The Bluffers Guide To…The Bechdel Test

OK so I have a serious question.

A serious question? uh-oh.

Well I guess it’s serious, and it feels like something I should know.

Hmm. Well, go on then.

What’s the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test?

Yeah, you hear it mentioned all the time these days. Movie reviews, analysis, commentary, all sorts of things. It feels like I should know what it is.

Well you should, yes. To but it simply, the Bechdel Test is an analysis looking at the narrative presence of women in any given media.

That was simple?

54882e2b98f2d00004ac991d_agents-of-shield-recap-season-2-episode-10-skye-superheroWell yes, actually. I mean, how it started, and what it is now, are slightly different, and why it’s important is another thing again. I mean, it started largely as a joke with a serious point.

Start there then.

Alison Bechdel is an American cartoonist who first voiced the idea that would come to be named after her in a 1985 strip as part of Dykes to Watch Out For. In the strip, one of the characters states her rules for watching movies are threefold: that it has at least two female characters, that those characters actually talk to each other, and the conversation is not about a man.

But that’s most films, right?

No, wrong. Most modern assessments put a pass rate on this criteria about around 50-60%, varying mostly on if the two female characters need to be named on-screen or not.

But surely…it can’t be that hard….

Which is exactly why it’s become such a popular concept. It’s not such a big ask – just giving a couple of women in the cast change to make small talk about what they like to drink, and you’re through. But, when you look into it, that doesn’t seem to happen.

But hang on…if it’s only asking if women in the cast talk about something other than a bloke, it’s not really an indicator of that much, is it? I mean, they could be talking about how much they like pink handbags and kittens.

Like I said earlier..

…with the big words…

….yes, with the big words, all the Bechdel test really does is a give a handy metric about the presence of women in your story. There’s a lot of things it doesn’t do, like make any assessment of quality, of message that their presence gives out.Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)

So you could have a movie where the world is run by women and it’s a horrid, oppressive dystopia, but it’s likely to still pass the test.

Exactly, or a movie where lots of women go shopping and act like empty-headed barbie dolls, but because they’re only talking about shopping and dieting, they’d pass.

And a movie about one woman fighting a world of male oppression might fail.

Yes. So it’s not – and was never intended to be – a metric of whether a movie has a positive portrayal of women, or even a mark of progressive credibility. It’s simply a measure of presence, independent of men. But its come to mean much more.

Wasn’t there a cinema that was only showing films that passed?

In Sweden, yes. But personally I suspect they were missing the point a little bit.

So what is the point?

OK, so at the risk of getting on my soapbox, representation is important, and as geek culture has hit the mainstream in a big way in recent years, it’spicked up a lot of new fans, who are outside of the inherited geek audience which is largely white and male. That audience is reflected in its heroes, or its heroes are reflected in its audience, you take your pick.

Captain-Marvel-Carol-Danvers-bannerBut the Bechdel Test isn’t a geek thing, from what you said.

Not originally, no. It’s a pretty valid measure for any sort of culture, but it has certainly found traction as superheroes and other comic adaptations flood TV and Multiplexes. And like I said, most of these heroes are white guys, and the content revolves around them.

Is that even fair though? I mean, if the show is called “Doctor Who” then most of the characters are going to talk about him all the time. Just because he’s a bloke then it’s much harder for that show to pass.

Perhaps, but how hard is it to have some sense that your characters have lives away from the show’s centre? More importantly – this isn’t a metric for grading this show, or that movie. It’s a metric for looking at a swath of culture, and that culture falls largely short. What the Bechdel Test highlights is not that Doctor Who has a problem with representation, but that Geek Media broadly has a problem.

Well, duh. I mean, we live in a society with a representation problem.

We do. Any analysis that looks at any form of representation away from the White, Male, archetypes finds the same things. There isn’t a catchy name for it, but you can look at Black characters (male or female), or gay characters, or any other group and you’ll see the same thing. Representation is an issue.



OK, from a Devils Advocate perspective, why does it matter?

I’ll give you two good reasons. Firstly, it just seems unfair for people who enjoy say, superhero movies, who don’t see themselves on-screen. A character like Peter Parker is a success because he’s an everyman character that has spoken to generations of high-school nerds and maybe it’s only fair that girl nerds and black nerds have a character that speaks to them too.

Like SpiderGwen or Miles Morales?

Exactly! And they’re a success, right?


Second I’ll go for the selfish reason. There’s only so many stories of wealthy white guys taking to the streets to beat up criminals that I can read, because there are only so many stories you can tell without repeating yourself. Diverse casts lead to diverse story opportunities – assuming you choose to take them – and everyone is fond of complaining that they’re sick of seeing the same stories repeated. A character from a poor, hispanic background is going bring different things to the table, and tell different sorts of tales.

So we don’t need another Batman reboot we need a Batgirl movie?

Sure. I’d watch that.

Me too, actually. And I think I actually understood all that.

Well, that’s progress for you, at least ….

GS Blogger: Matt Farr

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