So, you probably read this week Sweden will be installing a rating system on whether a movie passes The Bechdel Test. Just in case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last thirty years, The Bechdel Test refers to the comic strip by Alison Bechdel, Dykes To Watch Out For, where she joked back in the 80s she only watches a film if it “features two women talking to each other about something other than a man.” Thus, The Bechdel Test was born. And here it is:
I’ve had quite a few exchanges over Twitter the past week about this, with several Bang2writers asking me to write about it, so here are my thoughts. And no, the title of this post is not ironic or tongue-in-cheek. I think movies with Bechdel ratings ARE a mistake, however well-meaning and I will endeavour to explain why.
1. Are we really saying male characterisation is “fine” in comparison? Before we go down that road, no I am NOT derailing the conversation with “what about the menz!!” OF COURSE I believe the privileged should not attempt to silence or erase the marginalised … But I DO think it’s interesting how little talk or concern there is about male characterisation, even when considering marginalised male groups.
So, let’s look at characterisation as a whole. It’s not in doubt that male characterisation as a general rule has more variety at grass roots level than female characterisation; I make this point in detail in my book, Writing And Selling Thriller Screenplays, when I break down all the different types of male characters and contrast them against female characters (and discover the number of female character archetypes and stereotypes are far less in number). As regular Bang2writers know, I’m a dedicated Pinterester (sp?) and some time ago I started a Pinterest board called Girls On Film; more recently, I began a companion board called The Boys Are Back In Town about male characterisation. On both boards, I collect and collate articles about female and male representation in the media: on film, TV, novels, transmedia, photography and so on. And guess what: as I expected, there are LOADS of articles about female representation on the internet. You cannot MOVE for feminist critique; it is literally everywhere. Great!
So it’s good the conversation about female characterisation is gaining momentum, of course it is. But you can imagine my surprise on the LACK of articles on male representation in the media when I came to start collecting for The Boys Are Back In Town board. Trust me, it’s NOT because male representation in the media is “fine”, either – just check out some of the articles on my board. And you only need to watch a few produced movies or read a few screenplays to see the same recycled and offensive tropes appearing in male characterisation, especially when considering characters of ethnic minorities or the LGBT community (check out point 3 on this list) . Also, it’s worth remembering there is a massive difference between privilege and power. Whilst white males may indeed have privilege, that doesn’t mean they automatically have power to go with it; individuals’ statuses – and thus power – can change in remarkably different ways in different contexts, for different reasons, sometimes regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or similar. To assume otherwise is reductive thinking and thus characterisation becomes two dimensional. If we want to be the best writers we can be, this is obviously a massive own goal.
2. The Bechdel Test does not stand up to scrutiny. Those eagle-eyed Bang2writers amongst you will note I don’t often talk about The Bechdel Test and there was no mention of it in my book. Several have admitted surprise to me over the years: **surely** I would be all over this, since **apparently** I am a “rampant feminist” and advocate of “sisters doin’ it for themselves”?
Now, don’t get me wrong: I LIKE that The Bechdel Test exists; of course I do. However, as far as I’m concerned, The Bechdel Test is not meant to be taken seriously … It was a joke in a comic strip. Yes, yes “many a true word said in jest” … But for me, The Bechdel Test can be so narrowly AND widely interpreted, it actually causes more issues than it solves. More on this, next.
3. Where does diversity figure in The Bechdel Test? Probably because The Bechdel Test was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek jibe in a comic strip, The Bechdel Test’s perimeters are remarkably narrow. It does not take into account diversity, regardless of gender. As a result, the idea of The Shukla Test was floated (“two characters of “other” races, talking to each other about something other than race“) and arguably, a LGBT test could be created in the same way (if it hasn’t already): “two characters of “other” sexual orientations and/or identity, talking to each other about something other than the fact they’re gay or trans”. And you know what? Bechdel, Shukla and this LGBT Tests are GREAT points to start thinking about representation on screen. But that’s all they are: a start. Because no group of *any* individuals is a homogenous mass. We are all different, thus interpreting the Test too widely is problematic, too; next I will go into why.
