The Bechdel Test
Here it is, folks. The Bechdel Test. When I started writing movie reviews on this blog, I knew that eventually, I was going to compile them into a book. I’m considering doing that in conjunction with the publication of my first novel, whose title is to be determined at a later date. And when I compiled them into a book, I was thinking of a few different ways to categorize them. It’s either by score or chronological order or by release order on my blog. I know already that the reviews and the non-fiction essays are going to be separated into two distinct sections of the book, whose title is also yet to be determined. And when I published this hypothetical book of reviews, it was going to include some statistics on each movie.
The standards like year of release, writer, director, notable producers, all that jazz would be included. The score itself would be in the review and the review only. It was in putting together which statistics I wanted (I’m still not sure) that I realized I wanted to include whether or not the movie passes the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test, for those of you who never click on links in my articles, is quite simple. Three criteria that a movie must meet to assess how well its female characters are depicted. First, it must feature two female characters. Second, they must have a conversation alone. Third and last, it must be about something that is not a man.
This sounds sort of trivial when applied to real life. Right now there are literally millions of women talking alone all over the world about things that aren’t men. They’re talking about their jobs or movies or things that don’t matter or maybe things that do. They’re talking interest rates, mother issues, university applications. Women, in real life, talk about anything. However, applied to the land of fiction it highlights one of the worst parts of movies and movie culture today: it’s all men or all about men. There are new movies that are receiving praise out the ying-yang that don’t feature two female characters having a conversation alone about something that isn’t a man. Chris Nolan, Dave Fincher–lookin’ at you.
Social Network? Fail. Inception? Passes because one of two female characters hijacks the plot. The Dark Knight? Misogynist fail–one woman, treated as a trophy by the heroes, killed by the villain in what seems like three toddlers fighting in a sandbox over a lollipop. “I want it!” “No I want it!” “That’s it, neither of you get it cos I’m evil!” NaNoWriMo changes the way you write, you know that? Evil toddlers would have never come up in this before. In any case, while failing the Bechdel Test doesn’t make your movie anti-woman, it certainly means you haven’t taken any steps to characterize women as people instead of things that matter only to men and think only of men.
There’s also a test called the Reverse Bechdel Test. As you may have guessed, it specifies that your movie must have two male characters who have a conversation alone about something that isn’t a woman. This is also a statistic I want to put in my books. There are very good movies that fail the Bechdel Test. Movies like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a Woody Allen sex comedy. However, on re-watching it, I realized that while the movie does indeed fail the Bechdel Test, it also fails the Reverse Bechdel. The only time two men have a conversation alone, it lasts all of two seconds and is about how one of them has sex dreams of the other’s ex-wife. Don’t worry, they’re father and son. And Spanish. One of them is Javier Bardem and the ex-wife is Penelope Cruz. Really, it makes sense in context.
But even then, two men alone talk of nothing other than a woman. The movie may not have fully-dimensional female characters, but it also has the exact same amount of depth in its male characters. You can’t say a movie is sexist when it paints everyone as horny sex-fiends and nothing else. You, however, can say a movie is sexist when the movie paints women as nothing more than trophies to be earned by the male characters or as magical females, there to serve men with their abundance of talent. Nobody cares if the characters see women as trophies, Aaron Sorkin–they care that your screenplay treats them as such and that you think it’s all just reflecting the characters’ viewpoints. And honestly, Christopher Nolan, I know that no one has mentioned that Ariadne and Mal are really ugly things to do to women in movies, but just because it’s unsaid doesn’t make it untrue.
Movies can also pass poorly or fail spectacularly well. An example of a poor pass, so I’ve heard, would be 27 Dresses. The main conquest in the movie is a romantic one–the heroine is told she needs to be married to be happy and no one questions this mentality. Sure, eventually, she and her (was it sister? best friend?) discuss their mother (her mother?) which does, technically fulfill the criteria. An example of a good fail… well, I don’t want to try to think of one at the moment. I want to, I really want to, but all I can think of off the top of my head is Kick-Ass and really, what was Hit-Girl but just little-girl Rambo? Isn’t that as reductive a character as talking only about men when you finally get a chance to talk alone?
At the end of the day, the Bechdel Test, like a star rating, is a tool meant to be taken in context of a whole review. There can be movies that have no female speaking roles whatsoever that get four star ratings and there can be movies that feature only female speaking roles that get none. The quality of a movie doesn’t depend solely on how well it treats its female characters, but it can be quite indicative of how much care and effort were put into the script in pre-production. After all, how can you really say you made sure every aspect of the script was 100% perfect when all it takes is me asking “where the ladies at?” for it to be seen as a dud?