If you have a Tumblr account, Twitter username, or Facebook profile, you may have come across a little thing called the Bechdel test. If not, the test has now even appeared in the mainstream media such as The Guardian and The Washington Post and has become synonymous with a way to determine whether or not a film is feminist.
The test gained traction on the blogosphere around 2008, although the origins of the concept can be traced back to the pre-social media days of 1985. That year a strip in Alison Bechdel’s comic series Dykes to Watch Out For introduced a way of assessing a film’s feminist credentials. “The Rule”, as the strip is titled, depicts two women discussing what to see at the cinema. One of the cartoon characters reveals that she “goes to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements.” They are as follows: 1. The film has at least two female characters; 2. These two female characters within the film talk to each other; and 3. What the two female characters in the film talk about has nothing to do with a man. This same woman in the comic laments that with her rule in place the last film she was able to see was Alien! In that film, released in 1979, by the way, Sigourney Weaver and another female crew member on the ship talk to each other about a subject other than a man: the monster. While not strictly true that there were no films between 1979 and 1985 that feature at least two female characters that talked to each other about something other than men, the comic exaggerates (a little) for political effect. The recent spotlight on the Bechdel test reflects a widespread, often overlooked tendency within mainstream films, namely the fact that female characters only have an interest in or concern for the opposite sex.
In the strip and in interviews, comic artist Bechdel (pronounced like ‘rectal’ as jokes on her personal website) credits “The Rule” to her friend Liz Wallace. However, it is the cartoonist’s name that stuck and the rule is now widely known as “the Bechdel test” (Resmer). The strip in question predates the online platforms on which it has gained such traction; Dykes to Watch Out For ran in American humour newspaper, Funny Times. A quick Google Trends search of “Bechdel test” returns data that the term was picked up online in summer 2008 with a sharp spike in traffic throughout 2013.
It is not entirely clear as to what caused the test’s online popularity. Yet it is notable that its reappearance on the web followed just over year after the founding of blogging website, Tumblr. Type “Bechdel test” into the Tumblr search feature and a slew of blog posts are returned, both articulate and otherwise. Videos explaining the test can be found on YouTube, such as on the channel Feminist Frequency. Creator Anita Sarkeesian describes her channel as “an ongoing series of video commentaries exploring gender representations, myths and messages in popular culture media.” Due to the very loose description of the test in the original comic strip, every new author that takes on the Bechdel test to share and explain it inadvertently adds his or her own interpretation. One blog’s addition that the female characters also were required to have names was not set out in the original text (Alas). However, this requirement has continued to appear as a point of disqualification for films and is included (albeit in brackets) on the website bechdeltest.com.
Recently the Bechdel test has reached beyond its initial grassroots popularity. Articles in the mainstream press have described the phenomenon. Entertainment writer, Alice Vincent noted the success of films starring females in 2013, explicitly citing “Bechdel test” in the article’s title. Some cinemas in Sweden have adapted the Bechdel test as one way of rating and marketing their screens to patrons, with films that pass the Bechdel test advertised with an A grade. The unofficial rating system appearing in a selection of Stockholm cinemas has been met with support from the Swedish Film Institute (Vincent 2013). However, Leslie Felperin, writing for The Guardian film blog suggests the adoption of the test as a guarantor of a film’s progressive credentials might be misguided. Felperin is suspicious of the test’s pass/fail rhetoric and limited guidelines. She describes how films like Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) which is “deeply concerned with female power and agency” fail the test, while films like Fast & Furious 6 (2013), a franchise associated with its sexualisation of women, manage to pass.
The drawback of the test is that it is often discussed on online forums in terms of pass or fail. But the test is far from systematic as with discussion around the recent example of Gravity (2013). The film’s protagonist is female and the narrative deals with her experiences and perspectives, as well as celebrating her resolve and ingenuity. However, in the eyes of the test, because Sandra Bullock does not speak with another woman in the film, it does not pass the test. By extension the sense of Gravity’s feminist agenda is somehow diminished. The test is therefore far from fool-proof and not without its blindspots.
So with all these shortcomings and limitations is the Bechdel test useful? Well, yes, because it brings to the attention of viewers, especially younger viewers, a systematic problem within film culture. The average demographic on Tumblr, for example, consists of teenagers and young adults. For a group prone to getting their information from online sources, the Bechdel test has instigated a more critical approach toward mainstream films and their gender-biased logic. Through social media, the test has been useful in alerting particularly younger audiences to the Hollywood’s endemic sexism. It coincides with the increasing trend of women speaking up about the necessity for films with female roles. Not only is there more press about the lack of strong female characters within mainstream Hollywood, but also increasing coverage of the disheartening percentages of women working and getting their work seen in the film industry as a whole. Cate Blanchet’s acceptance speech at the 2014 Oscars for Blue Jasmine underscored the demand for this type of cinema. Her proclamation reflects the original spirit that seems to have been lost in the more recent incarnation of the Bechdel test. Blanchet sought to disabuse “those in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money” (Selby). The test is a useful a reminder of the industry’s male skew and a call to be critically aware of what one watches. In many ways, the debate now surrounding the validity of the Bechdel test has done well to promote even further discussion of the gender politics of any given film. The website TV Tropes puts it best: the Bechdel test was “not meant to give a scorecard of a work’s overall level of feminism.” This short guide, like every other blog post and reputed news publication that mention it, is continuing to shape the understanding and possibly changing the original meaning and significance of the Bechdel test while set to the task of demanding greater and fuller roles for women on screen.
Alas, A Blog. “The Bechdel Test, AKA, The Mo Movie Measure.” Alas, A Blog. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.
Bechdel, Alison. “Frivolous, Aimless Queries.” Alison Bechdel. Alison Bechdel, Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
Felperin, Leslie. “Cinema programmers beware: feminist films can flunk the Bechdel test.” The Guardian, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 5 Mar. 2014
Resmer, Cathy. “The Rule.” Alison Bechdel. Alison Bechdel, 16 August 2005. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
Sarkeesian, Anita. “The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 8 Dec. 2009. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
Selby, Jenn. “Cate Blanchett’s Best Actress Oscars 2014 acceptance speech.” The Independent, 3 Mar. 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.
Tumblr. “About.” Tumblr. Tumblr, Web. 25 Mar. 2014.
TV Tropes. “Useful Notes: The Bechdel Test.” TV Tropes. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.
Vincent, Alice. “Bechdel Test films triumph at the box office.” The Telegraph, 7 January 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.
Vincent, Alice. “Swedish cinemas launch feminist film ratings.” The Telegraph, 6 November 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.
Written by Marion Walker (2014); Queen Mary, University of London
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