Sonal Vs. The Bechdel Test

The very first time I participated in an online chatroom was back when I was studying at Royal Holloway. My classmates egged me on to join them one night after a pub visit (don’t judge, we were astrophysics students, we knew rocket science, fuck you) and after five minutes I had manage to pick a fight with religious nut that turned into an online rumble …

Yeah, not much has changed and to prove it, I’m going to start this blog with a fight. With feminists. Some feminists. The ones I disagree with. Turns out there are a fair chunk of those but I’ll just concentrate on one faction for now …

*I am cheating a little here – the remainder of this post is lifted straight out of the work and research journal I had to submit as part of my MA. I may drop in some other articles from it every now and then.

I know that as a female screenwriter, I am a minority species in the world of filmmaking. I also know, as both a politically aware female and as a feminist that there is a lot of expectation on me from certain sections of the sisterhood. How I represent women on screen is, forever, going to be scrutinised and while I strive to make realistic women on screen it pains me every time this argument arrives in my inbox …

May I present the Bechdel Test.

I understand the basic principle behind this argument. Women make up 50% of the world’s population and yet are not represented in cinematic stories in the same measure. Passing the test doesn’t mean that the film is any good or advances the feminist cause.

I guess the test is meant to be about presence of women on screen but it also suggests that if a film is unable to pass the rules then it has failed for not representing women properly. The test has resurfaced this year as a viral video on YouTube, garnering much popularity among my friends as ‘a good guide’, but I think the whole theory and the standard it has become is bunk. Here are my reasons why :

1. There isn’t a reason for two women to start talking to each other.
Forget two women talking to each other, if a film had a majority female cast and only a handful of men like Whip It, the masculine version of the test fails this film. There’s no reason in the narrative spine of the film for two of the male characters to talk about anything other than women. To expect a meaningless exchange between two characters in order to pass a test is crass and doesn’t serve the craft of screenwriting. Every line should have significance and advance the audience’s understanding of the story, if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there. If a story is necessarily male, just like Whip It is necessarily female, then why put in two characters just for the sake of it?

My feature (for my MA) passes the test. But only because it has one scene where my protagonist’s mother, Jess, asks a female guest, Allie, what she does for her job. It’s only a couple of sentences of dialogue but it seems to be enough. What the test doesn’t acknowledge is that there are four important women in my film, all who are crucial to the psychological development of the male protagonist, Ben. The test passing exchange between the two women could just as easily have been about the men in the room as Jess’ adoration of Ben is very important to her character. I chose to have Jess talk about Allie’s career as I wanted there to be a moment where Allie is humiliated in front of Ben for only working on a free community newspaper and not a broadsheet. It was important that Ben had somewhere to direct his bitterness for Allie, after her rejection of him.

2. The film works around the idea that there is only one or few woman.
Take the example of naughty list film Alien 3. Not a great film, granted, but it’s a film set on a male penal colony – the whole point is that Ripley is the only human woman on the planet and these men have been kept away from females this whole time. Ripley represents temptation and is rejected as a corrupter but some of the men showing up their fear of sexuality and arguably mirroring contemporary fears about the modern woman (sadly still present today).

3. The original piece adapted into a film, doesn’t have multiple female characters.
The adaptation naughty list includes: A Clockwork Orange, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Godfather, American Psycho. All excellent films but the original source material didn’t have women in it. It seems a little unfair to list them as test losers unless women plan to take on all of literature …

4. Some films are in an all male setting.
It wouldn’t make sense for The Shawshank Redemption to have an exchange between women in a film predominantly set in a male prison. Nor would an exchange between two women feel real in The Green Zone unless it were two female journalists or a female journalist to a female diplomat – but that’s not the point of the narrative. It also applies to almost any war film like Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, Jarhead, The Hurt Locker

A sub category of this would be films that deal with the male condition – Rushmore is all about the male gaze and one up man ship on matters of sex. Fight Club is completely about masculinity, the loss of it to consumerism and the reclamation through these brutal, underground fight clubs.

5. The test is trivial.
For all of it’s popularity it would appear from a graph that appears on one of the leading proponents of the test, bechdeltest.com that, at the time of writing this, a little over 50% of the films submitted (which are mostly Hollywood mainstream types) pass the test. Being a little over 50% of the world population, is that not a fair return on our presence as women on screen?

I understand that the test is not meant to be the be all and end all of feminist film critique but I find it frustrating that this stupid test is the focus of so many women rather than, say, how women are portrayed on screen. Take Transformers 3, which passes the test, purely because one character comments on another’s hair! Yet the leading female character is dressed and shot purely for the male gaze – she’s a car mechanic who wears hot-pants and her hair out. Worse still is Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, which passes the test and keeps on passing it, through every soft pornography scene of a half naked woman rubbing herself just because she’s seen another half naked woman.

The test misses great performances of actors who create brilliant, real women on screen –Vera Farmiga’s character in naughty lister Up In The Air is very real, believable, mature, and is just as complex as George Clooney’s protagonist. It renders the work of women like Kathryn Bigelow meaningless as she is yet to make a film that passes the test. Or what about Slap Shot a film about the very masculine sport of ice hockey that completely fails the test and is written by Nancy Dowd? How about the brilliant American Psycho directed by Mary Harron, does her brilliant direction count for nothing because her film (for which she wrote the screenplay adaptation) fails the test?

I know that this was only a cartoon and the simple rules are meant to be the springboard to a larger conversation, but what a frustrating conversation it is to start when you spend the first half hour collapsing the pedestal it’s been placed on!

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2 thoughts on “Sonal Vs. The Bechdel Test

  1. Bechdel Test = useful in aggregate, e.g. if of a year’s theatrical-release movies, 90% fail the Bechdel test, that tells you something.

    But for all the reasons you state, bloody useless when applied to sample size of 1. And that is how it is often used.

  2. I always thought it was conceived to be used as a sample size of one. That’s certainly the impression I came away with from the Feministing vid and from the aggregating website.

    I guess it could be relatively useful as a talking point if it were to look at a whole year of films, but I’m still skeptical …

    What would be more useful to the discourse would be to know how many things get greenlit rather than make it over the finish line at the end. So many things get stuck because of “stars” pulling out, distribution knocking over things because they don’t know what to do with the final product or disputes over authorship and ratings that I don’t think this is a fair measure of what is actually being made.

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