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 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.
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