Since I’ve been doing a series of Films About Women, I figured I should give my thoughts on the Bechdel Test.
For those not in the know, the Bechdel test has the qualifying criteria.
To pass the Bechdel test, a film
- has to have at least two women in it,
- who talk to each other,
- about something besides a man.
This test was first mentioned in a cartoon, but many people point out that the idea stems from Virginia Woolf.
“All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.” A Room of One’s Own
1 It goes without saying that the Bechdel test is not perfect. Twilight passes the Bechdel Test, and Twilight is the worst thing ever. (Seriously, fuck Twilight
2 On the same note, Henry V also passes the Bechdel test, but The Merchant of Venice does not. And no actress would turn down the role of Portia to play Katherine.
3 What does it mean for two women to have a conversation about a man? The best example of this is Zero Dark Thirty. The main character has several conversations with women, but the conversations are always about a man: Osama Bin Laden. The women are not discussing Osama’s potential merits as a husband, father, or lover. They are trying to kill him! Is this a conversation about a man? If a woman surgeon and a woman anesthesiologist have a discussion about a male patient, does that pass the test?
4 I do understand the motivation to quantify how women are portrayed in films. Are women portrayed as accessories for men? Do women have the same level of personality as a car? Or do they have their own lives? Do films respect the fact that a woman’s life and world are just as valuable and just as important as the life and the world of a man?
5 I’m not so interested whether an individual film meets the standards. There are a lot of really good films with absolutely no women, but not for sexist reasons. Into Great Silence does not feature any women, and only a few conversations in the entire film. Kundun has two women, but they are incredibly minor characters. Of course, both of these films take place in monasteries, so why would there be a surplus of women?
6 On the other hand, I do think it is valid to ask why so few films pass the Bechdel test relative to the films that fail the reverse Bechdel test. The reverse Bechdel tests asks
1 If there are two men
2 Who have a conversation
3 About something other than a woman.
Why do films often portray women as accessories for men, but rarely portray men for accessories for women?
7 Nonetheless, it is possible to pass the Bechdel test and still portray women as nothing more than accessories for men. As does Twilight.
Seriously, fuck Twilight.