We all talk about the Bechdel Test all the time, because it's so simple: Does a story have two women who talk to each other, about something other than a man? But almost every time it comes up, we all dismiss it, because it's too simple or too arbitrary. But actually, the Bechdel Test is more important than anyone realizes.
Alison Bechdel came up with the Bechdel Test in the panels of her comic Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985, and it was just in the form of one woman explaining her "rule" about movies to another:
In the past, Bechdel herself has seemed weirded out by the attention to the Bechdel Test, and not sure whether she wanted some kind of all-encompassing metric named after herself. But she's recently become more open to the idea. In a blog post last year, she wrote:
I have always felt ambivalent about how the Test got attached to my name and went viral... But in recent years I've been trying to embrace the phenomenon. After all, the Test is about something I have dedicated my career to: the representation of women who are subjects and not objects.
The Bechdel Test is everywhere. Swedish cinemas experimented with creating a rating system based on it. There is a website that grades thousands of movies based on how well they pass it. Yesterday, a study was released showing Russell T. Davies' Doctor Who episodes pass the Test better than Steven Moffat's. Five Thirty-Eight recently did a report showing movies that pass the Test make more money.
And yet, whenever the subject of the Bechdel Test comes up, the conversation includes a lot of "buts": But the Test is kind of simplistic and doesn't account for how prominent those women's roles actually are. But the Test doesn't measure the number of women, since you can have just two women and pass. But it's unrealistic to expect supporting characters to talk about something other than the main character (who's generally male).
The Bechdel Test has become a huge part of our conversation about pop culture, but we all feel compelled to dismiss it or minimize it.
Perhaps the greatest complaint about the Bechdel Test, though, is the notion that it ends conversations instead of starting them. You just check the boxes and mark a movie "pass" or "fail." But that one is definitely not true — the Bechdel Test is often a part, or the beginning, of a larger and more complicated conversation about female representation in movies.
Let's admit the Bechdel Test is not fool-proof, since Gravity fails and a film where women talk about pedicures for 30 seconds would pass. The Test is still invaluable — precisely because so many films (and books) fail it. It's not a film-by-film metric, it's a barometer showing where we are in general. And it forces you to think, in aggregate, about why so many films would fail.
What are the reasons for failing this test?
The fascinating thing about the Bechdel Test page is that it breaks down, by category, which of the three steps of the test a movie fails. (And actually, the user debates about a lot of the films are fascinating to read, because they do drill down into the relationships in the movie, and how the characters are represented.)
And a shocking number of them fail because there aren't two named female characters in the film — there's one woman, who's the love interest or sidekick. Often, she gets to kick ass, especially in the first half of the movie before the male hero steps up and embraces his heroic destiny. Or she's mostly there to be "the chick" in the group of otherwise male heroes.
What does it mean when the women in a movie don't talk to each other at all? Often, it means there are multiple female characters but they're mostly minor roles. Or they're only defined in terms of their relationships to the men. Quite possibly, their main concerns revolve around either romance or the mental/emotional state of the male characters. There's an implication that they're in support roles to the "real" stars.
And then there are the movies where two women only talk about a man. It's worth considering one question that's sometimes brought up in this context: What do two male characters talk about, when they don't talk about a woman? They talk about their own feelings, or about abstract ideas. Often, they talk about the plot. Remember the plot? That thing that tends to be especially important in most science fiction and fantasy stories?
The "punchline" of Bechdel's original comic is that Alien passes the test because two women in it talk about "the monster". Maybe that's supposed to be sad, because talking about the monster is so limiting and unreal — but you know, if you're on a spaceship being attacked by a monster, talking about the monster seems like a sensible thing to do. If you're in a zombie movie, it makes sense to talk about zombies. If you're in a movie about orcs, yadda yadda. If two women aren't talking about the main plot of the film, or they're only talking about how it affects Captain America, then that's sad.
And of course when it comes to movies (and books, to a lesser extent) the story is shaped as much in the editing room as in the actual writing/filming process. Who decides what gets edited out? If there's a scene where two women have a real conversation about themselves, and someone decides it can afford to be cut, does that mean those characters were deemed less important? Often, what gets cut indicates what's central and what's peripheral.
As for that new study that shows the first four seasons of Doctor Who passing the Bechdel Test more than the recent seasons... five or six entire internets have been written about the relative strengths of Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat. But it's interesting how much Davies uses conversations between women to build his characters and stories — Rose Tyler is special, in the first season, because she talks to random women (the cleaning lady in "End of the World," the maid in "Unquiet Dead") and finds things out. And both Rose and Donna are shaped by brutal conversations with their mothers. What makes these companions special as well as relatable, for Davies, is bound up with their ability to relate to other women. As opposed to a time-swaddling mystery for Clara, or a romance for Amy.
What would happen if the Bechdel Test became more of a meme in Hollywood? There might be two standout female characters in a lot of movies that only have one. Women might be more integral to the plots of action movies, because they would talk to each other about the ticking time bomb or whatever. There might be some memorable conversations, which gave some talented actors a chance to stretch out slightly. Hard to see how any of this would be a bad thing.
But yes — the Bechdel Test is just the start of a conversation about how marginal women still are (in front of the camera and behind). And that, in turn, is part of an even larger conversation about how to have genre movies that 1) represent the human race more fully and 2) are less boring. And given how many men are getting to direct huge movies based on experience as production designers (Robert Stromberg), cinematographers (Wally Pfister) and writers (Roberto Orci) — none of which really guarantee that you'll be an accomplished director — it would be nice to see Hollywood also giving directing opportunities to women who've come at it via unconventional paths. That, in turn, would probably lead to more movies that passed both the Bechdel and audience-appreciation tests.
What the Bechdel Test does really well is provide a bellwether, a general indicator of how the wind is blowing. It's the start of a process. And once the number of films that pass goes up, on the whole, then the real work can begin.