The Bechdel test is fine just the way it is

The Bechdel test is fine just the way it is

For a lot of people, the recent Star Wars Episode VII casting announcement felt like a slap in the face. Alongside returning trio Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher, the new cast features six men and only one woman. While this ratio is a disappointing norm in Hollywood, the backlash against Star Wars’ casting disparity has been refreshingly vocal. The controversy has captured a sentiment that’s becoming more pervasive in mainstream culture: There’s a disturbing gender gap when it comes to women in film and it’s time to fix it.

One of the most popular ways of talking about female representation is the Bechdel test—a tool that started as a tongue-in-cheek comic drawn by Alison Bechdel but has now become a cultural touchstone for talking about feminism and film. With the test’s growing prominence has come criticism about whether it works and, if so, to what extent. That intensive scrutiny too often pulls focus from the test’s purpose: calling attention to Hollywood’s sexism. The Bechdel test is fine just the way it is. We simply have to change the way we use it. 

The test has become popular because it’s easy to understand and sets the bar pretty low in terms of female representation, making it especially egregious that so many films fail. To pass the Bechdel test a film must:

  1. Have two named female characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man. 

That list of criteria introduced in Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For has roots in Virginia Woolf’s seminal 1929 feminist essay, A Room Of One’s Own, in which she wrote: 

“All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple… And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends… They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.” 

Change the language just a bit and Woolf’s words could easily be applied to a majority of today’s films—with the caveat that contemporary fictional women are increasingly sexualized as well. Report after report has revealed depressing statistics about how fictional women are presented on screen (not to mention the depressingly low number of women employed by Hollywood and their frustratingly unequal paychecks). According to The Women In Media Center, women held only 28.4 percent of speaking roles in 2012’s top 100 films and they were about three times as likely as men to be partially naked. Geena Davis’ Institute On Gender In Media found that men outnumber women 3-to-1 in family films (the same was true back in 1946) and that in most crowd scenes women make up only 17 percent of the group. Another analysis found that of the 2013 Oscar nominated performances, male leads averaged 85 minutes of screen time, while female leads averaged only 57. And according to the Center For The Study Of Women In Television And Film, women accounted for only 15 percent of protagonists of the top grossing films of 2013. It’s quite clear—as it has been for some time—that despite making up 50 percent of the population (and 52 percent of movie audiences), women are not being represented on screen with the same diversity and agency as their male counterparts. The Bechdel test is an important tool in quantifying that inequality. 

Critics are quick to dismiss the Bechdel test as useless, because it cannot determine if a movie is “sexist” or not. These critics point out that movies with complex female protagonists, like Gravity, can fail the test while horribly sexist films can pass with a simple scene in which two women discuss how much they love shoe shopping. While both of those points are true, to use them as an argument against the Bechdel test is to fundamentally misunderstand its purpose.

The Bechdel test cannot determine whether individual films are feminist nor does failing the test automatically mean a film is misogynistic. Instead, the Bechdel test is a means to measure female presence on screen. Its power comes not from applying it to individual films but from applying it to large groupings of films as a way to spot overall trends. As Anita Sarkeesian points out in her Feminist Frequency video on the topic, applying the Bechdel test to a specific group of films can be eye opening. For instance, only four of the nine films nominated for this year’s Best Picture Oscar pass the test (American Hustle, 12 Years A Slave, Philomena, and Dallas Buyers Club); only 32 of AFI’s Top 100 films pass; and only 24 of the top grossing 50 films of 2013 pass the test—although films that passed the test made more money at the box office overall than films that failed. The fact that so few of the most lauded and highest-grossing films pass is an indication that the lack of female representation is still a huge problem. 

There seems to be a growing misconception that any film that fails the Bechdel test is inherently “bad.” If a film fails the test it simply means female characters have no meaningful presence outside of their interactions with men. That could be because a film treats women as sexual objects (the James Bond franchise), it could be because the film depicts a few isolated women struggling to find a place in a male-dominated world (The Lord Of The Rings), or it could be because the film is simply telling the story of a group of men (Saving Private Ryan). These examples offer vastly different depictions of women and one could argue for their success or failure as “feminist” stories. What the Bechdel test does tell us is that these films are not interested in showing women interacting with other women, and that is on par with a larger trend in Hollywood. 

