Sep 25, 2014
The Bechdel Test: Why it’s a joke
If you’re on the internet, and you’re reading this (and I’ll just assume you are), you’ve probably heard of the Bechdel Test. But there’s a good chance you’ve stumbled across it completely out of context. So allow me to contextualize this often poorly explained concept.
The Bechdel Test is a joke. No, really. Originally conceived by Alison Bechdel as a gag in her 1980s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, a character states she has a rule for movies she pays to see in the theater:
One, it has to have two women in it.
Two, they have to talk to each other.
Three, they have to talk about something other than a man.
The punch line being that the last movie she was able to see was Alien, which came out in 1979 and the comic ran in 1985. Ba-dum-tish.
However, this joke eventually became a popular talking point among feminists and film lovers because it pointed out something incredibly shocking: The fact that an embarrassing number of films do not pass this test.
The comic strip successfully lampooned a legitimate problem in cinema, which is that women are poorly represented. Whereas we make up roughly fifty percent of the human population, Movieland would have one thinking we make up no more than twenty, and that our lives revolve around men. Even in most (shudder) “chick flicks”, the plot and dialogue revolve entirely around the main character’s male love interest. (I could also get into the concept of “chick flicks” and how there’s a genre of film thought of as exclusively for women whereas all other movies are supposedly made for all genders, but that’s another article entirely.)
The point of the Bechdel Test isn’t whether or not women are shown as good role models, or even as well-rounded characters. They just have to exist independently of men.
So why is it important for a movie to pass the Bechdel Test? Answer: It isn’t. The test is all but useless on the level of individual films. Technically, Transformers passes because Sam Witwicky’s mom tells Megan Fox she’s gorgeous. But one line of dialogue does not a good movie make. On the other hand, none of the Lord of the Rings movies pass, and Return of the King even has Eowyn “I am no man”-ing the Witch King in the face.
Or take Gravity: It technically doesn’t pass because there’s only one woman in the movie. And yet, the Twilight films mostly pass. And following the test strictly to the letter means other recent “victories” for feminism would include the likes of Kick-Ass 2, Spring Breakers, Sucker Punch, and The Expendables 2.
Clearly, passing the Bechdel Test says absolutely nothing about whether or not a specific movie is positive in its portrayal of women. No, the Bechdel Test is only helpful on a larger scale. For example, how many movies passed the test in 2013 as opposed to 2000? Fifty? Thirty? …Four? More importantly, is the number higher now than it was thirteen years ago? The answer can help us understand the direction cinema is going in as far as representing women.
Because here’s the thing about the media: visibility matters. Not just in film, but TV and games as well. We’ve made big strides in the last few years towards actually portraying women, people of color, and the LGBT community as real human beings and not just stereotypes. But the problem is far from fixed. The average movie should be able to have a black woman, or a gay man, or a trans individual as a main character and not have it be “a thing”. Because our media portrays the world, at least in some capacity, as what we consider normal. And having lady parts is totally normal.
And that, kiddos, is the Bechdel Test.