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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.