

          I’ve seen that video before. I really like it – and I really like Adventure Time too. People do tend to forget what feminism is really about. I’ve always seen it as normalizing personal expressions of gender and sexuality. Like it said in the video, saying we should not question a woman in power on the basis of being a woman at the same time that we should not question a man wearing a skirt on the basis that our society says a man should not wear a skirt. Stuff like that. Sort of normalizing equality. =]

      2. Oooh. I forgot to add. There’s a study of the Bechdler test in Doctor Who in the different seasons, showing how Moffat seasons fail it miserably, while Davis seasons passed it beautifully. Davis wrote three companions, two of them being in love with the doctor, and yet he managed to make them complete andwell-rounded, while Moffat created two amazing characters that simply were swimming in a male world.

        It doesn’t mean Moffat seasons are worse, it’s just something to reflect upon.

        1. I read those studies as well. I found them very interesting. During Davies run, the women with the Doctor tended to run him. At least the 10th Doctor. They seemed to have nearly as much control over the events of the show as he did. One top of that, the show featured many more female characters. All of the strongest one-off characters in the show at that time were women. The show also brought Sarah Jane Smith back into the universe, which was a big plus.

          With 11, while River certainly gave him a run for his money, Amy and Clara were pretty much just whiskey away by him. More things sort of ‘happened’ to them. And they are both strong characters. Amy is especially quite independent of the Doctor and a very capable companion. But with Moffat, there were fewer strong one-off characters. We got a lesbian couple, but the majority of people they met throughout history (that I remember) were male. It’s all very interesting.

          I think i rambled a bit there. I’m trying to say that the main difference is that Davies features many female characters that they happened to meet in their travels, while Moffat shied away from that, preferring to follow reoccurring characters. By including returning characters, his one-off characters seemed weaker whenever they did show up, and none of them are very memorable as a result. Davies, on the other hand, preferred to have a ton of one-off character. The way that Davies ran the show naturally called for a sort of diversity that can not exist in the way that Moffat runs the show. If that makes any sense at all.

          But it is very interesting to think about. A small decision like that – choosing reoccurring characters over one-off characters – can affect the diversity and perception of a show in very big ways. =]

          1. I think we have reached to interesting conclusions. Thanks for taking your time to reply 🙂 I enjoyed a lot the conversation and the entry itself!

  2. This is a great post! I’ve always felt a little iffy on how so many people treat the Bechdel Test as gospel. I fully agree that it’s a great starting point, but it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of judging whether something is feminist.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment. I’m glad you agree. =] I tend to think of characters in terms of the individual, and less in relation to other people. So the Bechdel test as gospel, as you so wonderfully put it, has always struck me as odd. Also, it’s more complicated than that. Feminism isn’t a single shade movement, yeah?

    1. I’m glad you agree with that bit. I don’t like to present uneducated thoughts, and I tend to feel slightly uneducated about issues like this. Research usually gets a thousand biased articles and a couple of really good ones and, well, yeah.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. =]

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