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Everything's coming up Bechdel

I've written about The Bechdel Test before, but suddenly it seems to be everywhere, so it's a good time for a revisit.

First, a quick summary of The Bechdel Test for anyone who may be unfamiliar. Popularized by Alison Bechdel in her (awesome) comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, the test is a way of examining the role of women in a movie. There are three simple criteria:

1. There have to be at least two women characters
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something other than a man.

Later updates to the rule add a further stipulation to the first prong, which is that the women in question must have names. Even so, it doesn't seem like a lot to ask, does it? And yet.

The purpose of The Bechdel Test isn't to determine whether any one movie is good or bad (plenty of amazing films fail, and I'm sure we can all think of terrible films that pass), or even whether any one movie is particularly feminist. In fact, in its current formation, it usually isn't about any one movie at all; it's about looking at larger patterns in Hollywood. The sheer number of movies that fail such a simple test is telling. For example, in a recent column, John Scalzi subjected the top science fiction movies of 2005 through 2009 to the test, with depressingly predictable results: out of 14 movies, 10 failed and 4 passed, and three of the latter were only "technical passes" because the qualifying conversation was not particularly substantial. (His follow-up column is also worth reading, although beware Inception spoilers.) This analysis, and its result, was not surprising. What was surprising was the next place I saw The Bechdel Test referenced in the media: Entertainment Weekly.

The EW column isn't available online, unfortunately, but the above link goes to an entry from Comics Worth Reading that quotes the choice bits:

The wonderful and tragic thing about the Bechdel Test is not, as you’ve doubtless already guessed, that so few Hollywood films manage to pass, but that the standard it creates is so pathetically minimal — the equivalent of those first 200 points we’re all told we got on the SATs just for filling out our names. Yet as the test has proved time and again, when it comes to the depiction of women in studio movies, no matter how low you set the bar, dozens of films will still trip over it and then insist with aggrieved self-righteousness that the bar never should have been there in the first place and that surely you’re not talking about quotas.

Well, yes, you big, dumb, expensive “based on a graphic novel” doofus of a major motion picture: I am talking about quotas. A quota of two whole women and one whole conversation that doesn’t include the line “I saw him first!”...

... consider the double standard: If the Bechdel Test had suddenly landed in Hollywood with the force of law, it would have seriously jeopardized five of last year’s 10 Best Picture nominees. If we’d rewritten the rule to apply to men, it would have seriously jeopardized... um... let’s see... Precious.

A bit reductive, but it gets the point across. It's not just sci-fi, it's mainstream Hollywood. And if it's become such an issue that a mainstream pop-culture magazine is taking notice, I think that says something.

It's not just movies, either -- The Bechdel Test can be applied to books, comics, games, television shows... Movies do make an easier target, because they're more compact than most other forms of media, but Bechdel-based analysis of other media is still an interesting exercise. For a great example, check out this proposal for a "Bechdel Spectrum" to apply to television, where TV series are judged based on how many individual episodes pass the test. All of them? Most? Almost none? I think one would be hard-pressed to find a show where not a single episode passed the test, but we can probably all think of some that come close (Season 3 of "Heroes" comes to mind, for me). Good discussion in the comments, with examples, particularly around the issue of what counts as "about a man": if two women in a crime drama are talking about a male victim, is that a conversation about a man, or is it a conversation about work? I tend to think the latter, but the author of the post holds to a stricter line, and makes a good case for it.

Another place the test came up recently was in [personal profile] imadra_blue's excellent post about female characters in Final Fantasy games (spoilers for many games including FFXIII). She and I discussed it a bit in this comment thread, but I think it's a question that could use deeper analysis. Is one conversation in a 60-hour game enough to call a pass, or do we need something more sustained and/or integral to the plot? How about women talking to each other in the context of a group conversation? If group conversations are sufficient, then FFXII definitely counts as a pass, but otherwise maybe not. And some of the earlier games might not even be technical passes. This is one area where I think the games have, as a rule, gotten better over the years. On the other hand, I can't think of many non FF games I've played that would qualify. Maybe Xenosaga? (Which I didn't finish, for unrelated reasons.) Probably the Phoenix Wright games, especially the later ones. The very fact that I have to think this hard to come up with examples is somewhat disquieting.