That trend matters, even when it comes to films that fail the test but present well-rounded female characters. Take the case of The Lord Of The Rings: While the trilogy depicts several powerful women, it’s also important to note that these women exist as “others” in a society of men. That the celebrated works of art in our culture are so often about male-dominated worlds with one or two notable women (see also: Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Avengers, Inception, The Matrix, Star Trek) is still a problem, even if those women kick ass and keep pace with men. The Lord Of The Rings may have great feminist role models in Eowyn and Arwen, but it’s still unfortunate that there are so few female characters in the series and that the ones who do exist only interact with men. 

It’s also important to note that even in an ideal world not every film would pass the Bechdel test. Given that Saving Private Ryan is about the interactions of an all-male platoon, it makes since that there is limited female representation. The problem is that these kinds of all-male or male-driven stories are substantially more prevalent than all-female or female-driven stories. As Kelsey McKinney points out, there are plenty of male literary figures who go on journeys to find themselves while female literary protagonists—if they journey at all—do so to find love. Men are depicted as autonomous entities while women are seen in relation to male love interests. Films dominated by a single gender could still exist in this “ideal world,” but they would exist in relatively equal numbers. 

Another major criticism of the Bechdel test claims that filmmakers could throw in a quick scene of two women talking merely to earn a “pass” on the test without actually creating fully realized female characters. That’s only a danger if we think of the test as a pass/fail system. When it comes to individual films, the test works much better as a starting point for discussion rather than as a rubric for grading. An excellent Tumblr, Does This Pass The Bechdel Test?, breaks down which elements of the test a film meets along with any relevant notes on representation. Finding out that a movie passes on a technicality can offer an interesting insight as well. For instance the only scene in American Hustle that passes the test is a brief one in which two supporting female characters discuss nail polish. Compare that to the many scenes in Catching Fire in which two women talk about revolution, love, and self-sacrifice. While a pass/fail setup would lump these films together, using the Bechdel test as a discussion-starter allows for the comparison of the isolated scenes in which women interact across multiple films.

In November, Swedish movie theaters announced they would be running Bechdel “grades” alongside their movies. While some found the proposed system off-putting or unnecessary, I think the MPAA rating system serves as an interesting comparison point here. An R-rated movie is not inherently “better” than a PG-13 movie (just as a movie that passes the Bechdel test is not inherently “better” than a movie that doesn’t). The MPAA simply examines a movie based on a specific set of criteria (its violence, sexual content, and profanity) and assigns a ranking to give consumers information about the film they are about to see. While the MPAA system may be flawed—particularly the way it views sex, and specifically female sexual pleasure, as more offensive than violence—it can still serve as a useful tool for viewers who can easily access information about what content earned a film its rating (e.g., “Rated R for extensive violence, sexuality, etc.”). I would argue that even a tiny bit of extra information beyond a pass/fail Bechdel grade could be incredibly helpful to viewers interested in supporting female-centric films. If the proposed Bechdel ranking for American Hustle read “Pass: Two supporting women have a short conversation about nail polish” and the ranking for Gravity read “Fail: Central female character is isolated for most of the film,” viewers would be encouraged to think about the many ways in which female representation occurs without the danger of being “tricked” into seeing a film based on a simple pass/fail score. 

The Bechdel test is but one lens through which to discuss gender inequality and it works best when combined with additional analytical tools. Other tests are being created seemingly every day that examine representation through different points of view. The Mako Mori test—named for the female lead of Pacific Rim—asks if there is a woman (particularly a woman of color) who gets her own narrative arc that is not in support of a man’s story. The Tauriel test—named for the lone female character in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug—asks if there is a woman who is good at her job. The Racial Bechdel test asks if there are two people of color who talk to each other about something other than a white person, and it’s a particularly powerful tool for exposing Hollywood’s racial biases. These tests, however, are additions to the Bechdel test, not replacements for it. Issues of gender and racial inequality are complicated, and no one test will be able to accurately pinpoint sexism or racism through a quippy set of rules.

The Bechdel test is far from the end-all, be-all of feminist critique, but to say that because it is not useful for everything it’s therefore not useful for anything is the wrong conclusion. As Sophia McDougall articulates, we don’t just need “strong” female characters, we need well-written women from all walks of life and—I would add—we need to see them interacting with each other in ways that aren’t defined by men. The Bechdel test has steadily entered the public lexicon and brought with it a growing awareness of the enormous sexism inherent in Hollywood. It’s time to stop quibbling about minor rules of the Bechdel test and put all feminist tools—even the imperfect ones—toward fixing the problem of gender inequality on screen. Davis’ “Two Easy Steps To Make Hollywood Less Sexist” is a great place to start. Hopefully J.J. Abrams is listening.

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