By Ali Bush ‘19
Being both a feminist and a cinephile, I was excited to learn about the Bechdel Test a few years ago, a standardized way to analyze films with a feminist lens. Then, I soon learned that the Bechdel Test is simply not enough to tackle issues of unbalanced representation in film today.
To kick off “Halloweekend” on Scripps’ campus, a group of 5C students organized and held a screening of a Halloween-themed episode of Friends and analyzed the episode through the lens of the popular, yet flawed Bechdel Test, in order to start a dialogue about women in television and film. First engineered by Alison Bechdel in her 1985 comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, the Bechdel test was designed to examine representation of female characters and their relationships with each other in films. In order to pass the Bechdel Test, a film must 1) have two named female characters 2) that speak to each other 3) about a topic other than men. In theory, a film that passes the Bechdel Test contains multiple “strong” female characters that do not simply exist to be saved by heroic males or to prop up male counterparts. The group discussion that followed the screening shed some light on the flaws of the Bechdel Test.
For example, although the particular episode of Friends that was screened passed the Bechdel Test, characters ardently adhered to binary gender roles and the focus of the episode revolved around heterosexual relationships of an all white cast. This event opened the door to discussion about the imperfections of the Bechdel Test and society’s recent fascination with this flawed mechanism.
In recent years, scholars have come to realize that the Bechdel Test is entirely too one-dimensional to truly measure equal gender representation in film. Furthermore, it has become clear that a film’s passing of this test by no means indicates that it is a feminist manifesto. A common loophole that allows many films to pass this test are conversations that occur between two women that are often written by male screenwriters about something frivolous or demeaning to women, such as shopping or makeup. However, the surprisingly large number of films that don’t pass this test does expose the lack of female characters in film, but the Bechdel Test poses many more complexities. For example, only a small percentage of award-winning movies pass the test while many female-centric films, such as Gravity (2013) and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) fail to pass the test. Surprisingly, films that promote misogyny and male dominance, such as the much-dated From Russia with Love (1963) and extremely male-centered All About Steve (2009) somehow pass the test.
Additionally, the test fails to address the lack of many identities that are equally important to represent, such as characters of different races, classes, sexualities, ages, body types, and gender identities. It is clear that the Bechdel Test most often grants its stamp of approval to movies that contain white, able-bodied, heterosexual cis women. With these flaws in mind, many revisions have been made to the initial Bechdel Test, such as the Racial Bechdel Test which tests the number of characters of color that discuss a topic other than a white person. Similarly, activist and writer Roxane Gay offers amendments to the test, such as inclusion of “women of color, transgender, and queer women,” or inclusion of a romantic storyline that doesn’t “compromise [a female character’s] sanity or common sense.”
These revisions prove that the phenomena the Bechdel Test has grown to be has lost its significance and potential to remedy representations in film. For many, passing the Bechdel Test is a film’s stamp of feminist approval, and the obsessive process of categorizing films loses sight of Bechdel’s initial intention: a more equal and true representation of women in film. As Huffington Post writer Anna Waletzko so perfectly puts it “feminism, like movies, is nuanced, and that’s what the Bechdel Test lacks.” Although Alison Bechdel created this model merely to serve as a punch-line in her comic strip, it has obviously gained more significance and it is simply not enough. Society’s fascination and obsession with categorizing films as Bechdel or non-Bechdel, and the complete disregard of films that don’t pass the test are detrimental to the way we look at film. The Bechdel Test limits our analysis of film to gender representation, which is a no doubt serious issue that must be addressed in Hollywood; however, the test also blinds us from the lack of other intersecting identities that also desperately need more representation in film and television. Although the Bechdel Test is entirely too one-dimensional to truly assess intersectional feminism in film, it does do some good: it questions the veracity of identities represented in films and starts conversations about the flaws in the movies and TV series that we all love.