Ever heard of the Bechdel test?
Don’t worry if you haven’t, chances are you’re going to hear about it a lot in coming years.
For those of you that haven’t stumbled across it before, the Bechdel test came about due to a comic strip by cartoonist Alison Bechdel (hence the name), and it lays down three simple rules that decree whether a film is gender-biased or not.
1. Are there two or more female characters with names?
2. Do they have a conversation with each other?
3. Do they talk about anything other than men?
Sounds straightforward enough, but it’s surprising how many of your favourite films will not pass the test. The original Star Wars trilogy, the Lord of the Rings films, and all but one of the Harry Potter films fail. Of course, they aren’t exactly festering with misogyny, but they do not pass the test.
So far, so dinner party discussion fodder. But now things get tricky. Should Bechdel’s observation be used as a means by which to not only judge films, but potentially decide which films get made and which don’t?
That’s what is happening in Sweden, where the state-funded Swedish Film Institute is rating films using this crude way of assessing gender equality. These ratings will appear alongside the usual warnings surrounding sex, violence and bad language. If the programme is successful, it is possible that the test will be used when assigning funding to film projects. And that’s where we move from ‘tricky’ and into ‘worrying’. The original comic was a humorous way of describing the limited nature of women’s roles in cinema – something that absolutely needs to be tackled (particularly when it comes to older actresses).
But is it something to be used to approve or banish a piece of cinema? No, absolutely not. Remember Haywire from last year? The film where real-life MMA fighter Gina Carano is a spy who spends the entire film beating up men (in the interests of national security)? According to the Bechdel test, Haywire fails and is gender-biased. Clearly that’s not the case.
Nor is it with Zero Dark Thirty – a film directed by a woman, starring a woman and featuring many other strong female characters, but which only just passed. Why? Because the film’s story dictates that much of their conversation is about Osama Bin Laden – a man.
Let’s try something even more recent, such as Gravity.
For the majority of Gravity’s 90 minutes, the only character onscreen is played by Sandra Bullock.
She has no love interest and is simply a woman, adrift in space, fighting to survive. During the film, Bullock’s character shows physical and mental strength, ingenuity, emotional intelligence and an array of other positive traits.
However, Bullock is the only woman in the film, so Gravity – ridiculously – fails the Bechdel test.
These aren’t the sole examples, but they do serve to highlight its shortcomings.
Let’s try something else. Think of a movie that has a female main character (pretty much any romcom from the last 40 years will do). Now do an inverse Bechdel test about the male characters. Does it pass? I’m going to go ahead and say no. Is this movie anti-male?
Unlikely. Rather, I’d suggest that having two men talk to each other about something other than a woman simply doesn’t fit either the story or the clearly-defined structure of a romcom.
There are some serious issues with the way women are portrayed in movies, but implementing a flawed criteria and using it to control what people watch and ultimately what gets made, is dangerous.
There are far too many films that pass the Bechdel test that do not contribute to an egalitarian society. Equally, there are lots of films that don’t pass the test, but do.
One last game: let’s take a look at a couple of titles that pass the test with flying colours.
First up is 50 Shades of Grey, with its cardboard-cutout characters and deeply worrying subtext.
Yeah, not really flying the flag for equality.
Nor is Sex and the City 2, which demeaned everybody – especially women – but gets an A+ when it comes to the Bechdel test.
Alison Bechdel made a salient observation – the majority of cinema is focused on male characters.
But that’s all it is, an observation. It is not a how-to manual on writing books, movies and TV shows.
If a work of fiction doesn’t include female characters talking about something other than men, let’s first examine why that is, not simply overlay a test with more holes in its logic than 100 Michael Bay films.