I could go on, but this post is already long, and I've been working on it all night, so I will leave it here, and throw it out to the floor with one last thought. The strip that introduced The Bechdel Test to the world was published in 1985. It's kind of amazing that such a simple test, created 25 years ago, can still be so relevant and useful today. And kind of depressing. Still, I'm glad for this recent flurry of attention around it; maybe people will take some notice.

This entry is also posted at http://owlmoose.dreamwidth.org/489648.html. There are currently comment count unavailable comments on DW.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 14th, 2010 01:40 pm (UTC)
I'm going to read this whole post because I love your stuff on feminism. Unfortunately I have twenty minutes before I leave for vacation so I'll have to come back! But I had to say:

Aug. 14th, 2010 05:47 pm (UTC)
How is it even possible that most movies don't meet this? I mean, without actually stopping to think about this it seems ludicrous. Now, obviously I won't be able to help thinking about it and I expect it will blow my mind.

Aug. 15th, 2010 01:08 am (UTC)
I know, right? It's like the EW quote says: it's such a pathetically low bar, how is it possible that so many movies manage to slither underneath?
Aug. 14th, 2010 06:55 pm (UTC)
I'm reminded of a comment in the interviews at the end of the Babylon 5: Lost Tales DVD.

It was about Richard Biggs, the actor who played Dr. Franklin. His wife(?) came up to JMS at Biggs' funeral and said that the role of Stephen Franklin had meant more to him than any role he had ever played, because it was the first and only time in his life that he was an actor portraying a doctor, as opposed to an African-American actor potraying a black [insert vocation here].

Biggs died in 2004.

It takes a long, long time for things to change. I'm glad that the Bechdel Test has reached the consciousness of EW, but based on Biggs' experience with lingering attitudes on race, I'm afraid it may take time for portrayals of female characters to shift at the foundational level, even if they seem to be a little better on the surface.

(Side thought: as long ago as DS9 and Voyager were, it would still be radical and a Statement if a science fiction show had a female black captain -- as opposed to a captain who happened to be a woman, and black. Sigh.)

(Other side thought: Blake's 7, for all its flaws, passed the Bechdel test more often than most modern American shows in 1975.)

Edited at 2010-08-14 11:10 pm (UTC)
Aug. 15th, 2010 01:16 am (UTC)
JMS had his faults, but portraying characters of color was not one of them, and that quote is quite telling. He was a little more hit and miss with women, but overall I think he did better than not. I was thinking about B5 and the Bechdel Spectrum, actually, and my memory is that it does quite well, but I've been rewatching Season 1 recently and I think more episodes than not have failed so far. But as Talia and Ivanova and Delenn become more central, I think it gets better.

I've never watched Blake's 7, although I've heard really good things about it.

Aug. 14th, 2010 08:39 pm (UTC)
YES. Yes yes yes. This. I actually had this conversation with the Paladin after we saw Inception and (oh God this is hilarious) he suggested that if there aren't enough female characters to apply the test, the test doesn't apply (rather than the movie failing outright.) I had to explain that the test isn't about grading movies, so to speak, it's about WHETHER IT EVEN APPLIES. And the horrifying fact is the number of times it doesn't. And how that says a lot about our society.

Oddly, you know which games most frequently pass the Bechdel test for me? Atlus's SMT games. Strange Journey is the outlier, insofar as it doesn't pass, but then again there are only 3 characters who have any kind of interaction: two men and one woman. But both Persona 3 and Persona 4 pass within the first hour, and the DDS games pass eventually despite their only having about 2 hours of plot for 45 hours of gameplay.

In summary: there are not enough games, books, or shows that pass. We need more of them.
Aug. 15th, 2010 01:31 am (UTC)
he suggested that if there aren't enough female characters to apply the test, the test doesn't apply (rather than the movie failing outright.)

Ha ha oh dear. Yeah, it's not like a movie failing the first criterion means that the test "doesn't apply". If a movie fails the first prong, it *fails*. The other problem that I run into when I try to discuss the test with people is the assumption that I'm saying that the movie is bad because it fails. Not at all; just because Inception fails on the second criterion, or maybe the third, doesn't make me love it any less. (Although if it had passed, I might have loved it *even more*!)

