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The Bechdel Test started off as a joke. No, really. It was a throw-away bit in a comic strip in 1985. A character in Allison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For explains that she doesn't go to see any movie unless it satisfies three basic requirements: 1) it has two women in it, that 2) talk to each other about, 3) something other than a man.
For me, the Bechdel Test was eye-opening, even life-changing. Until just a few years ago, I didn't consider myself a feminist. I was one of those kids that grew up thinking that the war had been won, that women and men had equal representation in the media and in the workplace, and that feminism had no place in the modern world and certainly no relevance to my life.
When I first read about the Bechdel Test, I went to my DVD shelf and started counting the movies that passed the test and the ones that failed it.
Over 90% of the DVDs I owned failed the test. Those that did pass often did so only by the skin of their teeth based on a single conversation.
To say I was stunned is an understatement. I was floored.
My movie collection is pretty eclectic, with everything from big-name movies like Harry Potter to little-known gems like Dark City. And it's not just my collection, it's my husband's collection as well. We have old classics like Casablanca and Breakfast at Tiffany's, foreign films like God of Cookery and Das Boot, musicals like The Gay Divorcee, romances like LA Story, and plenty of geeky favorites, (Princess Bride, Labyrinth, Buckaroo Banzai, John Carpenter's The Thing…)
But even with this diverse selection, only a tiny fraction of the movies were able to pass this simple test, and often only just.
Then I counted the number that passed the 'reverse' Bechdel test – that is, two named male characters in the movie had a conversation about something other than a woman. Almost every movie I owned passed that test, often easily and based on many conversations.
Perhaps you think I'm exaggerating. I encourage you to try this with your own collection: make a list of all the movies you own, and determine what percentage of them pass both the Bechdel and the reverse Bechdel Test. If you're not sure about a movie, you can always check to see if it's listed at the Bechdel Test website. Even when a movie does pass, it's worth checking the comments on the site to see how it passes. Do two named female characters have multiple conversations, or does the movie pass only because of single, three-line exchange?
If you're a person who's been involved with social justice and feminism, all this probably sounds naïve. But if you're like I was, perhaps you'll be startled by the dearth of women in the movies you own. Let's face it, it's not that hard to pass the test. The fact that so many movies I owned failed, despite the broad range of our collection, showed me unequivocally that women truly don't appear in movies as often as men do, and that when they do, their stories often revolve exclusively around the males in the movie. It's something that, once I became aware of it, I couldn't unsee – every time I saw a preview for a movie or a comic, I would note how few women appeared, and how those who did always seemed to show up in the same kinds of roles (mostly love interest or villain). The Bechdel Test fundamentally changed the way I approach the media I consume.
Since its inception almost thirty years ago, what started off as a joke has taken on a life of its own. It's been called the Bechdel Test (pronounced "Beck-dall" Test), The Bechdel/Wallace Test (after Bechdel attributed the origin of the idea to her friend Liz Wallace), the Bechdel Rule, and Mo's Movie Measure. In recent years the idea has gained popularity and a considerable amount of momentum. It's been refined, with a slight addition: the two women who speak to each other must actually have names. It's been codified, with its own website at BechdelTest.com, where people argue passionately over what constitutes a 'conversation'. It's even been made into its own special rating in Sweden, where, alongside the standard rating system, movies are publicly graded on whether they pass the test or not.
And, while it's exciting that other people are being exposed to the test and hopefully having the same kind of revelation I did, I'm also seeing a disturbing trend: more and more people are treating the Bechdel Test as the be-all and end-all test for feminism in movies. Though many have tried to explain that the test is really only significant when considered in aggregate, suddenly the question of whether or not an individual movie passes has become important, with even movies featuring interesting, independent female characters getting heavy criticism for not passing.
This worries me. The truth is, the test is meaningless when applied to a single movie.
Let me say that again.
Evaluating any specific movie based on whether or not it passes the Bechdel Test tells us effectively nothing about the movie or the world we live in. There are plenty of fantastic movies that fail it. There are even movies that star women that fail it – see: Gravity. Actually choosing to watch a movie based on whether it passes the letter of the test or not, as Mo does, would be kind of ridiculous in real life.
It's the fact that so many movies fail the test that's striking, especially so many well-known and popular movies. All but one of the Harry Potter movies fail. The entire original Star Wars trilogy fails. So does the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. And the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And the vast majority of Pixar's films. These aren't movies about soldiers set in a time when soldiers weren't supposed to be female. They're fantasy movies about made-up worlds starring students at a magical school, pirate men and ladies, and hobbits and elves. As dustandsoul notes:
2013′s Monsters University has absolutely no reason to fail the Bechdel given its audience and the infinite scope of its setting.
But it does.
It's easy to pass the Bechdel Test. And that's why it scares me: it's a simple matter to force a movie to pass the letter of the test by throwing in a couple of women, naming them, and giving them a line or two about shoes or curtains. Doing so may make a movie pass, but it doesn't really address the fundamental, underlying problem of lack of representation of
women in media. The hyper-focused attention we give to this one rule is misplaced at best, dangerous at worst. The Bechdel Test can open our eyes to the huge lack of female representation in the media we consume – but it can also blind us as to what's really important if we act like it's the only important measure of female representation.
The Bechdel Test must be a beginning, not an end.