The Bechdel Test - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Bechdel Test

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Andrew COMMENTARYIn my various gallavantings around the internet, I came upon this video which got my brain percolating.  For those of you unwilling to click, or would just like a written version, here is the topic at hand..

The Bechdel Test, also known as the Mo Movie Measure, was presented in the comic Dykes To Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel (she credits the test to her friend Liz Wallace).  To pass the test a movie has to
1)  have at least two women in it
2)  who talk to each other
3)  about something other than a man.

Sounds pretty simple right?  Turns out that this test is a lot harder for a film to pass than you might expect.  The reality is that the majority of films have male characters that express a wide range of hopes and dreams while female characters have little say in the arc of the plot.  Film has a long and well documented history of women characters being presented as an object of fetishized power or sexual desire for the male characters.  What's strange is that, as much has been written on the subject (Laura Mulvey is a wonderful starting point), this hasn't changed much.

More characters like the ones Queen Latifah plays wouldn't hurt.

Some films are not going to pass the Bechdel Test because of the way they are constructed.  Take, for example, if the movie only contains two or less characters.  Look at Before Sunrise/Sunset, or older films like Last Year At Marienbad.  Heck, it pretty much means that almost all experimental film is out the window as well.  Splotches of color could hardly be called characters, so the films of Stan Brakhage and his ilk automatically fail the test.  These aren't negative points against those movies, it's just the nature of their story (which needs to be examined in the case of each film).

There are a few things to point out here.  First, these kinds of films are in the extreme minority for what's released every year.  Second, they usually involve a level of intelligence that is a lot higher than the standard Hollywood fare by refusing to conform to any sort of unspoken standard of gender roles.  Third, the test is by no means an academic one for a few reasons.  Experimental film was one of the havens of feminist filmmakers that were looking for ways to break free of the male dominated narratives of Hollywood.

So as you can see, taking the test literally produces some unusual results.  By it's own rules something as powerfully steeped in feminism as Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles fails because there is only one named female character.  The beauty of that film is it's subversion of expected norms in how we observe women in movies, and pushes voyeurism to a logical extreme.  Heck, even Kathryn Bigelow's great The Hurt Locker fails the test and I've utilized her other films in feminist analysis more than a few times.

Over twenty years of incredibly solid work.

This test is not designed to be the end all be all of feminist thoughts when it comes to film.  It's a great way to start conversation, begin some sort of critical analysis, and get us to think about what we're consuming year after year.  What I really like about the video is how simply it states this purpose without becoming accusatory about it.  Yes this is an issue and it needs to be addressed, but doing so requires us to examine the entire system and see what keeps strong female characters from the multiplex.

This is just a good way to get the ball rolling, especially with folks that have never thought about representation in film.

So I've delayed long enough.  How many films satisfy the conditions of the Bechdel Test?

By my count, of the 214 movies that I own, only 46 of these movies pass .  Some notes:

-The best represented directors that pass the Bechdel test consistently are Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes.  This isn't particularly surprising, as both directors consciously strove to present complete female characters on the big screen though their motives are a bit different.  Bergman was famously tormented by the way he behaved in his many relationships, and he played a lot of that guilt out onscreen.  Cassavetes was driven by filling that lack of strong female roles in films, and also used that to work with his wife (the amazingly talented Gena Rowlands).

It was a partnership of equals yielding great films.

-The worst represented director is Akira Kurosawa.  Of the twenty six films of his that I own, not a single one of his films can pass the Bechdel Test.  There are cultural considerations to take into account for this, but don't go into his films looking for a healthy female perspective.

-I own an unfortunately small number of films that are directed or written by women.  At the very least I need to get some Agnes Varda and Kathryn Bigelow up on my shelves.

There you have it.  Barely 21% of my films satisfy the conditions of the test.

We're far from equality when it comes to equal representation in films.  But there are way more factors at play than being able to satisfy the conditions of the test.  Overall, it's fun to think about, and maybe it'll push the right people to start questioning their own choice in films.

Get to questionin'.  Just remember not to stop there.

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Posted by Andrew

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I like how the conclusion to this piece is partly “my DVD collection isn’t gender neutral and I feel bad about it!” You don’t have to buy some DVDs just to satisfy a mythical gender quotient. Though for some reason you’re only naming two female directors currently considered art-house favorites. No Nora Ephron? Penelope Spheeris? Adrien Shelly? Nancy Meyers?

    God, Andrew, feel more guilty. Geez.

  2. Nora Ephron’s really good, but nothing she’s done I want to own. Peneolope Spheeris made Wayne’s World – but she also made Black Sheep. I hate Adrienne Shelly and Nancy Meyers is enjoyable to watch in the theater.

    I named Varda and Bieglow because they’re the directors that I want to spend money on to own and realized that I needed to take care of that.

    I’ll shed my tears of guilt over my copy of Cleo From 5 to 7 while you sneer at me over your copy of Waitress, then we can meet in the middle and watch The Prince of Tides. Deal?

  3. I’ll take Sudden Manhattan instead of Waitress. Waitress is admittedly lame, but Cleo from 5 to 7 is a pretty huge turd; I’d rather watch Leni Riefenstahl’s filmography untranslated and in slow motion than sit through that pile again.

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