The Trouble with the Bechdel Test

24 Apr

Image result for Room Brie Larson Image result for Gravity 2013 Image result for three billboards outside ebbing missouri
The Bechdel Test.  Sounds like a measuring tool for a geologist, right?

If you haven’t heard of it, chances are that now, in the age of #metoo and #timesup, you’re going to hear a LOT about it in the near-future.  Let me stress, a LOT!!  The Bechdel Test was inspired by a 1985 edition of Alison Bechdel’s comic “Dykes to Watch Out For” which factors three things in a movie to note with regards to women in a movie:
1.) There must be two women in the scene.
2.) They must be engaged in conversation.
3.) They have to discuss something other than men.

The point, apparently is to measure the effectiveness of female characters in movies away from the need to pursue or think about their role with regards to the men in their lives.  In practice, this admittedly problematic scale

is generally a facilitation of the idea that a woman cannot function without a man on the brain, that women are written into movies outside of being an individual.  And, it might seem easy to wave off, but if you really dig into some of the greatest movies and/or most popular movies of all time – Casablanca, Star Wars, The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Lord of the Rings, and nearly every Disney movie – you find that The Bechdel Test either doesn’t equal or, in many cases, simply doesn’t matter.  While it could be used as an effective eye-opener – a scale on which to illustrate how women have been sidelined and misrepresented throughout the 123 year lifespan of the cinema – its use as a logical measuring tool is faulty, at best.

First of all, movies are not an absolute because you cannot cull them into a collective.  It is hard to measure any one thing.  There are around 250 major releases in a given year and then factor in the mass of smaller independent films, documentaries and foreign films.  The figures for the number of releases every year, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, fluctuate but they estimate around 600 movies created each year.  And, just to be fair, we must factor in the mass of movies dropping on streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu etc.  You’re looking at about 700 to 800 movies created within a calendar year.

So where are the statistics coming from?  If you engage the Bechdel Test, what are your criteria?  Are you sticking by the 250 major releases every year or are you taking into account the full mass of movies created for the entire year?  It would seem a fallacy not to, but who sees all 700+ movies in a given year?  Even the most dedicated of critics admit that their schedule forces them to miss certain movies.  And even if you do, how could anyone be exected to keep up with that many movies in a 12-month cycle.  That would be exhausting.

Plus, there is a problem in that The Bechdel Test generally ignores the individual performance.  Consider this: of the five nominees for Best Actress this year – Sally Hawkins, Frances McDormand, Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep – none of them pass the Bechdel test, but it isn’t because of an oversight, it is because the nature of their roles doesn’t fit into the test’s parameters.  How is the test administered with films like The Post and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri wherein strong, individual women are surrounded by male co-stars given a situation of women dealing with difficult circumstances while wading in toxic masculinity?  Frances McDormand plays a woman dealing with a male-dominated township that has ignored and dragged its feet over her daughter’s murder.  There are no scenes of sitting down to coffee, she’s a mother eagle fighting for the justice of her child against a male-dominated populace.  This performance stands apart from the Bechdel Test because she rarely, if ever, has a female character to converse with.  That’s not a flaw in the screenwriting, it is just a reasonable outcome of the progression of the story.

Here is another individual performance – Sandra Bullock in Gravity.  She plays Ryan Stone, a medical engineer marooned in space who spends 95% of the movie alone, floating around and trying to figure out how to get back to Earth.  She has no love interest and no co-star to converse with other than George Clooney who disappears early in the film.  Given that, Gravity fails the Bechdel Test right out of the gate.

Let’s look at another example, the Best Actress winner from two years ago, Brie Larson.  Larson won the Oscar for Room, a movie about a woman held captive for seven years in a small toolshed who eventually escapes with her son.  The only people that she really communicates with are her captor, her son and eventually her mother.  The nature of the role, and the circumstances of the character render the qualifications of the Bechdel test irrelevant.

These are only a couple of examples, but the basic point is that while women have been side-lined and misrepresented, whittling equality down to a scale or test is faulty and irresponsible.  A scale like this brings to light to misrepresentation but putting it to the test against much of what is being made right now is faulty and short-sighted.  It dismisses context and meaning and representation.  If two women are talking about a man, then why are they talking about men?  Does the test adhere to women talking about their fathers or brothers or cousins or their platonic friends?  Are they discussing marriage?  Divorce?  Couples counseling?  Having children?

Given this, The Bechdel Test would seem to assume that in order to validate any female character, then they would have to relieve themselves of all male-centric conversation.  That’s silly, its short-sighted and it’s irrelevant; as is any scale that tries to measure movies.  As I said, movies are not a collective, they are wide-spread in their intention and their goals.  Something like The Bechdel test is, ultimately, irrelevant.

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Posted by on 04/24/2018 in Uncategorized


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