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.
UPDATE: Beyond The Bechdel Test – thoughts from Twitter on this emotive issue
The Blackboard: What The Bechdel Test Is And Isn’t
The Guardian: Cinema Programmers Beware: Feminist Films Can Still Flunk The Bechdel Test
Girls On Film B2W Pinterest Board
The Boys Are Back In Town Pinterest Board
9 Ways To Write Great Characters
LOVED this article Lucy! Male gender characters are often constructed to a very rigid archetype too (as you said) – and I agree it’s our job as writers to be conscious of developing dynamic, rich and authentic characters rather than strictly adhering to the these kind of tests for the argument of ‘feminism’ or other. These often only straight-jacket creativity and compromise realism. Thanks for writing this! Awesome x
Delighted you enjoyed it Yazmin, thanks for letting me know! FYI, next week I will be talking in more detail about male characterisation 🙂
It seems as if you think a film is disqualified under the Bechdel Test if two female characters discuss a man, but that isn’t correct. It’s only disqualified if they don’t discuss anything else.
And that is the issue: it’s open to interpretation about a) how The Bechdel Test “should” be enforced (there’s no mention of whether a film is “disqualified” if they “don’t discuss anything else” in the actual comic strip or indeed the usual accepted line, “features two women talking to each other about something other than a man”) and b) what does “discuss a man” REALLY mean?
I think people want the Bechdel test to imply or mean something more specific that it does.
Well. It does NOT.
As a rap Album with the label “Parental advisory, explicit content”
The Bechdel Test does not go into detail. it simply says if a film has
“two women talking to each other about something other than a man” or not
As simple as that.You´ll wonder ” But what means by….?”. The answer is: Nothing.
The Bechdel test does not mean anything at all.
The Bechdel just states a fact if the film you are going to see has two female talking(not about a guy) or not.
One of the biggest misconceptions in your article is that
“the two woman could not talk about a man” in order to pass the test.
Well, WRONG. They could talk about a man or more as long as they want to, but the key thing is that
they NEED to talk about something else…to past the test
The Bechdel test is considered to be a guide for mature spectators to help them in their guidance of inmature spectators.
The meaning is not in the test. The meaning is in the spectators and in the creators minds.
And we as creators we do have a responsability, as you said “it´s in our HANDS”.
Same thoughts here! (blog article still in the making ^^).
People don’t even agree on how long these conversations between the two female characters should be (will “where’s the bathroom?” “over there” “thank you” – or “nice shoes!” “thank you, they were on sale” do?), let alone on possible conclusions to be gained. Bechdel is one of many good starting points, but should certainly not be the only or a top criterion.
Yes, it’s somehow shifted from a great meme to ‘Representation Richter Scale’, which seems silly. I have a few issues with Bechdel:
– that a new generation of feminist film-goers might neither see or respect some brilliant wonderful films because they fail to pass Bechdel
– that, as you say, some great feminist films, say with a female lead in a male world say, may not pass, but deserve to.
– meanwhile a sexist studio film could now get top rating points in Sweden, provided two women share some cupcake recipes or makeup tips at some point. “Secrets of a Pickup Artist with Robin Thicke”, passes with flying colours, provided we have a scene with two named women asking each other where they got their shoes from.
That said, I love how Bechdel boils down the debate to something that almost anyone can grasp: isn’t it crazy how rarely women talk to each other, or talk about things other than men, in movies? The Mako Mori test, which I didn’t know about, seems to better cover more of the false positives, but has some big catching up to do.
Interestingly, Gravity would also fail the Bechdel test – there’s only a cast of three or four, the primary character is a woman – an astronaut, no less – in all sorts of peril, but she never talks to another woman.
I’d have said it’s one of the strongest female/feminist roles this year, but it’d still fail that test. Which is crazy.
This angers me. There is a backward sense of logic in here and I don’t think this person understands the test or the media of film, and the history of film criticism and writing particularly well.
Of course the number of female archetypes and stereotypes are less than those of males – the number of female characters is less than those of males, and the numbers of female protagonists is hugely fewer than the numbers of male. The Geena Davis foundation has found over TV and film in the US the ration is around 80/20 male/female characters. The lack in number of female stereotypes doesn’t prove that there are more non-stereotyped female characters in films… it just shows that there are less females in films… a fact that is quite obvious and quite well researched.
