I 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?