Why The Bechdel Test Has Failed Women In Film
The Debrief: Passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t necessarily mean a film is clearly a feminist one, or that it has memorable female characters, or that it's even good?
We’d assume that the Bechdel Test is a common point of reference by now. Over the past couple of decades, the ‘test’, based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s three points of consideration when choosing a film to watch, has received widespread attention from artists and the media alike: ‘One, it has to have at least two women in it… who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man’.
In the years since the Test began to receive mainstream attention, some have added caveats such as the two women must be named characters, or that they must speak for longer than 60 seconds. And while in June of this year Sofia Coppola, who became the second woman to win the Best Director award at Cannes Film Festival, said that she had never heard of it, the Bechdel Test has nonetheless gained popularity as a vehicle for lovers of and within the film industry to attempt to address its diversity problem.
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However, like most commercialized art forms, a lot of Bechdel Test chat comes back to one thing: money. Studies have shown that films that pass the Bechdel Test are more likely to earn more than films that don’t, despite typically being made on a smaller budget, from audiences who appreciate the effort made. Diversity can be big bucks for the film world, and the Bechdel Test is a relatively straightforward way to, at least, pretend like you’re taking notice.
Now, the Bechdel Test has somewhat taken on a life of its own. Website bechdeltest.com is a user-generated database of thousands of films that pass the Test, although the site adds the stipulation that the characters must also be named. Critics and consumers alike have used the Bechdel Test method of ‘measuring’ the impact of female characters in literature, video games, and the theatre.
Beth Watson set up Bechdel Theatre in 2015 after seeing how feminists in the world of film were using the Bechdel Test to positively highlight representation. ‘The Swedish A-Rating and British F-Rating, which have been taken up by cinemas, festivals, and even IMDB who want to demonstrate their commitment to improving representation by highlighting films which pass the test, or have female writers and directors’, she said. ‘I thought all these campaigns were pretty cool because they made an impact on their industry very quickly, and do something brilliantly practical to help film audiences find movies where women aren't going to be completely absent from the plot-lines, when they are so often just added in as decoration.’
‘I wanted to do something similar for theatre: to help feminist audiences find theatre that would show women doing something other than furthering a male protagonists story, and to help theatres and producers think about how they're doing in terms of gender representation in a way that gives them an opportunity to advertise where they might be making a step in the right direction.’
However, despite the Test’s popularity, in many ways, the theory remains stuck in a bind. While some see it as a simple way of gauging a film’s feminist credentials in a straightforward, if harsh way, critics have dismissed it as a problematic lens with which to judge art. Passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t necessarily mean a film is clearly a feminist one (see: Fifty Shades of Grey), or that it has memorable female characters (White Chicks), or even that it’s good (Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolow and Sharknado 2 both passed the Test).
Alongside these debates, the question remains: does a film passing the Bechdel Test even make a difference? Few would deny the fact there are less prominent female characters in film than there are men, but women continue to go to the cinema more than men do. There’s an argument that demanding more female representation in film is unnecessary; women are going to the movies anyway. Why push away men who might feel alienated by a crop of new female faces in the film industry?
‘The Bechdel Test itself is totally silly, but there's power in its simplicity’ Corrina Antrobus is the founder of the Bechdel Test Fest, an ongoing series of feminist movie screenings and post-film discussions, panels and talks. ‘It's such a low bar to limp over, but so many films fail… It's useful as an easy-entry talking point, but never a measure of quality or how “feminist” a film is. In isolation, it says little—but the stat that a third of last year's films failed speaks volumes. [At the Bechdel Test Fest,] we want to prove that despite the percentage of the top-grossing 1,000 films from 2007-2016 4% were female and only 8 were women of colour, women do make movies and so many of them are masterpieces waiting to be discovered.’
Corrina continued: ‘lack of female representation is found in every crevice of the film industry, but the intersections of gender parity in film present an even more depressing picture of who's got a seat at the table. In the UK you can count the number of black female directors on one hand and representations of women who don't fit the straight, white, able-bodied, middle-class mould are stereotyped into dangerously misunderstood depictions. Cinema is a classroom and consciously or not we create biases from how people are represented in mainstream culture. It's crucial to get a wide breadth of narratives, characters and filmmakers telling eclectic stories of the world to help create compassion, understanding and respect for one another.’
However, as 21st-century feminism has found a more mainstream face, so too has the so-called diversity debate—and with it, the Bechdel Test. As the Test has become more widely known, discussed and debated, its radical origins in the comic strip ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ have been watered down and subsequently forgotten by the feminist movement at large. As with the entire series, the original Bechdel Test comic strip from the mid-80s didn’t simply portray ‘women’—they were self-proclaimed dykes. Lesbian women. Yes, the comic strip makes clever comment around the ways women can be unseen, but by virtue of who is saying it, the strip also points out how rarely we also see queer, female characters in films with widespread mainstream success.
If we use the Bechdel Test as a way to analyse the dire state of film when it comes to female representation, then when it comes to the representation of lesbians and queer women, things are even worse. Rarely afforded the chance to tell their own stories outside of indie filmmaking, lesbian women are almost invisible in comparison to your average straight (often also white, able-bodied and middle class) woman. Perhaps one of the great ironies of the Bechdel Test is the way it in and of itself is a symbol of female erasure—now, when people discuss the Bechdal Test, the vast majority know little of Alison Bechdel and Dykes to Watch Out For’s role in lesbian history.
This watering down of history is a reminder that gender is not the only thing that makes a film ‘diverse’. Identity is a multi-faceted thing, and sexuality, class, race, as well as a myriad of other markers all important when it comes to the diversity conversation.
Editor of the bestselling essay collection The Good Immigrant, author Nikesh Shukla has also been known to vocalise the need for wider measures of differing aspects of diversity, namely race. He said: 'I made up the Shukla Test (and quickly renamed it the Apu Test, though now better people than me have reframed it to be the DuVernay Test) because I was sick of watching that glut of films all with Seth Rogen-a-likes in them we had like five years ago. The time of Apatow. And I was sick of there being no representation, except for Django Unchained. So I came up with my own Bechdel Test. It isn't perfect. And it isn't nuanced. But it is important to have named people of colour in a film who speak to each other, who have lives, bodies, personalities, nuances, hopes, dreams, and dare I say it, that thing we're all told about in every single goddamn screenwriting book... stakes.' For all its simplistic flaws, the Bechdel Test (and the many ‘tests’ after it) still encouraging giving people from marginalised groups the chance to see, love and appreciate versions of themselves on the big screen. For this, it should be applauded.
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