Bechdel Blues

questions our reliance on the Bechdel test as a marker of feminist film

Image: Universal Pictures

The “Bechdel test” is fairly simple. First take a film and look for the following three criteria: the film has must have at least two named female characters in it. Okay, that seems pretty average. These women must have a conversation. Also fairly simple. The conversation is about something besides a man. How revolutionary. How demanding.

Unfortunately, a plethora of films still manage to fail this test. Some recent and high profile examples include The Grand Budapest Hotel, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Batman v Superman, and Oscar winning films Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight. The Bechdel test is not strictly related to the overall quality of a film, but it’s still noteworthy that high profile movies don’t manage to meet the fairly basic criteria. The test has grown to be synonymous with feminism, as it is said to assess the presence of women in a narrative, and how important this presence is. It’s quite akin to the ‘Sexy Lamp’ test, which poses the question: can the female character be replaced by a sexy lamp and the plot still work? If so, there’s clearly an issue. Personally, I would prefer to use the test as a measure of poor writing, which probably extends beyond its female characters.

Gender politics are complex when put to screen – the Bechdel test doesn’t represent this complexity

The main issue with the Bechdel test is that it’s a fairly rudimental process of judging a film; naturally films fail Bechdel because they don’t meet the specific criteria desired by the test. The test doesn’t inherently show if a film has terrible female characters, only if they don’t talk to one another. It doesn’t show if the film neglects these characters, because a film can pass by only just meeting the three measures. A film could easily shoehorn in a conversation in order to avoid the cries of sexism while maintaining stereotypes and poor writing. The Bechdel test has its uses, but provides a simplistic proposition of what makes a positive depiction of female characters – i.e. they don’t mention men within a conversation with another girl. Good writing is more complex than that, and there are many other issues which have become more important since the test’s feature in the Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip of the 1980s.

Films that fall short also run the risk of being branded misogynistic should they fail the test, which ignores the fact that it wasn’t proposed as a serious measure of a film’s credentials, but a joke which was surprisingly accurate in its commentary of cinema. These lowly origins might suggest perhaps we’re taking this all a bit too seriously. The cinematic depiction of any gender is more complex than simply looking at dialogue. Fight Club’s depiction of women is consistent with its exploration of hyper-masculine fantasy. Marla Singer may be the only main female role, but she challenges the narrator’s connection with Tyler, and the general absence of women mimics the narrator’s disturbed perspective. The Bechdel test doesn’t accommodate for this more nuanced portrayal of gender and would instead deliver a blanket statement of “sexism!”, without an exploration of why the film presents gender in this manner.

Ex Machina is another example of a film that fails the Bechdel test due to technicalities, but provides an interesting portrayal of gender which is important to the overall narrative. The premise of the film revolves around Caleb, a programmer who wins a competition and becomes part of the testing process for a humanoid robot named Ava. Said robot is played by the extremely beautiful Alicia Vikander, and the attraction Caleb has towards her is impactful to the progression of the film. It doesn’t take much reaching to see some underlying gender politics when there is exploitation of her body and personhood, and that of her fellow humanoid robots – who are also female – by their male creator, especially when the film ends with the emancipation of Ava. It’s not a coincidence that the exploitation of machines is framed through the exploitation of female bodies.

Ex Machina and Fight Club might fail the test, but they still succeed to provide interesting female roles and justify their supposed failings. Does that mean that every film that fails the test has a hidden deeper meaning? Unlikely. We, as fans and critics, whether you’re taking a feminist standpoint or not, need to acknowledge that gender politics are complex when put to screen. The Bechdel test doesn’t represent this complexity.

A particular area where this becomes important is the presentation of exploitation. As mentioned earlier, Ex Machina involves this to make a point, not just for shock value. Another example where exploitation is used “appropriately” is in Mad Max: Fury Road. In another director’s hands, this post-apocalyptic world with enslaved wives wearing chastity belts could easily become fetishised.

Under George Miller, this is thankfully not the case. The wives may have been exploited by Immortan Joe, the dictator of this barren landscape, but throughout the film they are presented as individuals with separate character arcs. Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, is also given agency upon the plot and reconciles vulner – ability with strength – two character traits which are often never paired in any action hero, never mind female ones. Miller achieves this all within the action genre, which is probably one of the more notorious for having token female characters. They are not props to Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky, and this really is what the Bechdel test attempts to assess.

Image: Roadshow Films

Women aren’t the only group to undergo erasure, and while feminism becomes more intersectional and inclusive we should perhaps apply similar tests for other groups. How many people of colour are in the film? Are there any LGBTQ characters? If there are any, are they still a walking-talking stereotype? The Bechdel test doesn’t address these other issues, perhaps showing its age.

As reported by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, only seven per cent of directors from the 250 highestgrossing domestic releases were female. The Bechdel test only gives us a limited picture of onscreen representation, while the biggest issue may well be the inclusion of women in directorial positions. Diversity needs to occur on multiple fronts, so maybe it’s time to shift the focus.

Leave a comment



Please note our disclaimer relating to comments submitted. Please do not post pretending to be another person. Nouse is not responsible for user-submitted content.