What About The Bechdel Test?

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As a woman and a film lover I always look for that woman in any film or tv show that is relatable to me. However, due to the often sexist film industry female characters are often displayed flat, dependent on men and not relatable at all. I'm sure you've heard of the Bechdel Test and the many amazing films that oh-so-shockingly fail it. But recently I've found myself asking what we should do with films that fail it. Should they be banned? Should we boycott them? My mind has been screaming "What about the Bechdel Test?!" and here's my answer.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert in this field. There are many more posts and articles on the internet from people who know a lot more about the film industry. This is just a list of the arguments I find are the most important in this discussion and my personal opinion. I´d suggest doing your own research, too,  if you're interested in this topic.

What Is The Bechdel Test?

The term was coined by Alison Bechdel in her comic The Rule from Dykes to watch out for (see the strip on Pass The Bechdel Test). The Bechdel Test is a measure of how complex women are portrayed  in any film.

There are three criteria a film must fulfil to pass the Bechdel Test
1. It has to have a least two women in it (preferably named!)
2. who have a conversation with each other
3. about something other than a man

Simple, right? I mean, how many conversations do you have daily that don't involve a man? Now think of your favourite film and try to apply this test - it´s much harder than it seems, right? There are some crazy estimates that about half of all films don't pass this test (source: bechdeltest.com) but personally, I don't think it´s that many! However, there are a lot of them. Here is a small selection of (maybe surprising) films that pass or fail the Bechdel test:


Pass
Fail
Despicable Me 3
The Intern
Magic Mike XXL
The Martian
The Theory of Everything
Kingsman: The Secret Service
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
The Imitation Game
The Last Five Years
Avatar
Kingsman: The Golden Circle


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What's The Use Of The Bechdel Test & Why Should We Care?

Firstly, it´s quite obvious that this test has been brought up by a feminist standpoint. It definitely sheds a - very much needed - light on the representation of females in media. They are often portrayed as one-dimensional and male-dependent which might stem from the "damsel in distress" story arc. Overall its just kind of gross and not true to reality at all. Bechdel herself said (to Gizmodo) that the test is about the representation of women as subjects and not objects. That's a ridiculously important distinction!

Gizmodo have also noted that it´s often more important to see why a film fails the Bechdel Test than if it general fails. Seeing which criteria a film fails gets right to the point and lets us see what exactly needs to change in the industry. For example, if a film doesn't even feature two named female characters it seems to be less of a sexist perspective on women (maybe it was a conscious choice!) than a film in which all women are only talking about men (they are just the support to the men's plot!).

One think I've found very interesting was people discussing whether the Bechdel test adds to or takes away from your film experience. Laura from Study Breaks said she was super excited to see Rogue One just because the trailer passed the Bechdel Test. I find that quite amazing as I think we often focus too much on the negative side - a movie that fails the test is discussed as being worse than a different movie - but there's a great side to it as well.

The Bechdel Test definitely points a finger at our ignorance towards the injustice in the film industry. That's what Casey from Observation Deck has said and it has stuck with me. I guess many people don't actually know about the Bechdel test - they might not think as critically or be as interested in the film industry as I am. Honestly, that's even worse than movies who fail the test. Shedding light on this problem is definitely the most important thing the Bechdel Test can do! Casey even points out that writers/storytellers have nothing to lose by integrating complex female characters into their stories. Instead the stories will have more depth and the addition of complex women will make it stronger and more realistic. That's so true! It literally costs nothing to incorporate two female characters talking about something other than men - it´s not even hard! Bursting that bubble of ignorance is the most important thing the Bechdel Test can do!

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Criticisms

TVTropes point out that the Bechdel Test is often misunderstood. It makes no difference if the male character they talk about is a family member, love interest or platonic friend. It doesn't matter if male characters are present during the critical conversation of two women. It doesn't matter if girls talk about stereotypical things (e.g. fashion, makeup). I have often found myself interpreting the criteria of the Bechdel Test differently for different movies and that's really not what it´s for. It´s such a simple test and therefore we shouldn't try interpreting every detail about it.

