Bechdel 101

alisonanddrawingI was out to dinner last week with two new friends who are awesome, smart, talented, progressive in-the-know feminist ladies. Like seriously, they are rock stars. We were talking politics and media, gender studies and feminism (you know, the $1 taco usual), and I mentioned the Bechdel Test. In response, I got blank stares. It was a great reminder that even in a community where we know our values align so well, there are often tools and memes, instruments and concepts that don’t permeate from group to group.

I’ve written about the Bechdel Test before, but I think it’s worth recapping in honor of the upcoming Oscars. This is one of those “lightbulb” moments in my own education, one of those ideas that, once it had been gifted to me, permanently colored everything I watch. For you visual learners, Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency has a great overview, but here’s mine:

History Lesson: From 1983 to 2008 Alison Bechdel wrote a comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For that followed an array of queer characters through twenty-five years of relationship drama, parenting, and political upheaval. In one panel of a 1985 DTWOF, a character created a “rule” to gauge gender bias in movies. The rule has three parts:

1. There have to be two female characters with names

2. They have to talk to each other…

3. About something other than a man.

That is an offensively low bar. It doesn’t say anything about how women are portrayed in film, it just tests the most basic presence of ladies on screen. Are they there? Do they have a teensy, tiny bit of substance (i.e. names?). Do they have some non-man related agency? The bar is so low, we should all be shocked when a film doesn’t pass it, and yet, here are a few 2012 movies that don’t pass: Battleship, The Avengers, The Campaign, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit, Jack Reacher, Life of Pi…

Putting It Into Practice: Take Lincoln, for example. The only conversation between women in this movie is a brief comment by Mary Todd Lincoln to her companion Elizabeth Keckley, but the comment is only about Representative Stevens’ speech. In other words, they’re talking about a man.

Another Oscar nominee, Django Unchained, also fails the test. The primary female character, Kerry Washington, never speaks substantially with any of the other minor female characters.

Remember, the point with the Bechdel Test is not to create some sort of false parity just for the sake of parity. Lincoln and Django are both set in male-dominated environments (Congress and the American West, respectively). You don’t fake female Congresswomen or add a token lady bounty hunter, that’s not the point. The point is that the female characters are not decoration, are not foils or objects. They have agency, autonomy, and lives that clearly exist independently from the male characters on screen. When the women exist only as backboards for male characters to react to, use, rescue, lust after, or discuss, they are not real characters; they are props.

The Bechdel Test doesn’t check for feminism in movies, or equality, or progressive values. It doesn’t ensure that women are treated well, or fairly, only that they are treated as human at all. Why is this important? Half of humankind is female, but the stories that get told (the movies that get made, etc) are overwhelmingly male in both subject and execution. There is nothing wrong with male-dominated movies (many of them are great films), but there is something wrong with a pattern of creative output that ignores female stories or female voices.

Want to try? Start applying the Bechdel Test to everything you watch (television and movies). You may find some things that pass on a technicality, but the exercise of asking yourself these questions is valuable in and of itself.

Related Post: Does Parks and Rec out feminist The Good Wife?

Related Post: Is Parks and Rec the most feminist show on television?

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13 Comments

Filed under Gender, Hollywood, Media

13 responses to “Bechdel 101

  1. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this before. Thanks for sharing! Now I’m thinking through so many movies. There’s a lot that fall into this category. A lot. Just wow.

  2. Bridget

    So happy to read this post. I’m sure you’d also be interested in a blog I follow http://bechdel2013.wordpress.com/ . Nadia is spending this year watching only films which pass the Bechdel test, then blogging about them. Isn’t it amazing how few films actually pass?!

  3. Great post. Just one thing to add regarding Lincoln – you mentioned that these were male-dominated eras and so adding a fake female congresswoman or something would not be historically accurate. While that’s true, it would have been incredibly easy to portray historically accurate, strong female characters. Elizabeth Keckley, who you mentioned, was a former slave turned business-owner and is one of the most famous activists for civil rights and social justice of her time, along with the likes of Frederick Douglass. Just thought I’d add that the film COULD have done A LOT to portray a strong female character through Keckley but neglected to and instead made her out to be a maid of the First Lady.
    Excellent post though. Just wanted to gripe about the movie.

    • Totally agree, Alyssa. In most cases, the test is better passed by making the existing female characters more robust, not by adding new ones. IN Lincoln, the relationship between MTL and Keckley is the most obvious improvement I’d make.

  4. Very interesting! In my mind in going through my favorite movies to see whichones actually pass the test.
    I’ll share the knowledge on Bechel, you kindly shared here. :)

  5. This is really interesting … I’d never heard of it before, but I’m definitely going to start looking at all movies in a different light!

  6. Peter

    I like to think that i’m a proponent of gender equality across all mediums. However, that being said, a number of the examples of movies you gave (im going to take the Avengers and TDKR for simplicity) are movies based and centered around popular characters in their own right. I think to cast a shadow over the movie because the rules outlined in the Bechel test were not met could take away too much from the film itself.

    It might even be suggested that interrupting or manipulating the cast/movie of a franchise that has got to where it is now because of its proven formula, merely to add a number of scenes and back stories involving female characters promotes a selfish tone. Now, I don’t like to throw that kind of assumption about and I can imagine many on this forum will disagree with me stating it, but I believe films such as the ones above are not supposed to be about gender appreciation, but rather the glorification of superheroes and as such, such be broadcast in the light that has made them so popular, whilst refraining from putting a patronising extra 20 minutes on them to emphasise characters that that are not the key focus or intention of the movie.

    I mean this post that with all due respect.

    Thanks

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