I’ve spent a considerable portion of my life telling people I wasn’t a feminist because I was friends with too many men, or because I believed in equality. My journey into the heart of feminism isn’t important now, though, because I am now a woman in the film and television industry and because of this, I hear a lot about “The Bechdel Test” and I feel like we need to clear some things up. (video version of this post at the bottom) Lets jump right in:
Why the Bechdel Test is Actually Not A Good Way to Measure Feminism in Film and Television
I spent all of my senior year of college performing a speech about the Bechdel Test and why it’s bad for feminism in my college forensics circuit. I did pretty well with it, too, because although most speech and debate judges are used to hearing women talk about feminism in their performances, these performances aren’t usually critiquing a well-loved feminist tenet in service of feminism as a whole. My basic premise for the speech was this: the data provided by the Bechdel Test leads to misguided critiques that ultimately do not fix gender disparities in film, and in fact may make them worse.
Let’s step back a second and clarify some things before moving on with my critique.
Created by graphic artist Alison Bechdel in 1985, the Bechdel Test requires movies to fulfill three simple tenets in order to pass: it must have at least two female characters, the two female characters must have a conversation with one another, and that conversation must not be about a man.
Sounds pretty good, righ-WRONG.
To this test’s credit, it does bring to light a fairly obvious issue of gender bias in pop culture. The Toronto Sun reported on May 16th, 2013 that of the top-grossing films in 2012, a mere third of the speaking roles went to women (for the record, being a speaking character only requires saying a single line). Furthermore, the New York Film Academy found that between 2007 and 2013, 2.25 males are depicted in film to every 1 female.
Alison Bechdel never intended on her “test” to be taken seriously. It was a joke she had a character tell in her comic book, Dykes to Watch Out For, but unfortunately, the media likes how simple and catchy this tool is, and has started using it to rate the feminism in movies. Even Sweden, one of my favorite countries (and the country of origin for my employer), has jumped on the bandwagon. From Jezebel:
Unafraid to incorporate feminist thought (i.e. basic [bleep] equality) into official policy—can you imagine!?—some Swedish movie theaters are introducing a new rating system based on feminist theory’s beloved Bechdel Test. Consumers will now be able to select what entertainment they consume based on how successfully it treats women like human beings.
Alright, Jezebel, settle down. Unfortunately, the Bechdel Test isn’t actually built to be a tool to measure feminism, or even to measure movies on how “successfully [they] treat women like human beings”, and the longer people try to force it to, the worse off we’re all going to be. My evidence:
1. It’s a quantitative analysis used as a qualitative one. The Bechdel Test only looks at numbers, and in no way determines whether or not the female characters that allow a movie to pass said test are “strong” or even “good” characters. This is not the Bechdel Test’s fault, but rather the fault of people who misunderstand how analysis works. Having two women speak in your movie does not equal feminism. So those using the Bechdel Test as a test for feminism are essentially saying that in order to fix the problem of women in media, we just need MORE of them. This is not the case. Rather than using a sarcastic conversation lifted from 1985 cartoon as your inspired tool of measuring gender, try using something like Standpoint Theory, Muted Group Theory, or Narrative Theory to examine gender disparity in cinema.
2. The Bechdel Test effectively discounts any movie about motherhood UNLESS the child is female. If a woman talks with another woman about a male child, the movie fails the test, which to me seems a little harsh. The Bechdel Test isn’t specific enough, and fails a movie if the women talk to one another about ANY man, be that man 2 months old, a sibling, or gay.
3. Using the Bechdel Test to rate feminism in media confirms the worst stereotypes about feminism, and is actually kind of sexist towards women. The second tenet of the Bechdel Test (where the two female characters have to have a conversation with one another) implies that women are useless when not around other women, and so we are all reduced to our base genitals. Vaginas should only talk to other vaginas, and vice versa, I guess? (I wonder how the Bechdel Test would rank nonbinary people or people whose biological genitals don’t jive with their gender identity) By framing movies in context of the Bechdel test, we are effectively telling women that they are hurting the cause of feminism whenever they speak to or of men, and we’re telling men that their very existence hurts women. And what does this say about modern feminism? Does no one else see the irony in a feminist pop culture test claiming that women are only valuable to pop culture if they’re in pairs?
4. The Bechdel Test discounts any non-romantic conversation between a man and a woman as non-progress. Correct me if I’m wrong, but feminism isn’t about how men and women can’t be friends or work together because men are terrible and the root of all evil, right? If a woman talks to a man about her job (The Ugly Truth, Veronica Mars, The Good Wife), a war they’re both part of (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), or the fate of the world (Lord of the Rings), how is that harming female representation in film? We should be celebrating movies that allow men and women to be friends, or even more than friends, if both characters are full, actual people. A female character being able to carry out a conversation with her male buddy or significant other about something other than romance is a huge step in female representation, and we shouldn’t be punishing movies for mixed-gender relationships, romantic, platonic, or otherwise.
We obviously need more women characters in movies, but we also need better, well-rounded women. And better women doesn’t have to be more Eowens kicking Witch King ass, but women who exist outside the realm of romance, who have jobs and dreams and aspirations outside of love and family. Love and family are all well and good, and sometimes that’s the main goal of a movie, but that doesn’t mean that the female character completely forgets about herself in the course of everything and becomes, simply “mother,” or “girlfriend of protagonist.” What will move us forward as a culture is not just randomly throwing in conversations between women about their periods, but, perhaps, making characters whose gender is not important to the plot female instead of the default “man,” or making characters whose whiteness is not required by the plot people of color. Or write stories about women being women and people of color experiencing the world as people of color that aren’t indie films or outliers from pop culture, and rather just STORIES. The problem is not that feminists want half of all movies to be all-women ensembles (although we would definitely like to see more), but that we want the default character to not be a 30-something white guy. Let the computer genius in the crime comedy, or the pilot of the Enterprise, or, god-forbid, the action-hero lead be a girl, or a person of color, or BOTH. But more importantly- write CHARACTERS whose role in the story is more than just a relationship title to decorate the protagonist with.
At the end of my aforementioned speech, I revised the Bechdel Test with a test that’s a little better suited for qualitative analysis of how well women are used in the movie (or, at least, setting the absolute lowest bar possible for women being used well):
THE CASTELLINI TEST!
1. There have to be at least two named women characters with at least 5 lines of dialog each
2. Those characters must have a conversation, not necessarily with the other woman, either not about their partner or with their partner (future or current) and not about their relationship
3. At least one of the women has to be integral to the plot, meaning that if she were written out of the film, it couldn’t reach the same ending.
I quite like this test, but of course I’m not so self-centered as to assume that this will be (or SHOULD BE) the “end all, be all” test to measure feminism in media, even theoretically. But that’s what the theories like Standpoint and Muted Group are for. I’m not saying we shouldn’t examine or question issues of gender in media, but we need better tools to draw meaningful conclusions. We all have a personal responsibility to critically evaluate other critical examinations of our art and culture, and to critically evaluate them broadly.
Despite its intentions of illustrating a problem with gender disparity in media, the Bechdel Test ends up telling women they only matter when around other women, and tells men that in a perfect world, they don’t exist. This test is incredibly problematic, because it actually alienates both genders from feminism, which is certainly neither the point nor the goal.
TL;DR? I made a video about this!