The Bechdel Test has been discussed briefly on our show and I’ve heard it mentioned in almost every panel I’ve participated in or attended over the past year. Before utopYA in June I did more research about the test to understand it better. In conclusion, I still believe this test accomplishes nothing.
The test was popularized by Alison Bechdel's comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a 1985 strip called "The Rule." (The current strip archive only goes back to 1987.) She credits a friend, Liz Wallace, with “The Rule.”
- There are at least two named* female characters, who
- talk to each other
- about something other than a man.
*The female characters having names is not part of the original strip but something Alas! points out they added by mistake.
I assume the character in the strip explaining "The Rule" is gay. The point she seems to be making is she prefers movies with a female-to-female relationship, romantic or otherwise — a perfectly reasonable expectation for the character in the strip.
When you have a movie like “Behind the Candelabra” (or “Brokeback Mountain”) that tells the story of two gay men, what can you infer about the film because it fails The Bechdel test (the women do not talk to each other)? Can you say it fails as a film because women are underrepresented or, as a story, because the women in the film are not complex and interesting? Is this a sexist film? Are the writers and filmmakers sexist? The test really doesn’t conclude anything about “Behind the Candelabra” and the failure shows how limiting this so called test is.
Look at the film “Gravity.” It fails all the rules. But Sandra Bullock's character Ryan Stone is not just complex and interesting — she’s strong, human, and very real. There’s no romance between the male and female character; we don’t even know Ryan’s sexual orientation.
The character in Bechdel’s strip would not watch "Gravity." That’s fine because I think the rule means something different to her and that’s why, taking it out of the context of the strip, it's an oversimplification of the conversation about representation.
Without knowing what the goal for the character in “The Rule” is, how do you know if her goal matches yours? To me, feminism means that the sexes are equally represented so this rule is useless to me because I think "Gravity" is a brilliantly sex balanced film.
The complete cast of “Gravity” contains seven people — five men and two women. Only one man and one woman appear on screen; the rest of the cast are voices. You could argue that some of the male voices could have been female, but the power of the Ryan Stone character required the contrast to emphasize her even further. It’s like putting one, five gram gold piece on one side of the scale and five, one gram gold pieces on the other.
WHAT IS FEMINISM?
Depending on the feminist view you take, the Bechdel test may work for you. My complaint is it’s broadly used to measure equality of the sexes in story and it does not do that. At best, it measures female-to-female relationship representations. That’s it.
Story telling is so complex and multifaceted. Not only do I believe a test cannot be created to determine sex equality in films, I think any list you create would be prejudiced.