Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Going Beyond the Bechdel Test

If you've read just a few of my film analyses, you might have noticed that I rarely discuss the Bechdel Test, and when I do, it's just a passing statement or two. It's not that I've forgotten; it's because I think that the Bechdel Test isn't that interesting when it comes to the overall gender portrayal in films. But I frequently receive emails and messages asking if the films I've written about pass it or mentioning that a movie did or didn't pass. Since it seems to be so important so so many people, I'd like to explain why I feel we need to move past Bechdel.

Let me back, up. I think that the Bechdel Test is an important concept to consider. It points out how sadly rare it is for movies to have two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. But I take two main issues with this criteria being used as short hand for a "feminist film."

1) There overall gender elements of a text that are more important than Brechdel.
When Bechdel is used as the bare minimum for a movie to be viewed as not totally sexist, fine. But I don't think it makes sense to place undue emphasis on Bechdel. For example, in my recent Pacific Rim analysis, as I mentioned, there was a very strong female character who played a critical role in the action of the story. But it doesn't pass Bechdel. So should a movie that passes Bechdel but relegates the women to minor side characters be seen as "more feminist" than Pacific Rim? I'd argue not. As with everything, it is so much more important to view the overall messages, themes, and the full picture than to tick off boxes to pass Bechdel. Otherwise, you're just treading into tokenism and pandering. Which leads me directly to my next point...

2) Bechdel can be abused as an easy out for filmmakers to think they've done something progressive when they actually haven't.
Because my partner is a filmmaker, I know a lot of men who make independent films. As such, I have literally heard and read situations where a few of them have said things like, "Oh let's make sure we give that character a name so that this movie passes the Bechdel Test." I'm not kidding. Because Bechdel is pretty well known at this point, it is effecting male screenwriters. But the net result is not positive when Brechdel is simply pandered to. Like I said above, it is so much more important for films to contain strong and authentic female characters who directly contribute to the action of the film, than it is for Brechdel to be met. I want men to examine how their privilege and their experiences have colored their work and really think about what they create.

So, sorry...you don't get a cookie because you wrote in a 2 second scene where two women speak.

Now, I'm hardly the first person to point these things out and note flaws in Bechdel. But I think it's important that I lay out why I often overlook this issue in my analyses. It's not a mistake...it's often a decision I make. I want to de-emphasize this test.

I don't like things that feel like simplistic reductions of big concepts and the way that The Bechdel Test is applied often falls into this category. I want to encourage actual analysis and thoughtful discussion. Again, I'm not saying we should abandon Bechdel because it does start very important dissections of the media texts before us. But we cannot and should not stop at Bechdel nor give it too much weight.

There is no easy short cut to making more feminist films.

Please see the commenting policy before replying to this post.


  1. It's like some people forget that the Bechdel test was based on a web comic. It isn't meant to be applied on a film by film basis, but rather used as a tool to evaluate films/genres in general. That said, it is sad how many films with strong female characters (another constantly misused term) fail to have female characters interact in any meaningful way besides talking about dudes.

  2. The Bechdel Test was an eye-opener for me, and I appreciate the website; in the comments for various movies you come across interesting discussions about what would actually constitute a conversation, for instance. Is it just an exchange of three lines? Is it those twenty seconds the female characters spend complimenting each other's shoes? I think many of the commenters there would agree with you and are aware that it isn't a test of feminism in a movie - that it's just one part of the bigger picture of how female characters are portrayed on-screen. And the website did open my eyes to how much people need to struggle to find not only films that meet the barebones requirements for the test, but films that have meaningful conversations between women or girls. It's disheartening though to hear about male filmmakers whose only concern is to throw in a couple of extra lines of dialogue to make sure it passes... they're missing the point.

    1. Yes, they sure are. Don't worry, I call it out when I can.

  3. Bechdel not Brechdel. Please, try to get her name right, regardless of how you feel about the Bechdel test.


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