The Bechdel Test Becomes a Bigger Deal

Entertainment Weekly August 13

I was stunned (in a good way) to see that the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly (cover-dated August 13) had a full-page column about this.

Mark Harris’ column, entitled “I Am Woman. Hear Me… Please!” (which apparently isn’t available online) attacks Hollywood movies for how often they fail the Bechdel Test. In this simple evaluation, first formulated by cartoonist Alison Bechdel (Fun Home, Dykes to Watch Out For) in this comic 25 (!) years ago, a film passes if it shows two women talking to each other about something other than a man.

Harris points out that nowadays, we need a slight variation: the women must have names, which means no credits like “Secretary” or “Topless Party Girl”, which says volumes in terms of how Hollywood sees its actresses. In effect, the test requires that a film not focus entirely on male wants and needs and view women as more than love/lust/sex objects driven by their relationships with men. And that a movie have more than one major female character. As Harris writes,

The wonderful and tragic thing about the Bechdel Test is not, as you’ve doubtless already guessed, that so few Hollywood films manage to pass, but that the standard it creates is so pathetically minimal — the equivalent of those first 200 points we’re all told we got on the SATs just for filling out our names. Yet as the test has proved time and again, when it comes to the depiction of women in studio movies, no matter how low you set the bar, dozens of films will still trip over it and then insist with aggrieved self-righteousness that the bar never should have been there in the first place and that surely you’re not talking about quotas.

Well, yes, you big, dumb, expensive “based on a graphic novel” doofus of a major motion picture: I am talking about quotas. A quota of two whole women and one whole conversation that doesn’t include the line “I saw him first!” …

… consider the double standard: If the Bechdel Test had suddenly landed in Hollywood with the force of law, it would have seriously jeopardized five of last year’s 10 Best Picture nominees. If we’d rewritten the rule to apply to men, it would have seriously jeopardized… um… let’s see… Precious.

… [quotas], after all, have their place in the world, that place being to solve a problem when an unfair imbalance exists and the people in charge have no interest in correcting it on their own.

There are great movies that don’t pass this test — either because of setting (example: Platoon) or premise (Brokeback Mountain) or less intrinsic factors, like The Princess Bride — and crappy movies that do, including All About Steve. It’s not a be-all and end-all measure of quality. But it does say something important about what is considered mass market and why women may not be as interested in the latest blockbuster as the boys are. Of course, more films that pass would require film schools to stop teaching writers not to pass it. In that post, Jennifer Kesler writes:

According to Hollywood, if two women came on screen and started talking, the target male audience’s brain would glaze over and assume the women were talking about nail polish or shoes or something that didn’t pertain to the story. Only if they heard the name of a man in the story would they tune back in. By having women talk to each other about something other than men, I was “losing the audience.”… I concluded Hollywood was was dominated by perpetual pre-adolescent boys making the movies they wanted to see, and using the “target audience” – a construct based on partial truths and twisted math – to perpetuate their own desires.

If you want to check out your favorite films, there’s a whole website where people evaluate movies and argue what counts to pass.

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