On The Bechdel Test

For the uninitiated, the Bechdel Test is meant to gauge the presence of female characters in film. In order to pass the test, a film must meet three requirements:

  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

The test is named after Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist who formulated the rule as a setup to a punchline in a 1985 comic strip for Dykes to Watch Out For (the punchline: “Last movie I was able to see was Alien…”) There are many variants to the rules, but the one listed above seems to be the most common – it adds a requirement that the two female characters have to be “named” to avoid counting stuff like a female clerk giving a woman change or something (a reasonable addition). It has slowly but surely ingrained itself into the popular culture, especially on the internet in the past few years. Indeed, it’s become so popular that it’s now frequently used incorrectly!

BechdelTest.com seems to be the best resource for this sort of thing, and the statistics are interesting. Out of 4570 movies, only 2555 (55.9%) pass the test. The trend does seem to be (very slowly) improving over time, but it’s a pretty dismal portrait.

The Bechdel Test is far from perfect (more on that in a bit), but I do find it to be interesting for two reasons:

  • It’s objective. Discussions of identity politics seem to angry up the blood, especially on the internets, so the removal of any subjectivity from the test is a good thing. These are facts here, not opinions.
  • It really does illustrate a certain type of gender imbalance in film. This is an important observation, if not the end-all-and-be-all of feminist criticism.

Alas, there are some rather severe limitations on this test:

  • It says nothing about the quality of the film in question. For instance, Citizen Kane and Casablanca fail the test. On the other hand, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (12% on Rotten Tomatoes) and The Smurfs 2 (14% on Rotten Tomatoes) pass.
  • It says nothing about how “feminist friendly” the film is. For instance: Showgirls passes the test, and while I don’t have a specific reference for this next one, I’m positive that there are lesbian porn movies (made explicitly for the titillation of men) that would pass the test too.

This isn’t mainsplaining or patriarchy speaking, these are acknowledged limitations of the test. Of course, finding ironic counterexamples is missing the point. It’s not that a given movie passes or fails the test, what matters is when you look at the film industry as a whole.

This, however, is the biggest flaw of the test. It’s a macro test applied at the micro scale. The test says nothing about an individual film’s worth (feminist or not), but the test must be applied to individual films. This leads to a whole boatload of misunderstandings and misguided attempts to tarnish (or praise) a movie because it failed (or passed) the Bechdel test. BechdelTest.com is filled with objections to a given rating and debate about whether an individual film is feminist enough to pass and other such misunderstandings of the rules (for instance: something can’t “barely” pass, it either does or doesn’t). This account of two students attempting to dominate their class by using the Bechdel Test to dismiss any film that didn’t pass is another demonstration. “They labeled any film that didn’t pass the test as unworthy of praise and sexist. … I’m not exaggerating in that statement, the pair literally dismissed Citizen Kane altogether and praised Burlesque.” (Of course, as the first commenter notes, both the account and the two students were applying the test incorrectly). Swedish movie theaters are instituting a new rating system that labels films that have passed (I’m not entirely clear of the implications here, but it’s still kinda missing the point).

The list could go on and on, but severe limitations like this make it clear that the Bechdel Test has a limited application. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that and it does illustrate something about the industry, but let’s stop applying it where it doesn’t belong.

Some other assorted thoughts on the Bechdel Test:

  • One of the things that has always irked me about the test is the lack of a stated baseline. I’d be curious to see what a “reverse” Bechdel Test would show, and I think it would give greater context to the numbers being thrown around. Yeah, a 55.9% pass rate sounds low, but what if the “reverse” test showed a similar number for male representation in movies? Of course, it’s blindingly obvious that the male rate is significantly higher (my guess: 80%-90%), but it’s worth noting that just because a movie fails the Bechdel Test doesn’t mean it would pass the reverse test (in particular, I think the “about something other than a man/woman” rule would hit both sexes in the same movie pretty often. Having a baseline would better underscore the issue.
  • It’s ironic that one of the test’s biggest strengths, it’s objectivity, is also one of its biggest weaknesses. This, however, is true for just about any objective measurement ever conceived (i.e. not just for film). Objective measurements only ever tell a small proportion of the story, and you can’t judge an individual movie’s worth by checking boxes on a form (unless those boxes are for subjective measurements). If the Bechdel Test is your only way of evaluating movies, you will get a very myopic view of the industry.
  • Are there better, simpler metrics that could illustrate a similar issue? For instance, in an industry where the Auteur theory seems to be generally accepted, the director of the film is considered to be the primary author. Guess how many movies are directed by women? It’s somewhere on the order of 5%-10%, and most of them are tiny indies that you’ve never heard of… When you add in writers, producers, editors, etc… the numbers are still pretty low.
  • So what to do about the Bechdel Test results? I imagine this is where most arguments get really heated. I don’t know the answer, but given the above bullet, it looks to me like we need more female filmmakers. Artists tend to focus on what they know, and since the grand majority of filmmakers are men, it’s not surprising that female representation is low. How this would happen is a can of worms in itself…
  • It strikes me that the misunderstandings and limitations surrounding the Bechdel test are emblematic of debate surrounding identity politics in general. In particular, the resolution of individual/group dynamics is what trips a lot of people up (i.e. the Bechdel test says nothing important about individual movies, only groups of movies, yet because of the need to apply the Bechdel test at an individual level, the discussion often stays at that level). When it comes to insidious systemic issues like this, there’s a narrow line to walk, and it’s very easy to veer off the path.

Well, I think I’ve blabbered on long enough. What say you?