How the “Bechdel Test” is going to spoil every movie for me

 

Have you heard of the Bechdel Test? Read no further if you wish to enjoy your movies or books (stories) anymore. Why? Well, because of this peculiar rule, I’ll now have a mental checklist every time I watch a movie! The Bechdel Test is described as follows:

The Bechdel Test, credited to Liz Wallace, was introduced in Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a 1985 strip titled “The Rule,” an unnamed female character says that she only watches a movie if it satisfies the following requirements: (1) It has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something besides a man.

This blog post introduced me to this topic and opines that the above rule exists as a litmus test for Hollywood directors to check how much they cared for their female characters. I’m somewhat bothered by this. No offense to women but isn’t this somehow destroying the experience of a movie to every one? If a story does not permit having two women, will a director or story writer be forced to introduce unwanted characters for the sake of satisfying this rule?

That said, let’s break down the rule. Firstly, it says, the story must have two women in it. That isn’t asking much considering not many stories (or movies) exist without two women. (An extension of this idea is that both these women must be named characters – that is, it cannot be a random cleaning woman who would just appear on the screen). Secondly, these named characters must share a dialogue. This is where it gets a little tricky. You have your two women, right; now why should they be forced to speak to each other? Finally, this is where it gets confusing – now that they are talking, they should not talk about men?

I remember a story that I had read in my school days – Dusk by Saki (H H Munro). It has no female characters. But a great short story nevertheless. (Read it online) My story – The Cold Rain – also fails the test. Although it has two named female characters, there is no dialogue between them.

The only sane explanation that could have an “irritated woman” come up with this rule for herself, and by extension to every other person who feels the same way is that, in the 80’s there were an exceeding number of movies that ‘used’ women in unimportant roles and all male characters drove the story. Was it the case? I do not know. I haven’t watched many movies from the 80’s.

The question is, how relevant is this test in today’s cinema? Of course, Hollywood and Bollywood, the world’s two most money-raking franchises are male-dominated, with actors being heavily overpaid than actresses. In fact, the 2012’s list of 10 richest celebrities do not feature an actress at all.

On a lighter note, here’s the list of IMDb’s top 10 movies and whether they pass this test: **

Rank Rating Title Pass
Bechdel
Test?
1. 9.2 The Shawshank Redemption (1994) No
2. 9.2 The Godfather (1972) No
3. 9.0 The Godfather: Part II (1974) No
4. 8.9 Pulp Fiction (1994) Yes
5. 8.9 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) No*
6. 8.9 12 Angry Men (1957) No*
7. 8.9 Schindler’s List (1993) Yes
8. 8.8 The Dark Knight (2008) No
9. 8.8 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) No
10. 8.8 Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) No*

Notes: ** Tabulated from memory; may not be completely accurate. * Tabulated from sources; again, accuracy questionable. If you know of variations from the above, please leave a comment, I’ll fix it.

 

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2 thoughts on “How the “Bechdel Test” is going to spoil every movie for me

  1. Anisha

    The point of the test is not to test the feminism in a movie or whether it is femele centric. The point of the test is the very fact that it sounds so simple and obvious when stated and then when you actually start analysing movies you realise that there are very few that actually pass the test. The test was actually started as a joke.

    For your better understanding from http://www.bollywhat-forum.com/index.php?topic=34064.0:
    The test is often misunderstood. The requirements are just what they say they are — it doesn’t make any difference if, for instance, the male characters the women talk about are their fathers, sons, brothers, platonic friends or mortal enemies rather than romantic partners. Conversely, if a work seems to pass, it doesn’t matter if male characters are present when the female characters talk, nor does it matter if the women only talk about stereotypically girly topics like shoe shopping — or even relationships, as long as it’s not relationships with men.

    This is because the Bechdel Test is not meant to give a scorecard of a work’s overall level of feminism. It is entirely possible for a film to pass without having overt feminist themes — in fact, the original example of a movie that passes is Alien, which, while it has feminist subtexts, is mostly just a sci-fi/action/horror flick. A movie can easily pass the Bechdel Test and still be incredibly misogynistic. Conversely, it’s also possible for a story to fail the test and still be strongly feminist in other ways, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. What’s a problem is that it becomes a pattern — when so many movies fail the test, while very few show male characters whose lives seem to revolve around women, that says uncomfortable things about the way Hollywood handles gender.

    This is help make it a little more relevant: http://www.feministfrequency.com/2012/02/the-2012-oscars-and-the-bechdel-test/

  2. Hi Anisha, thanks for dropping by.

    I agree with most of what you say, but I still stand by the opinion that the test must not act as a litmus to rule out the quality/degrade a film in any way.

    The point of the test is not to test the feminism in a movie or whether it is femele centric … The test was actually started as a joke.

    I disagree. I still believe the test is to test the feminism in a movie. It may have started as a joke but going through the comments in the links you have provided, it seems like people are taking it more seriously trying to incorporate it in their works, even if it does not warrant it. On a far fetched comparison, it is like forcing an artist to use a particular colour in his painting without which, it wouldn’t pass a “blue test”.

    The test is often misunderstood. The requirements are just what they say they are — it doesn’t make any difference if … as long as it’s not relationships with men.

    As far as my understanding goes, I do/did not assume or restrict the conversation between the women to someone romantically involved.

    It is entirely possible for a film to pass without having overt feminist themes … A movie can easily pass the Bechdel Test and still be incredibly misogynistic. Conversely, it’s also possible for a story to fail the test and still be strongly feminist in other ways …

    I completely agree. That explains why I do not have a problem with the test, per se, but the mere existence of it!

    What’s a problem is that it becomes a pattern — when so many movies fail the test, while very few show male characters whose lives seem to revolve around women, that says uncomfortable things about the way Hollywood handles gender.

    Handles gender? I’m a huge fan of the movie Shawshank Redemption. And yes, it fails the Bechdel test. But, just to “handle gender” properly, would I want to see the movie changed to pass the test? Have unwanted conversations in it to prove to the world that it cares about feminism? NO.

    I understand that if this has become a pattern, we are to blame. The films of an era always reflect the conditions of the society, of the place at that time. How many Bollywood films had ‘item numbers’ a decade or two ago? Now, there isn’t one movie that does not have an item number. The society has changed through time to accept this as a norm. We as a society are to blame if Hollywood isn’t handling gender properly, and not change movies to pass tests like these.

    And like it is said in the video, the only solution is to make more women-centric movies with strong roles of more historical characters and true stories that people can relate to. However, if tests like these are going to become a litmus to the Oscars or the Golden Globes, then I do not think there will be many movies that will be made in the idea that they have to be women-centric but most movies will just include a 60-second exchange between two women, instead of a genuine plot-related conversation, just to pass the test. IMO, that’s worse than not passing the test.

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