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On the Bechdel Test (and theatre)

Posted on January 3, 2012 in Female Voices Festival


by Managing Director, Julia Harman Cain (@JuliaHarmanCain)
For the uninitiated and curious, the "Bechdel Test" sprang from this comic by Alison Bechdel and was credited to her friend Liz Wallace in 1985.  Here is the gist:
Does a movie have the following?
1. Two female characters.*
2. Who talk to each other.
3. About something other than a man.
That is the whole test. Just to clarify, the Bechdel test does not measure whether a movie is good or interesting or even feminist. Rather, this is a mind-poking way to ponder the presence of women in movies.
(For the NPR story on the "Test," click here)
The results are nuts. Many of my favorites completely flunk: the original Star Wars, 12 Angry Men, Schindler’s List, The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Princess Bride, Shawshank Redemption, Interview with a Vampire, and Inception. Even most early episodes of The West Wing and Law & Order. You know what does pass? 10 Things I Hate About You. And Mean Girls. (So there.)
A corollary: if you have to wrack your brain, then it may as well not pass. Maybe Claudia and that older lady vampire talk when they are getting burned to death in the thing. But since I’m not sure and I own the movie, it is not a clear pass.
An inverse: when people give you crap about the standard being too tough, try the rule in reverse (as in, with men). Everything will pass. Everything. Likely in the first five minutes of running time. Including Sesame Street
As Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency points out here, the absence of nuanced, named female character is a systemic problem. And the rule forces us to realize that such a problem exists. Movies are predominantly by men, for men, and about men. Which is not necessarily the fault of a given person or studio. But these movies sell and receive awards, and thus the formula goes unquestioned. Or unnoticed.
I am not a film expert, but a one-gender, one-sexuality perspective seems like bad business. Why limit your product and potential audience? Why ignore 50% of the pool of actors and directors and writers? It makes no sense to me. How does that forward film as a medium? How does that encourage advances in writing and style? How does it even make the maximum amount of money?
Moreover, creating an exclusive, gender-biased world breeds sameness in what that world produces. It yields predictable dynamics, predictable storylines. And seasons with No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits back to back. 
The theater rule: in my spin on the test, you pick a theatre. And test the season. 
We gave that a whirl here at Forum and the results were interesting. Since we have moved to Round House, here is what passed: Angels in America, Amazons and Their Men, Scorched, Headscarf and the Angry Bitch, and for colored girls… One Flea Spare passes in the last scene; while it has not started rehearsal yet, The Language Archive should pass. bobrauschenbergamerica and Mad Forest do not.
So what does this mean? I would guess that it is less a reflection of one theatre and more a reflection of our community as a whole.
Taking classics out of the mix, plays tend to fare better than movies. By a pretty solid margin. Check out the top-five longest running Broadway shows. I feel like an insane person arguing this, but Cats passes  -- “Memory” is a duet with two felines. A Chorus Line, Les Miserables, and Chicago pass. Phantom of the Opera is on the edge, but does pass (ballet scene). So do Rent and Wicked.
For a more fun example, so do a lot of the shows that I have seen in DC. They pass easily too. As in, I don’t have to pore over the script or call someone who worked on the show. I can remember a precise conversation -- even in a show like House of Gold that I saw once over a year ago -- that passes the test. Which says to me that the test is not just about equity of representation.
When all of a play’s characters -- not just the Bruce Waynes or Han Solos, but men and women alike -- are complex, multifaceted, and weird, I remember them. There is a reason that I can quote Mean Girls like a champ. That movie is no Citizen Kane, but the female characters are actually unique and weird. Art that captures a broad slice of the world, and actually does so in a complex way, tends to stick with you. Try out the test on the last five winners of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Not only do they pass, but you also can probably remember exact lines or moments.  Theater is not perfect (and anecdotes are not statistics), but maybe movies should take a hint.
In essence, the test is not the be-all-end-all. And plenty of incredible films and plays do not pass it, which by no means renders them less incredible. But the test is also a way to stay aware of how far we have to go. A way to question what is produced and funded and celebrated. A reminder of what we are seeking. Not just a 50/50 gender split on the cast list. But a cast that feels like our world. Characters that are complete and memorable. A world that is not just equal, but detailed.
* Characters” is the key word, to me. Two female extras in line at Starbucks are not characters. Those three blonde girls in the different colored dresses in Beauty and the Beast are not either. In fact, the “Mo Movie Measure” stipulates that the female characters need to have names. Whoa there. 
Comments (1)
Does for colored girls actually pass? I haven't read it in awhile but (a) it has no scenes and (b) it's almost entirely about men. I actually think "for colored girls" is a really good example of the *limits* of the Bechdel test (which are almost as fascinating as the spotlight the test shines)
Posted by Isaac on 01/10/12 | Reply
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