The Problem With The Bechdel Test

The advent of social media sites like Tumblr has taken words like feminism and patriarchy and turned them into loaded guns of social anthems and battle cries of the oppressed. It’s wonderful that we now have access to information that has permeated our social consciousness to the point that we’ve become aware of the unconscious aspects of our culture. The people have spoken and we are taking a stand against what we’ve declared to be an outdated, oppressive model of functioning.

However well meaning our efforts are, however, sometimes we just miss the point entirely and end up spending our effort on the wrong thing, while ignoring the root problem we’re allegedly fighting against.

Perhaps one of the biggest surges of the feminist movement as of late has been the hailing of the Bechdel Test as the standard that Hollywood ought to follow but has all but outright failed to adhere to since, well, ever.

If you don’t know by now, the Bechdel Test comprises 3 requirements of a movie:

1.) There must be at least 2 named female characters who;

2.) Talk to each other;

3.) About something other than a man.

Perhaps its simplicity is partly to account for its popularity, after all, our culture loves numerical step processes that end with a yes or no indicator of whether or not something works.

The problem is, the Bechdel Test doesn’t really amount to very much. Originally it came from the comic, Dykes to Watch Out For, and meant to illuminate a problem with movies while eliciting a nervous chuckle, but I highly doubt Alison Bechdel intended or expected it to become the banner that it is today.

It’s a good idea, don’t get me wrong, and smart. The problem is, we seem to have lost sight of our real goal somehow along the way.

The problem isn’t that most movies don’t pass the test (they don’t), it’s that most movies don’t represent women equally with men. Hollywood is dominated by male characters, while the females play supporting damsel in distress roles that paint them as, well, paint-by-number “characters” with no real purpose. Replace them with a pot of gold and the story remains exactly the same. Replace the male protagonist – or even a male supporting role – with a pot of gold on the other hand, and you don’t have a movie. That’s a problem.

But measuring a movie’s worth by whether or not it passes the simple criteria of the Bechdel Test doesn’t really do very much at all. It just tells you the movie doesn’t pass a test.

The Bechdel Test can serve as a guideline, to be certain, and is a useful tool in determining the approach to creating a gender equal movie.

Yet, we’ve become so focused on the criteria that we’ve forgotten how to actually approach this equality. Write characters who are male, write characters who are female, make them all equally important (note: obviously this doesn’t mean equal screentime, but you’re smart enough to figure that out) and you’ve got a movie that will pass the Bechdel Test without ever having to consider whether or not it actually does.

We’re looking to an almost arbitrary set of rules to see whether or not we’re being modern enough instead of addressing the actual problem of inequality in the movies.

It’d be like trying to fix  a poorly designed building by insisting that centimetres should be a little bit larger. Maybe if you adjust the size of the measurements the building will “fit” but that won’t stop it from falling down.

 

There’s nothing wrong with the test and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to use it to illuminate the problems we see in movies. That is, after all, how you begin addressing the problem. But using it to fix the problem isn’t the solution. It’s a measurement, not a tool. The tool rests in the minds of those who make movies, and our responsibility is either to become those people, or to enlighten them to their responsibility as well.

The problem isn’t the test, the problem is the standard. We’ve stopped looking at the standard in favour of 3 little “rules” and as a result, we’re not really getting anywhere. Sure, we’re seeing more movies pass the test, but how long will it take before we realize the female characters still aren’t really on equal footing with the males, but rather they’re just constructed to pass the Bechdel Test, just because Tumblr told us that’s what needs to happen?

 

 

 

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4 comments

  1. So very right. The Bechdel Test even shames movies with all female casts. Sex and the City is pretty much all about these women’s relationships. And one of the great things about the show was the themes of female empowerment. Women can be as sexually liberated as men while still be powerful in other aspects in their lives.

    Like you said, movies/shows not passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t speak to the quality of the show itself. It just didn’t pass a narrow test. There’s nothing wrong with having female characters talk about men. But there is something wrong with paint-by-numbers female characters.

    Great post.

    Like

    1. I feel like feminism is a really misused word now. I totally agree, Sex and the City is a great example of a show that created real female characters even though they were set in a world where everything revolved around sex (and consequently around men as well).

      There’s just too many elements to take into account to determine whether or not a character is “real” to chalk it all up to arbitrary rules, even if those rules came from a good place.

      And thanks! Glad you enjoyed reading this!

      Like

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