Monday, October 28, 2013

The Problem with the Bechdel Test

 As appears to be my particular idiom anymore, I got myself entrenched in a fight on twitter. Because if you're going to row with someone it should be in 140 characters or less.

It began with me inserting a moment of clarity in between the constant fart jokes:

If your female character doesn't exist outside of the prism of your male character's existence, you do not have a "strong woman."

Quite a few male writers had to rush to my somnolent twitter feed to inform me I was wrong (of course I am, I'm just a girl), that all of their characters are strong females because they hit things. Sometimes they hit things really hard. Maybe one's like a B cup, a large B cup of course. And then they drop the bomb, well it passed the Bechdel Test so they're all capable characters, can't accuse me of sexism.

Let us break down the Bechdel test for those who have yet to hear of it.

In order to pass all you need are
  • Two named women
  • Together in a scene (only one scene necessary)
  • Talking about something other than men
That is bloody it. Yet the point of it was how rarely movies passed, that so much of media falls upon the 25:75 ratio. One Sue Storm to the three other fantastics (soulless scientists not withstanding). It was to show how rare it was for women to exist outside, to have a point, beyond the main male characters purpose.

The test was supposed to draw attention to the dearth of female characters, instead so many men found it a convenient excuse to prove they can't be accused of sexism.

Throw in a character named Candy talking to another named Mandy about how awesome shoes are then back to the guys actually saving the world. Boom, Bechdel Test passed, this is a totally feminist work with three dimensional women.

I'm not a big fan of playing the reverse game, but imagine the utter shit fits thrown if all you needed to prove you have a fully fleshed out three dimensional male character is that you have
  • Two named men
  • Together in one scene
  • Talking about something that has nothing to do with women
This Brochdel Test is passed by, oh, just about every movie in existence. Men can have pasts, they can have motivations, desires, needs, wants outside of sex.

Women have that one scene where the love interest gossips with her best friend, who will probably never be seen again.

I came to realize recently that I despise the always tacked on female character in action movies because she's there for one reason, to polish the main character's penis. Once that's done she's nothing more than an animated set piece, occasionally transformed into a breathing Macguffin. Oh sure, maybe she throws a punch or two, taps a stick lightly against a rat of unusual size, but if you removed the male character she would cease to exist. All her motivation comes down to is making the male protagonist happy (ifyaknowwhatImean nudge nudge); without him around she'd stand blank like a Stepford robot in the kitchen making sad beeping noises waiting for someone to switch her off.

No, passing the Bechdel test does not mean you have a fully culpable, capable, or even somewhat realistic female character. If you're uncertain and concerned you could try asking another woman and, this is the really important part, listening to her. Don't ignore the words flowing out of her mouth and mentally fill in her criticism with diamonds/babies/yogurt/chocolate/pumpkin spice latte and change nothing. We've been doing this woman thing a hell of a lot longer than you. We may just know what the hell we're talking about.

So I say we need to have a second level of the Bechdel test; if you are basing the idea that you cannot be accused of sexism upon this test then you need to pass the second level.
  • Have a named female character
  • Whose life does not revolve around a male character
  • Done. Maybe have some pancakes to celebrate?
I'm guessing, much like the original Bechdel test, most media will fail.


Aaron Pound said...

Authors and Screenwriters who trumpet their passing the Bechdel test really are missing the point. The Bechdel test was supposed to be an intentionally low bar to show how ridiculous Hollywood's portrayal of women is by saying "look, Hollywood usually can't even pass this ridiculously easy test".

If a writer is touting their non-sexist bona fides by pointing to how their work passes the Bechdel test, then one can be pretty sure that their writing is pretty damn sexist.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't heard of the Bechdel test but I like yours better. When thinking of stories I like, well rounded characters do have a life outside the protagonist. Even better when those characters are female.

Anonymous said...

Here's a piece that'll sort of go through with your piece. Do give it a read.

Teresa D. Lee said...

I like the ideas behind the Bechdel test but think reducing it to a litmus test reduces the likelihood of having the conversations you need to have about the stories and characters that fail it.
Bechdel test fail" (for brevity) or "April O'Neill, while being better than most female characters on Saturday morning TV, is still a poor excuse for an imaginary woman because she [didn't] have a weapon and all the guys just crush on her or protect her instead of looking to her for research experience."

Marshall Smith said...

Fully agree. It's my primary issue with the Swedish theaters giving movies an "A" rating if they pass the Bechdel Test. That should be a C, tops.

And to echo Nishu, your version sounds a lot like the Mako Mori Test. Personally, I think we need both tests. Bechdel helps ensure quantity of female roles, Mako Mori helps ensure quality.