In the past few years a lot of different variations have been popping up (e.g. with race, LGBTQ+ characters or the different sex). It´s hard to imagine a film that could pass all of these which in turn makes it even more complicated to argue why the original test is even important. Of course women and men should be represented equally but so should all people. Where does that leave the original Bechdel Test?

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There's currently a discussion going on if some films should even be measured on the Bechdel Test. Indie Wire have noted that some films just don't go on this scale. They mentioned Dunkirk - a film about male soldiers in WWII - as an example. Obviously, in such a film there are very little female characters that might talk about something else as the focus of the whole story are the males. That leaves the question if we should even apply the Bechdel Test to films like this - especially if they are portraying real stories.

From my background in Psychology I know that putting people (or in this case films) into two separate categories is never a representation of the truth. Just because a film passes the Bechdel Test doesn't mean it´s a feminist movie. It doesn't even make a comment on how good of a quality this film is. Huffington Post have put it nicely when they say that its just a good indication of equal gender representation. There's just nothing more to it. Some films who pass the Bechdel Test are even very sexist and just because two women have a random conversation doesn't make any film good or more relatable.

Gizmodo note that there's a danger that the Bechdel test might rather stop the conversation instead of starting it. Sorting films into two very clear-cut categories could just leave you shrugging and going on living your life. You've understood that a film doesn't pass the test and that's that. You've done your deed and sorted it away. But that's not what the Bechdel Test is supposed to do. It really should start the conversation instead of stopping it!

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What About It Then?

I've been left wondering this question for such a long time now that I actually feel kind of uncomfortable when a film doesn't pass the Bechdel Test. What am I supposed to do with this film then?! Personally, I've made the decision that I´d rather focus on the positive aspects of the Bechdel Test than all of the criticism around it. It´s important that it´s not a perfect measure and you need to know that it doesn't actually prove anything besides equal gender representation but that's about it.

As TVTropes have put it "There´s nothing necessarily wrong with any film flunking the Bechdel Test". They rather see the problem in how many films fail it. I completely agree with this view! While it might enrage the feminist in me a film who fails the Bechdel test might still be a great film. But there is a problem in how many films fail the test as that really sheds a light on the injustice! My research has shown that many films that fail the Bechdel Test right now are old (when feminism wasn't as much of a thing & the film industry was only led by males) or specifically targeted at men (which makes sense!). I think this shows a step in the right direction but there's still a lot of work left!

So, what to do? Honestly, my current answer is "nothing". As Bechdel herself said, it´s a good measure to raise awareness and maybe it has helped in making women in more films complex subjects of the story but that's all it really can do. Relying on it to determine good or feminist films really won't do us - or the film industry - any good. We should definitely not gloss over the films that fail the Bechdel Test and rather continue the discussion it has already sparked but we should also take the whole film and its background into account. While female representation is super important and should be discussed so much more we shouldn't focus on single films. It´s truly the mass of films failing the Bechdel Test that should lead us into this discussion!

Personally, a film failing the Bechdel test has never made me dislike that film. Even Bechdel herself admitted to liking The Grand Budapest Hotel and other films who fail it. In the end films (and media) in general are made for our entertainment and if it entertained you it doesn't matter how it falls on the Bechdel Test!

What's your take on this Bechdel situation right now? Are you actively doing something agains movies who fail the test?

2 comments

  1. My friend for example can't watch a movie/TV show that hasn't got any women in it. She needs them to be lead characters or somewhere really close to leading roles. Me.. I really don't care. Maybe that's wrong for some equality or something, but I'm drawn by the plot and characters no matter their sex. (But I also LOVE romance so I kinda need some women there haha)
    it's interesting that this test is out there. I've never heard of it, but I'll try to see which shows and movies pass it :D

    xo Honey - blog Royal Lifestyle - Twitter - Instagram

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  2. My best friend and I often do this test in real life and apply it to conversations we have and conversations we hear as well. I know for us we usually always pass the test because we barely ever talk about males when we're together, we're too busy talking about our lives and career goals! It actually makes me super proud of us.

    Julia // The Sunday Mode

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