The Bechdel Test: Can these rules end movie sexism?

A simple, three-point assessment points out how poorly represented women are in cinema. But can the Bechdel Test change anything? Lisa Schwarzbaum investigates.

Four Swedish cinemas recently made international headlines with their decision to post a different type of rating for the movies on their screens. The Bechdel Test is named for the American graphic artist and novelist Alison Bechdel, who first devised the rules over a quarter century ago in her forthright comic strip as a way to measure gender balance in the movies. More to the point, Bechdel drew attention to gender imbalance with the simplicity of her movie requirements: 1) The picture features at least two women – extra points if those women have names, rather than ‘Redhead at cocktail party’; 2) The women talk to each other; 3) And they talk to each other about something other than men.

It ought to come as no surprise to anyone who breathes and buys popcorn that the majority of studio movies released each year do not pass the Bechdel Test. The female perspective is in dramatically short supply in the male stories about men, made by men, that are the bulk of Hollywood’s output, whether in action flicks, comedies, superhero sagas, or thrillers. Still, this effective theatrical ploy – so very Scandinavian and socially progressive – has achieved its goal: People have been talking, and various titles have been trotted out to shock and illuminate. (The Lord of the Rings trilogy fails the test! So does all of the original Star Wars trilogy, Pulp Fiction, and The Social Network!).

Once the initial hubbub simmers down, two questions emerge: First, do the Bechdel Test ratings convey any meaningful information? And second, is there any hope of ever adjusting the balance of male/female relations in mainstream cinema to resemble more closely the way we live in the real world? Might there come a time when, on the Monday after the successful and lucrative weekend opening of a sizable movie featuring fully drawn female characters, number crunchers are no longer gobsmacked over and over again like poor Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, stunned that women buy tickets too?

The answers are no and yes. No, the posting of a good grade – or, more likely, a failing grade – at the entrance to a Stockholm cinema conveys almost nothing about the interplay of women and men in the movie under consideration. The rating is a gimmick, a canny display of feminist theatre. Why not mix it up so that one week the earnest Swedes count the appearance of characters of colour, the next week they quantify the presence of fat characters, or gay characters, or Muslim characters, or characters in wheelchairs? The very publicity bump that brings these Bechdel Test movie ratings to the attention of moviegoers around the world and sets off a flurry of pop-cultural commentary also reduces the issues to simplistic punchlines. Not to mention jokes about female characters named ‘large-breasted woman on the jury’ and ‘secretary.’

Change of focus

But the answer to the second question, about the possibility of change, is yes. Yes, change is possible, because we can see examples of the beneficial creative and box-office effect of gender inclusiveness right in front of us, right now. Consider the power of Twelve Years A Slave – a triumph of passionate storytelling, to be sure. Yet the story would be measurably cheated of nuance without the elegant, telling scene in which Lupita Nyong’o, as the tortured slave Patsey, is drawn into conversation with Alfre Woodard as Mistress Harriet Shaw, a former slave turned lady of privilege within the plantation system. The episode is a small one, a respite from the brutality suffered by Patsey (and, in turn, by the audience). It is also a crucial one in painting a picture as majestically terrible as the one director Steve McQueen takes on: With the subtlest of strokes, the chat expands our understanding of baroque Southern social structure, both white and black—and baroque Southern sexual relationships, too. The two women very much echo, in their way, the scenes in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln between Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln and Gloria Reuben as slave-turned-seamstress Elizabeth Keckley.

Consider, too, what some of today’s better-quality Bechdel failures could do with just the slightest adjustments. The magnificent, elemental struggle for survival in All Is Lost – one man in a boat in the big, wide ocean – demands masculine isolation to make its point. But Captain Phillips, about many men in a couple of boats in the big wide ocean, has the room, if the filmmakers had wanted to explore it, to incorporate women more fully than the brief appearance of Catherine Keener as the captain’s wife. Mrs. Phillips was not, after all, the only wife back home; the Somali pirates had families, too. Just one scene of the lives of those women would have deepened the story without distracting from the central, nail-biting tension among men on the high seas.

Once a Bechdel Tester begins to think along these lines, it is surprisingly easy to come up with opportunities for female characters to be incorporated into ‘male’ storylines. In Gravity, what if the voice coming from NASA mission control belonged to a female? In Inside Llewyn Davis, what if the filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen added a successful female folksinger to their roster of characters?

Although traditional ratings information about the sex, violence, and obscenity, is of undeniable practical use to consumers, the information yielded by a Bechdel Test is unlikely to change the mind of a consumer with a movie title or star in mind. Whether the next movie starring Will Smith, Ryan Gosling or Jason Statham happens to increase the number and substance of its female co-stars will not influence whether a fan likes or dislikes these stars. What the test can do – what it is doing right now – is to encourage us to think, however fleetingly, about how patterns of storytelling and gender dynamics become ruts, and how art can pave new paths. If a sign on a theatre door gets us thinking about that, it’s a gimmick well used.

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