Also have you ever heard of Laura Mulvey? Laura Mulvey noted in the 70s that all writing on cinema spectatorship assumed that the spectator was male, and that the only characters on film that seemed to count were male. There is a huge amount of writing out there on men in film, it’s the stuff that film studies for years and years considered to be ‘normal’ film texts. Feminist film studies came along because people had realised that the feminine was being ignored. How can you not be aware of this issue? Read any paper on the Western genre, the buddie movie, gangster movies etc etc…. they all deal with the masculine – they just don’t make a big song and dance about the masculine being different because it’s assumed to be the norm.
Of course male media representation of men is not ‘fine’. The Swedish rating isn’t about the entire issue gender representation and doesn’t pretend to be. It makes it very clear exactly WHAT the criteria is, and pretends to be nothing more. It measures one thing only and lets the spectator work out what they think.
The Bechdel test not meant to be taken seriously? Have you no idea of the meaning of ‘satire’? . The comic in which the Bechdel test it first appeared used it satirically, satire being a form of entertainment that holds a mirror up to society. It was used in humur to make a serious point. There is no reason whatsoever why it should not be used in a rating like this. Also…. how can you claim in one sentence that the issue of male representation in films that most would probably consider to be ‘non-serious’ is something worthy of study, and also claim that the Bechdel test shouldn’t be taken seriously because it first appeared in a comic strip! The entire point of raising concerns about the representation of gender is to highlight how things that we tend to think aren’t very serious and don’t matter, actually do matter and play a part in shaping society. If gender characterisation should be taken seriously satirical humour in comics certainly should.
Re exactly which men the female characters are discussing… I think you have missed the point entirely here. The rating is not just looking at films in which women feature as the love interest of the male character, it’s an indication of whose story is the dominant one. If the women are discussing their own narrative and their own stories that is an indication that their stories are in someway foregrounded, or at least that their stories are of equal status. If they are talking about male characters, whether that be their father, their son, their friend, or their lover etc, then this indicates that their purpose in the particular scene at least (if not the whole film) is to support a male character’s story. It matters not a jot whether the women are discussing the men in sexual terms or platonic ones – the point is that they are discussing men. The test doesn’t measure the extent to which sexual relationships figure in a film, it only seeks to look at the narrative equality between the genders – whose story is the film focusing on?
And OH GOD THE EXCEPTIONS. Just because you can mention 5 exceptions from the last 40 years of so of film does not disprove the rule. As someone has pointed out a film doesn’t have to eliminate all conversations in which women talk about men in order to pass, they just have to have conversations in which they talk about something else. I suspect that most of the films that you claim here would fail the test would have passed.
As for Pulp Fiction – yes there are some women in this film and some of them are strong characters, but the Bechdel test doesn’t measure whether or not a female character is strong, stereotyped, or anything else. It provides indicators as to which gender’s stories are foregrounded in the film and it does this very effectively. So yes there are strong female characters in Pulp Fiction, but are they there to tell their own stories or are they there because their presence supports the story of the male characters? This is what the test picks up on. As far as I can remember the women characters in this film pretty much supported the men’s stories and this is exactly what the Bechdel test is supposed to highlight – so in this respect it works.
Haha that’s right Annie, there are FIVE exceptions in the last 40 years of film – oh no wait, there aren’t.
“I suspect that most of the films that you claim here would fail the test would have passed.”
That’s right – you suspect. You don’t know and nor can I. Why? Because the test is widely open to interpretation, which means whether it passes or not depends on the opinions & lived experiences of the person even viewing the film. Which I say in the post. And guess what: that’s what counts at the end of the day – audience perception, not whether something is satire, or whether a blogger apparently knows nothing about storytelling, screenwriting or filmmaking.
But hey, don’t take my word for it. Go write your own Bechdel Test-passing movie – and wait for others to tell you it doesn’t pass. Have fun!
Hi again Lucy
I think that there is a lot of confusion here.
One thing is the test (valid results are1=Pass and 2=Failed)
And the other thing is the debate that the test could start up in the spectators before, during and after the viewing of the film.
The results of the test are not widely open to interpretation. That´s why it is called “test”, because it can be measured.
On the other hand, the multiple debates originated about the test ARE widely open to interpretation.
The test states a Fact.
The debate express opinions, feelings, prejudice, wisdom, etc…
Do Thelma and Louise talk to each other about something other than a man?
Yes. So it means “Thelma & Louise” has passed the Bechdel test.
Do Jody and Trudy talk to each other about something other than a man?
Yes. So it means “Pulp Fiction” has passed the Bechdel test.
Do Ripley and Lambert talk to each other about something other than a man?
Yes. So it means “Alien” has passed the Bechdel test.
Could it be tricky to get the right mark?