4. Assumption governs The Bechdel Test. The notion of those two women talking “about a man” is what comes up, over and over again amongst female writers and audience members, with a view to romantic entanglements. Yet I think a crucial point is missed, over and over: The Bechdel Test never specifically states what “about a man” actually means. Yes, there’s a stronger than average chance Bechdel herself meant romantic entanglements, but it is open to interpretation. On this basis then, a movie that has two women talking to one another about a man they’re NOT involved with romantically – ie. a father, brother, or work colleague, regarding something like a mystery, a fraud or an attempted murder even – would presumably FAIL The Bechdel Test. But does the simple act of two women “talking about a man”, regardless of context, qualify it as UNfeminist? Seriously? More, next.
5. The Bechdel Test reduces the issue to counting women, not how a female character is written and for what reasons. As Helen Lewis makes clear in this article, “I require more than one woman”, many female audience members are beginning to feel shortchanged by the current status quo, especially in the Science Fiction genre. It is frequently complained female characters are often either facilitators or eye candy – and shame on any filmmaker if that is the case.
However, the problem with The Bechdel Test is that it stipulates it must be two women talking to each other. This immediately throws up issues, like:
i) What about films like THELMA AND LOUISE, probably one of the most lauded feminist films ever, where two great depictions of women DO talk to each other about many different things, but they also talk about a) Daryl, Thelma’s shithead husband and b) Thelma’s sexual awakening with the cowboy from the gas station? Are we actually supposed to believe these two women would not speak about men, when male shitty behaviour was the catalyst not only for them running off in the first place (ie. the men at the diner, as well as the aforementioned Daryl), but staying away too (“I know what happened to you in Texas”)?
ii) What about films like DEVIATION, the story of a female protagonist who must overcome her male abductor, a movie that is about male violence and overcoming it? We placed Amber as the sole female in that story because we wanted to emphasise her plight (as detailed in Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays, in “The Girl Character” section, in fact).
iii) What about films like PACIFIC RIM, in which Mako Mori might be the sole female member of the primary cast, but is also a woman of colour in a role that did not diminish her or reduce her to gender so much so, it actually inspired The Mako Mori Test?
iv) What about portmanteau films in which there may be more than one female character, but they do not appear in the same scenes/ sections yet still drive the action in those scenes, like Honey Bunny, Fabienne and Mia Wallace in PULP FICTION?
Oh and BY THE WAY …
Much as I love ALIEN, it would never have passed The Bechdel Test anyway: in this age of the internet, we can discover that whilst it never made the original cut, there’s an exchange between Ripley and Lambert where our heroine asks Lambert if she has slept with Ash (though to be fair, Bechdel could never have foreseen that back in the 80s). But what Bechdel probably should have noticed – and what struck me the moment I saw ALIEN as a young girl – is the fact Ripley should never have survived. Yes, really: think about it. As second in command, it should have been Ripley, NOT Dallas, who went into the vent! Yet Dallas insists on going instead. Why: because he has an overinflated sense of responsibility? Or because Ripley’s a woman? Or a bit of both? Who knows. Fact is, Ripley survived as Final Girl on a technicality.
Now of course, surviving on a technicality (that may or may not have been created because of a sexist notion like “men into the monster’s lair first” and really, who cares anyway if it fits the characterisation and story?) does not actually figure in The Bechdel Test. But then, it would seem not much actually does.
In other words: where does writer and filmmaker intention and dramatic satisfaction figure, here? Short answer: They don’t. As my homie the mighty novelist and TV showrunner brooligan says:
6. A feminist film CAN fail The Bechdel Test and an UNfeminist film CAN pass it. And this is what my biggest issue boils down to. If a film that places women as inferior to, or as accessories to, “men’s stories” can pass The Bechdel Test simply by virtue of having two women talking to each other about something other than a man, frankly what’s the point?
This is ultimately why I don’t spend really any time considering whether stories I want to get involved in pass The Bechdel Test; instead, I look to the characters themselves, their motivations, what obstacles are in their way, plus the storyworlds they inhabit.
So yes, The Bechdel is a great start for discussion about gender representation, but adhering to it too stringently causes issues of its own. We’re the writers. It’s in OUR hands! So take another look at your characters. What does each one want – and why? How is s/he going to get it? What gets in his/her way? And why?
We need cumulative build up, we can’t change all this overnight. So don’t resort to stereotyping or the “usual” and you’ll be playing your part in changing things for the better – for EVERYONE, male, female and minority. It’s as easy – and as difficult – as that.