The limitations of the BECHDEL TEST

As a cartoonist who loves stories, whether it’s novels, comic books, or movies I am always looking for ways to improve myself when it comes to writing.

I have this idea about a team of female protagonists which I am in the process of writing. I looked around on the Internet for cliches to avoid and the Bechdel test, something I wanted to learn more about was mentioned more than once whether it was in podcasts, articles and forums.

So I wanted to find out for myself what it is and hopefully learn something that would help my writing. However when I noticed how a satirical comment from a prolific cartoonist was turned into under the guise of people who critique ART but who have never themselves created any ART, I had to say something.

The test is named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel who suggested a way to check whether a film shows women as equal to men, by asking if it includes:

  1. At least two (named) women
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

Alison Bechdel was inspired by an essay by writer Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own” in which she noted that she rarely saw “women represented as friends” in works of fiction. Instead, women were shown only “in their relation to men.”

I wanted to talk about this test because it is referenced in several discussions as a good indicator whether women are shown as equals to men. I don’t know about that because the test is flawed.

OK before we go any further some of you may say, but who cares? Why are people so worried about representation. Actually I have another post about representation coming soon but I am at first glance sympathetic to the cause. Because for me stories are not just stories. Movies are a representation of reality, a representation of society. I understand the frustration in finding that not being able to give everyone a place in MOVIE REALITY is like not being able to figure out their place in OUR REALITY. But we have to keep in mind that the way ART is created and enjoyed is very subjective.

Having said that I have found articles which give a financial argument in support of this test showing that the movies released as recent as 2016 who pass the test on average make more money internationally than the movies that don’t. This is an interesting point to which I will come back in a moment.

As a cartoonist myself who admires my peers. I think Alison Bechdel did what any artist who has something to say does, I feel that this method as been twisted to be used as a tool to evaluate film in general. SHE doesn’t even follow it seriously. (go watch her interview in Late Night with Seth Meyers show)

I believe that she did what most good artists do, she said “HEY HAVE YOU NOTICED…?” with her art.

I finally get to the part where I am going to put forward my arguments against not only this test but any test to evaluate the quality of art. Talking about the limitations of the Bechdel test is not a new idea, it’s just my version of the idea.

The first rule is to have at least two women with names. This is a very reasonable and to be completely honest in a webcomic series I published I put three women and they don’t interact with each other so needless to say this is therapeutic for me, and makes me study my own degree of misogyny.

However, there is a reason for it, because most movies are written by men. I will propose a solution for this at the end don’t worry, but the solution is not to fill the cast with women who feel out of place in the whole story. I hate to do this but since these are my arguments I will take another example. It’s like saying Japanese people are racists. If you look at their history you might understand why they have been closed to other cultures, the solution is not to flood their country with people from other cultures, they will feel out of place by THEY, I mean the foreigners and the Japanese people.  

The second rule is that they know each other, or at least talk to each other. I don’t know about you but as a straight man I have rarely been in a place where I actually witnessed two women talk to each other as if I wasn’t there, we all talk together about a topic. I don’t sit there and eaves drop on what they are saying. It’s usually me and another friend or in a large group of people. So when I actually sit and write as a man I tend to simplify and put the events through my subjective lenses.  

As mentioned earlier movies are a representation of real life even if it takes place in a distant future. For the third rule, I know it’s not the only topic but are you telling me that two women who are friends never talk about men in their lives? And from a story writing point of view If the protagonist is mostly male and as protagonist by definitions his decisions drive the plot forward the scenes you would want to show would be the consequences of his decisions so other characters whether they are male of female would react, comment on what the male protagonist does.

To give an example, to see whether the opposite is true, when we take a movie like GONE GIRL, based on the novel written by Gillian Flynn who also wrote the screenplay for the movie. Since Amy, the character played by Rosamund Pike is the protagonist the story revolves around her so the men are shown in relationship with her, and when they meet and talk like when Ben Affleck’s character talks to one of her ex-boyfriends they talk about Amy. That doesn’t mean that men are not shown as equals in that movie, the movie is serving a story not a character.   