I haven't played any of the games you mention, although Persona 3 at least is on my list. Cool that there is a publisher that passes more often than not! Now if we can only get more like them...
Aug. 15th, 2010 10:25 am (UTC)
Atlus as a general rule makes pretty damn awesome games; the caveat is that they are WAY HARDER than pretty much any other RPG out there and you must be prepared to grind. A lot. But the thing I've been playing recently, P3P, is a re-release that lets you pick either a female or male main character (the first time Atlus has had a female "blank slate" protag, I think!) and there are definitely characters who behave in sexist ways (Junpei, looking at you) and they get called out on it explicitly (Yukari and Mitsuru, I hearts you.) So that's pretty awesome.
Aug. 14th, 2010 10:47 pm (UTC)
Running through things in my mind--

I think the last movie I saw was G-Force, which passes.

Most Julia Roberts movies seem to. Most Bruce Willis movies seem not to. Of course, I guess if the main character is female that makes it far more easy to meet the qualifications as a matter of course.

but the other thing I run into is most tv shows (at least off the top of my head) seem to do a lot better. I wonder if there's overlap with some of the same reasons outlined in "Everything bad is good for you" why television seems to be growing complex more quickly than film. Having something more than a single basic plotline makes it almost inevitable that female characters will be interacting as more than an aside to the romantic interests of a male character.
Aug. 15th, 2010 01:40 am (UTC)
Of course, I guess if the main character is female that makes it far more easy to meet the qualifications as a matter of course.

Right. I wouldn't say that's *impossible* for a work with a male POV character to pass, but it takes more effort on the part of the creator.

Interest point re. the complexity of the storylines on TV versus in movies, and I think that makes sense. Assuming you have a critical mass of female characters, the odds that they will interact in diverse ways becomes higher.
Aug. 14th, 2010 11:00 pm (UTC)
This is a very, very interesting post to me. Passing and failing the Bechdel test speaks little about a film's quality, and passing the test is no guarantee the female characters are portrayed equally. However, its power lies in what you said--how rarely it qualifies and how many movies fail to pass this simple qualification. That's what speaks volumes. I think you're very right about your assessment of its relevance.

My feeling about video games and the Bechdel test is that group conversations would not apply unless they show relationships building between females. Our friendships and relationships often wind up so sidelined and ignored by media. Which might be why I just want to squeeze FF13 so tight, because it showed two sisters and their love, and Fang and Vanille's closeness so well. But when it comes to others, I'm not sure if one conversation out of the many they may show in a video game allows the game to pass, you know? It is awful how many video games fail the Bechdel Test, especially outside of FF.

I often consider video games as a step behind other media in portrayals of race and gender partially due to the fact that the creators still think they're a niche market that appeals primarily to white heterosexual males, and thus feel no burden to consider a broader audience. However, they do seem to be getting better and they seem to be considering a broader audience.
Aug. 15th, 2010 01:56 am (UTC)
Thanks, I'm glad you found it thought-provoking!

I often consider video games as a step behind other media in portrayals of race and gender partially due to the fact that the creators still think they're a niche market that appeals primarily to white heterosexual males, and thus feel no burden to consider a broader audience.

I think lots of movies suffer from the same problem, though, especially movies in "dude" genres like action and science fiction. Scalzi goes after that mindset in the second article I linked, pointing out that plenty of women watch sci-fi and action movies, and even if they didn't, why do creators assume that men are that unwilling to watch women interacting? It's like that old chestnut that girls will read books about boys, but boys won't read books about girls: maybe if there were better books about girls that relied less on stereotypes and conventions, boys would be more willing to read them.
Aug. 15th, 2010 06:08 pm (UTC)
I think you have a point about movies in "dude" genres. However, I think people have slowly started to wake up about these films--yet, I haven't seen as much stirring in the gaming field. I read this heartbreaking article in a gaming magazine (can't recall which) that said there are so few females in video games because the creators use males as their default models and making women is more time-consuming and expensive, as they have to create models. And they all feel this burden to make women super-attractive so their game sells. If I could have punched people through a magazine article, I would have.

maybe if there were better books about girls that relied less on stereotypes and conventions, boys would be more willing to read them.

So true. Though I often do feel the need to defend "chick flicks". Though I usually despise 95% of this genre, I point out it's no worse than the mindless action film that males watch. Such films are usually of comparable quality and are equally stupid. Yet, predictably, makes hate on "chick flicks," not their mindless, racist, sexist series of badly scripted explosions.
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