Of course,but once you practice a few times it begins to get easier and easier…
Hope it has clarify some misconceptions…
P.S.:BTW the ‘Peter’ in the below comments is not me….:)
Hi Pedro, I only made my comment because Lucy habitually calls me Pedro… As to the rest of it, this ‘test’ debate is one long yawn. You don’t like the status quo? Then write better parts for women. You would not believe how many scripts I read from female screenwriters I receive that are about domestic violence, and populated by the same old stereotypes (brutish, heavy- drinking man) which are every bit as worn out as the female stereotypes blamed on male writers. These scripts have nothing new to say, they have no freshness in their approach. You want change? Be the change you want to see.
LOL, hi again fellas 🙂
Pedro – if The Bechdel Test can only be applied to films where two female characters ONLY speak of men (and nothing else, as you appear to suggest), then one of two things happens. 1) MOST films would pass The Bechdel Test, ‘cos the likelihood of 2 characters (especially in the main cast) ONLY speaking of one subject matter is frankly absurd 2) If there’s so much confusion over the test, what it is and how it’s implemented (and there is), then again it is largely useless.
Peter – yeah I hear that. As I’ve always said, as a script editor and filmmaker I have seen NO correlation between good representations and the gender of their writers; cliched tropes and characters are JUST as likely to be written by women writers as men in my experience, including deeply UNfeminist ones. If we’re not getting good representations, it’s because there simply are not enough GOOD WRITERS in my view. Not cool or fashionable to say this of course – better to blame a BIG BAD CABAL 😉
Thanks for your explanation! You are absolutely right, to be in a certain category (by race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, etc..) does not place you in a privileged position when you have to write a script related to any of those categories or others. Certainly first hand experience is something very useful in order to be accurate, but as every good screenwriter knows is much better to have a great script than to have an accurate script…..
Hi again Lucy
Sorry if I appeared to suggest anything about limiting the films which can be “Bechdel tested”
So to be clear:” Any film can be submitted to the “Bechdel test” with no restrictions”
Let´s remember that in order to pass the test a film needs “two women talking NOT ONLY about a man”
or in other words “two women talking about something else (not related to a man)”
About the confusion here, I meant confusion in the way the test has been explained in this blog. A lot of comments show that they really don´t know what it is and don´t know how easy is to test some films with the bechdel test and discuss about it. As you are the writer who started the topic,I thought you´d be interested in clarifying your readers to get a more productive debate and move on.
If my comments help you and your readers to get a better idea I am glad about it, If not, I apologize.
Anyway Lucy , thanks for your time, your blog and your will to stimulate debates through it!
Hi again Pedro, no need to apologise but I think we’re talking at crossed purposes here TBH; I understand your point that successfully Bechdel Tested films need two female characters who speak to each other about subjects OTHER than “just” men and I think the Bang2writers do, too. In the post I reject the test as not very useful principally because a) story context & what “about a man” actually means (as does @brooligan, in fact) and b) I simply do not believe there are that many films when female characters ONLY speak of men and nothing else, anyway; especially when they’re part of the primary cast. Whilst I am constantly told that apparently this happens, I am struggling to think of not only a produced movie, but a SPEC SCREENPLAY I’ve read in which female characters talk of nothing but men, tbh. I think it’s more useful to think of female characters having “agency”, rather than simply “speaking of men” – in other words, are the female characters helping drive the narrative? Or are they there for decoration? Because the latter IS a big problem.
But thank you for your contributions, they’re appreciated. 🙂
Annie, What I find really interesting in your response is the overwhelming sense of privilege and white centric perspective.
In discussing film from a theoretical perspective, to mention Mulvey as the only source of authority of women on film, completely negates, for example, Bell Hooks response to Mulvey’s well-worn article. Yes, Mulvey’s work was interesting, and continues to be useful, but again, it is ONLY one perspective.
What the Bechdel test fails miserably at is intersectionality. This is a white centric argument for white women only. Perhaps, before you get all angry, you should look at this test for what it actually is: just another way for white cis feminists to exclude women of colour.
Great article Lucy! Thanks for posting a different perspective.
Thanks Daisy, think it’s quite interesting that not one, but two Hollywood blockbusters this year featured WoC in prominent roles: the aforementioned Mako in Pacific Rim and Mariko and Yuki in THE WOLVERINE. All Japanese. Don’t know what that means, if anything – or whether this will lead to any more … Will have to wait and see.
BTW the ‘Pedro’ in the above comments is not me….:)
LOL guessed as much my friend! 😉 xx
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