Now let’s talk about the financial argument in favor of such tests: Yes movies which pass the test earn more than the ones that don’t but there is no proof of connection between the movie passing the test and the additional amount of money it makes. Otherwise executives who are always looking for formulas to follow because movie business is business after all would screen the scripts and require scenes that would allow the movie to pass the test before green lighting the projects.

By the way while I was talking you might have seen scenes from movies with GREEN OR RED Bs you might have seen that the following movies have surprisingly passed the test:

Weird science 1985

American Pie 2 (2001)

How to lose a guy in 10 days (2003)

Scary movie (2000)

Conan the barbarian

Snakes on a plane

However, here are some movies that don’t pass the Bechdel test:

The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win the oscar for best director doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.

ORLANDO fails the Bechdel test, a movie based on the novel by Virginia Woolf who inspired the test in the first place.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? from 1966 doesn’t pass the test either.

This happens because you can build scenes in a movie which allow you to pass the test but then the overall movie might not move us forward in solving the problem which we will talk about.

Here are some more movies that failed the test:

Gravity

Girl with the dragon tattoo

Pacific Rim

Run lola run

Lord of the Rings trilogy

Moonlight

A quiet place

Clearly, the test is not an indicator of the quality of the movie.

How good are movies which pass the Bechdel Test?

Check out the link above, the movies that failed the test have higher rating than the ones that did . Again the same point could be made here, the aspect of the movie that made the movie fail the test is not what made the movie better in the eyes of critics.

The other point which can be pointed out is that, YES women go watch the movies, but it’s not only women who go watch the movie. And this test gives importance to the role women play in movies, if we do that then we also need to come up with tests for all the people who are not represented in most movies. This again will only create frustration to the future creators and force filmmakers to try to please a larger crowd instead of just saying what they want to.

I propose that we should ask ourselves, what is the problem we are trying to solve?

WOMEN ARE ALWAYS SHOWN FROM THE MALE PERSPECTIVE.

As I mentioned earlier since most movies are written by men, they are writing about the things they have felt during a particular period of time. So to change this, the perspective from which the stories are told need to be diverse rather than the gender of the characters. Characters in a works of fiction should represent ideas. We understand stories because we communicate through stories. They have to inspire empathy so the point of the story is to make you feel what the character feels regardless of their gender, ethnicity and so on.

Just saying that one person’s perspective is always different from your own is also a lack of imagination, rather the opposite stance should be adopted which means regardless of the person portrayed on the screen if you say to yourself “I am open to what that person has to say”, regardless of where they come from, THAT would bring us together. If you feel that your voice is not heard on your beloved art form, try to create your version of it, that’s how innovation happens. Create so much and so many things with so much enthusiasm that people can’t ignore you.

CONCLUSION

Everything starts with acceptance, accept that there is a problem, but the problem is not that there should be more women on the screen, the problem is, there needs to more creative writers who can create compelling characters to make us think and feel like someone we are not.

Well the first rule of ART is there shouldn’t be any rules, although this formula allows us to look back on film inventory and make assessments, this doesn’t help the future creations.

Giving someone a test is also giving them the shortcuts. I mean, Executives must love tests like this and then when they see that one film works that passes a criteria, they will flood the market with other films that fit that criteria until people are sick of it.

As a guy who is trying to publish comic books I read a lot of articles about writing compelling, complex female characters and almost all the articles said the same thing: WRITE A GOOD CHARACTER regardless of their gender.

Like I said I understand that women must have seen only the male perspectives on the screen, but it’s not enough to say having more women on the screen will solve problems or having more scenes with women will solve the problem.

If you feel there is a void in world, if you feel that something is missing in terms of creation, and you can make it, MAKE IT.  

So tests like the Bechdel test are not enough or am I stupid?

Published by

sketchmanboris

A cartoonist, teacher, podcast, Youtuber

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