Every time anyone applies the Bechdel test to a film or television show, a barrage of negativity follows. More often than not the text will fail the Bechdel test, and often a range of people will jump to the text’s defence.
Despite lengthy definitions around the internet, rules of the test can be summarised in two lines. And they were, when Alison Bechdel first proposed it in Dykes to Look Out For, in 1985 (middle row).
Think of a famous film. It probably fails.
Partly because it is so easy to grasp, this ‘test’ went viral ages ago. I first heard of at 17, when my younger brother – who then lived in vaguely reactionary corners of YouTube – saw a video explanation. It also remains much-cited because so few films (or books or other cultural products) ever pass. This can be surprising, but as various commentators have pointed out, the Bechdel is less a litmus test of a text’s reasonableness than a comment on the all-pervasiveness of structural misogyny. Actual, active, individual personhood for women remains inconceivable in the remits of existing cultural forms.
So – clearly – when a text fails the Bechdel test, this should be discussed. Not as an all out attack on the text itself (unless it’s, you know, turbo-charged macho paranoid-penis-wielding shit) but rather as a discussion of what is going on today. Much that is fundamental in our culture needs to change.
‘The Bechdel test is damaging to the way we think about film!’ cry white male critics the world over. In the quoted article, Robbie Collin insists that the test is ‘too simple’, ‘next-to-useless,’ and, of course, ‘damaging to the way we think about film.’ In fact, he points out, apparently mislead by the fact that there are pictures in the original (cited) document, it’s ‘only […] the set-up for a joke’; ‘nothing but the trigger for a pessimistic punchline.’ His argument is that some of the films that pass present women as stereotypes, while some that fail have women characters he likes.
I genuinely have no idea how it is possible to miss the point so spectacularly. (a) Since when has a joke not been intimately, provocatively, urgently entwined with its context? (b) if you’re focussing so much on the ‘joke’, then surely the point about good films failing and bad films passing is pre-empted in the ‘punchline’: the only film the character can think of that passes is Alien. If a basic standard of female humanitiy is required of the cinema, then available options are far from ideal. Only people who enjoy a great degree of privilege can tell others to shut up and be grateful for a few role-models he has decided upon in a less than ideal machine.
Earlier this year, a university study found that episodes of Doctor Who written by the famously misogynistic Steven Moffat, who is currently in charge, are more likely to fail the Bechdel test than episodes written by his predecessor. It went viral and responses flooded in from all over the internet. After all, Doctor Who has some very big fan communities. Seriously, I once tweeted about the show and five people corrected my ‘Dr’ to ‘Doctor.’
My personal favourite suggestion in comments on a Guardian report, made a few times by different people, is that the programme is about a man so of course all the women will be discussing him! It is hard to argue with that level of closed-mindedness. Leaving aside the huge controversies surrounding the fact that the twelfth Doctor should have been a woman … or at least not a cis white man … there is the whole point that Doctor Who as a popular cultural product doesn’t just happen to be about a man… and of course we can pick out any number of films or TV programmes with female title roles – Calamity Jane, I Love Lucy, Miss Marple – that also fail the test. We are talking about a bigger picture; about endemic misogyny.
Some amazingly bad logic in a tumblr post speaks for itself. The argument here is that not only is Moffat not sexist, but he is actually a trailblazer for women’s visibility. It is just the most amazing bad luck that his stories just happen to not require that many female characters – or they require the characters to be attracted to and defined by men. Therefore, we shouldn’t count these episodes in our analysis. Morover, the author insists, a little thing like screen-time shouldn’t dictate a character’s visibility. What about all those times when the men casually mention all those women they own. See! And besides (hello again), it’s a show about a character who happens to be male … You see, Stephen Moffat is just misunderstood.
Very few feminists, pro-feminists, or people with a practical/academic/theoretical grasp of feminism would ever claim that Moffat is anything but amazingly bad news for equality. In any sense. Ever. It is literally impossible to perceive any sense it which it is fair or appropriate that he holds the position of influence that he does.
But academics, intellectuals, feminists, and activists have also critiqued the Bechdel test. At the very least, some people citing it apply caveats. In academic writing, it remains largely ignored, except in a few snidey asides, Bechdel being referred to in passing as ‘a cartoonist’ with a pretty little theory. Doesn’t this sound, not only derogatory, but also a little misogynistic…? Just me?
Reasoned refutations of the Bechdel test tend to use longer words than those coming from fandom … but they use exactly the same logic. This theory doesn’t appreciate the text’s complexity — What about intersection?! , etc.
Why do so many people, who genuinely agree that women are poorly represented in the media and that this needs to change, get angry and defensive when they see the Bechdel test?
I have two theories. Like ‘the rule,’ they are easy to summarise.
- The Bechdel test is simple; it is easy to understand, apply, and conclude from. I guess this is a human thing — arrogance? Imposter syndrome? Put it this way. There is this massive problem – the basic dehumanisation of half the human race – and it isn’t being solved, and great people have devoted their lives to addressing it, without making significant impact; say you’ve been through ten years of university and worked hard at researching, theorising, studying, and communicating… and here is this gimmicky-looking sound-bite that makes a profound social point which everyone, including people who have literally never thought about it before in their lives, can grasp fully. Just a thought. To my mind, this is why so many scholars of popular culture are prone to prolixity; why so much social theory is downright unreadable; why so many undergraduates… do what undergraduates do.
- The Bechdel test is merciless. Because it makes an urgent and very deep general point, the test does not cater for mitigating circumstances or cries of NOT ALL MOVIES! People keep throwing Gravity at the test – and, yes, Gravity has gravitas. It is an amazing film, which does not fall victim to the outrageous gender stereotyping paraded in the story it’s obviously based on (although Sandra Bullock’s character’s emotional journey is defined by her motherhood). But – third time lucky – the point of the test is bigger; more urgent. Would it really have been impossible for George Clooney’s character to be played by a woman? Or any of the other astronauts? The fact that we don’t even think this a possibility; that we assume as a matter of course that if there are two characters they must be boy-girl, with a bit of sexual tension, speaks volumes.
But this is getting from my very basic point: it is sometimes hard to admit that by enjoying and finding progressive or even subversive potential in something we can also admit that it is perpetuating the problem.
Rather than slithering into 1980s theory about what constitutes an ideology, I’ll just point out how powerful denial can be. If we like something, we can’t let it go, even a little. For God’s sake, a socialist friend of mine recently told me to lighten up and stop hating on Downton Abbey!
These are not radical or revolutionary observations. They’re pretty basic, really.
A concise argument that had me nodding at every step of your logic, and highlights one of the main reasons why I’m not enjoying Doctor Who as much as I used to! It’s such a wake-up call to realise that films like Mulan, which are inconic for having a feminist agenda, actually don’t pass the test, isn’t it?
Thanks so much! Definitely. If the world we live in is such that the best films/TVshows still fail this basic test, then there is something wrong with the world we live in … and we need to investigate and deal with that!