Sunday, December 1, 2013

Great Ways to Fail the Bechdel Test

Some comic by somebody talking about the Bechdel Test.
In the last year the Bechdel Test has received well-deserved scrutiny. The test is simple. Does your movie have:
a) two named female characters
b) who talk to each other
c) about something other than a man.

If the movie passes A, B, and C, it’s instantly a feminist and progressive. If it fails, it’s a piece of misogynist garbage.

Does that sound wrong? That’s because it is; I made up those consequences. Culturally, we’ve never decided what passing or failing the Bechdel Test means about an individual movie. The test has become dogma for some people, however, and once their numbers grew we got the reasonable pushback. Are Pacific Rim and Gravity truly faulty films? Are they anti-feminist? Are they the enemy for not being feminist enough?

Look: I like this test. It’s dumb, but it’s a tool that’s provoked me to check my own fiction. Novelists use this thing all the time, even if our industry has a slightly better batting record than Hollywood. Since taking it to heart I’ve written about the same number of women (they’ve always been big in my work), but I’ve been more conscious about having them interact with each other. My page count of my second novel is approximately one quarter women talking to each other, and having just admitted that, let me promise they’re mostly talking about flesh-eating robots and flying cities, so please don’t close this tab and run from your browser screaming.

Martin, Grossman, Butcher, Abercrombie: all the bravest female voices.

The Bechdel Test is fundamentally useful in at least one way. We’ll talk about that starting next paragraph, but living in the now, let’s confess that it’s unhelpful in at least one significant way: criticizing an individual film. Failing the Bechdel Test is never the reason a movie sucks. In most flawed movies, it’s one of a litany of shortcomings, and it’s usually not one of the integral shortcomings. And there are many good movies that shouldn’t have had anyone question whether the screenwriter should strive to pass the test. Milk is not an inferior film for lacking two women of significant agency talking about something other than the center of the bio-pic. Alien 3 is actually an interesting movie for featuring only one woman, and flawed as its execution is, in a series that puts so many angles on women, that film uses isolation among male convicts for provocation.

And yes, I realize Alien 3 is not a good movie, and this means there are flawed movies where screenwriters still shouldn’t have striven to pass the test, but alas we’re in the next paragraph and that means we need to talk about the fundamental value of the test. In-fighting about the Bechdel Test tends to derail from its helpful function: criticizing an endemic failure of entertainment industries.

Though I still think Daredevil was okay.
If you compare the number of conversations between men about anything in film to the number of conversations between women about anything in film, you immediately find a gross disparity. Shrink the field to conversations about something other than a man, and further by speakers who are important enough to be named characters, and the results are depressing. It’s not one movie’s fault. It’s systemic, and things like Bechdel’s criticism make us more aware. Rather than succumbing to rants, we need to act on our awareness to rectify this.

Before you tell me that you don’t want stories about anybody of any gender, and that you instead only want good stories, understand that I want good stories about everything. We only get good movies about women if we have lots of movies about women, because making good art is hard, and that means lots of people need chances to make it. Generations of girls deserve better than that. If we only get Elektra and Catwoman, then probably we’ll only get Elektra and Catwoman. Yeah, I’m nauseous too.

Ask me sometime about my major gripe with the Bechdel Test and I'll probably whine about the omission of women talking in groups. We all have our nits to pick. The test doesn’t tell you how many gay characters are in popular media, or how many women are writing and directing what you consume. That’s because it’s the test tests for one thing. That part of the Torah wouldn’t have been so useful as “The One Commandments”. It’s just a thing to have in mind as we consume and create art. And it’s only a good thing if we put it to good use.


  1. Great post. It days something about the need for the Bechdel that you felt obliged to mention the women in your stories would be talking about flesh-eating robots. If the Bechdel gets even one thing done, it would be great if it made certain men aware that women don't just talk about men and the accoutrements (clothes, cosmetics) supposedly required to "catch" one.

    1. Yes, even if it was out of the urge to joke about it, the tension at the source of the urge is troublesome. I almost deleted that joke in the final copy. I was actually explaining the test to my brother today and he immediately began riffing on the stereotypes of what women might talk about.

  2. Lovely post. Though, interaction between men, including heterosexual men, is also often treated badly. Superficial at best.
    At least the Bechdel is identifiying an issue - which has to be the first step to addressing it. Which can only help us all - writers and readers both.

    1. Quality interaction between any characters requires its own, quite trickier test. But the volume of bad male interaction is still testament, to me, for the need of volume of female (and non-binary) interaction: we only get the good stuff if there are ample shots at making it.

  3. A test that, as many are happy to point out, doesn't actually tell you a lot about individual movies and/or stories.

    Yet, it does cause one to think about movies/stories and, if making them or writing them, to consider how you're drawing your female characters. That, in itself, is a good thing.

  4. Great post, John. I was telling my boss about the Bechdel test recently (she's a literary agent), and trying to explain why it's a helpful tool even though some good stories don't pass it and some lousy ones do. Wish I'd had this on hand as a resource, since it's much more articulate than I was!

    1. Another case when I should have written faster. But thank you for your kind words, Chandler! I appreciate it.

  5. I think you're right, John. The value of tests like this is in looking at them in aggregate.

    I categorically reject the idea that in order to be properly feminist a story has to feature two women who have a conversation. There are all manner of really good reasons a story might not have this fabled conversation and I don't think a writer should feel they have to include one just to be considered woman-friendly.

    I understand the point, to cast a light on something that is lacking in stories in general, but I really hate when people start saying a story MUST have something.

  6. Absolutely. And if you start to look at how many of the named female characters are not white, young and pretty, it gets even more depressing.

    As you say, the Bechdel test isn't perfect, but if it makes people talk about the issue and influences creatives like yourself then I'd call that a win.

  7. Good treatment of the subject, John. The point isn't that two women have a conversation, it's (as you point out) just one of the bricks in the glass ceiling. [high-speed blending of metaphors intended]

    Conversations keep the story moving, and they *should* advance the plot somehow. The question I've had is, does one "Bechdel moment" make the movie compliant, or if the same (or two other) women talk about a guy in another scene, does that make it non-compliant?

    Or maybe this is a distraction from the *real* problem, that women don't get to be the heroes (or something more than a prize or rescue) often enough. I wonder if another useful test might be: 1) a woman takes the initiative at a pivotal moment; 2) not to get the leading man's attention.


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