Tuesday 28th March 2017,
Televisual

Is the Bechdel Test Overlooking Feminist Films?

If you’re interested in women and film, you’re probably acquainted with the Bechdel test, which I’ve referenced about before (see here and here). The informal test is a quick shorthand for whether or a not a film offers a meaningful space for women. On a broader level, the popularity of the Bechdel test provides an overall gauge for how women in Hollywood are fairing, onscreen in character and off-screen on the job market.

Failing is common and really bad, but passing doesn’t mean much. Why? Because the test is very generous. It sets a low bar. Yet a lot of films fail, especially Hollywood blockbusters. Even still, does the Bechdel test need a couple exceptions?

First: what is the test? To pass, the film must have:

1. At least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other

3. About something besides a man

See how simple that is? Passing should be super easy. A film could have an extra ask a female lead: “Excuse me, do you have the time?” or “Nice day, isn’t it?” The lead says “Yea” and congrats you passed! Next stop equality! Yet look at how many movies in theaters this past weekend failed it: The A Team, Centurion, Cyrus, Dinner for Schmucks, Exit through the Gift Shop, The Expendables, Grown-Ups, Knight and Day, Last Airbender, The Other Guys, Predators and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. A couple other films, like Inception, passed barely and according to some, not at all.

Salt, too, is a “barely pass.” The Bechdel website gives the film a pass because Evelyn Salt talks to a little girl about something non-man-related. That’s stretching it.

So as easy as it is to pass the test, does it need a couple exceptions? Maybe! The point of the Bechdel test is to gauge the effects of our male-focused media and culture. It’s a feminist project. But the test inadvertently can write off a number of potentially feminist texts.

Women Who Work Among Men, or Why Salt Should Pass

There are a few movies out there about women who work in male-dominated industries. Some of these are great films. The Ghost Writer has a great role for Olivia Williams as a sinister British Hillary Clinton, orchestrating her husband’s entire political career. Meryl Streep gets these roles every once in a awhile (Rendition, Lions for Lambs, Manchurian Candidate). I also think of Tilda Swinton’s brilliant turn in Michael Clayton; Rachel Weisz’s film, Agora, about the proto-feminist philosopher, failed the test.

Movies like Salt (or the Tomb Raider films, both of which fail) and Green Zone (Amy Ryan as print journalist Judith Miller Lawrie Dayne) feature solid roles for women who have the special privilege of being at the top of the fields: intelligence, corporate management, war journalism, ass-kicking. By virtue of their environment, they rarely talk to other women, who are stuck beneath the glass ceiling. They’re feminist roles that remind us how rare it is for a woman to make it to the top.

Films Showing the Idiocy of Obsessing Over Men

Most of these are art-house films, but there are a handful of movies out there demonstrating — self-consciously or not — the sheer insanity of obsessing over men.

I realized this when I saw the fantastic Korean film Shadows in the Palace (dir. Mee-jeung Kim, 2007). Shadows follows a murder mystery amongst the maids and mistresses of the royal court in the Chosun period. The film is virtually all women — the men barely have any lines — but they speak almost exclusively about men. Even when the conversation isn’t explicitly about a man, the subtext or catalyst is.

But the point of Shadows is that the women have no power or agency outside the men who control their fate. If she sleeps with a royal, she, not the man, is punished. The only path to power and security is through the king. So if they only talk about men (the last throng in the test), it’s because they have little independence otherwise. Shadows passes, of course. It’s damn hard to have an all-female cast and not pass, but can you imagine such a film? Done self-consciously, it could be a brilliant demonstration of the need for institutions and subcultures independent of male chauvinism. Even done accidentally, as in The Women and Sex and the City (both of which pass but I’m sure plenty of feminists take issue with the grade), it can be illuminating.

Period Pieces

Shadows reveals another potential hole: period films. Sometimes the best and most informative films about gender have to isolate itself women in sea of testosterone to demonstrate a point (oppression) or pose possibilities (proto-feminists). This was the case with the fabulous Agora, a must-rent ambitious film, in my opinion. I’m pretty sure the Elizabeth films pass, but they might not pass with flying colors. Clearly though, both movies are about women overcoming or challenging the dominant conceptions of their time. They are neither marginal nor subservient. We like and respect them, not only for what they do but also for the systemic flaws they make clear.

Is the Bechdel Test Overlooking Feminist Films? (An Addendum)

To answer the headline, which I rarely do: yes, the Bechdel test does fail some feminist films, or perhaps is a bit too narrow to catch all of them. Is it a bad test? No! But, as one person commented, the test really only measures one thing. It gauges male dominance not necessarily female empowerment. And that’s okay. We just need an additional test. Any takers?

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

9 Comments

  1. RMJ August 30, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    I strongly disagree. Passing or not passing the Bechdel test is a frequent indicator of the feminism of a film, but it does not dictate whether or not a film is feminist. There is no reason to warp the test to include other feminist films.

    The point of the Bechdel test is not to show whether or not there are strong female characters, or whether they have independent lives. It is to show the extent to which men are involved in every conversation. It’s supposed to be stringent and simple. Making up exceptions for films we like unnecessarily complicates the test and completely misses the point.

    Bechdel’s not the end-all be-all of deciding whether a film is feminist or not. It’s not even a test to see whether a film is feminist or not. Films can have merit on a feminist level without passing the Bechdel test. Creating exceptions corrupts the point of the test, and stretches it so out of proportion that it becomes meaningless.

  2. Aymar Jean Christian August 30, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    Thanks for your comment! I agree. The test is about male dominance in film and in the wider culture. I guess I just wanted to point out the test isn’t the only measure of feminism in a work, as it might be construed by some people who aren’t thinking about film holistically. I’m a big fan of the Bechdel test — I actually think we need one for other identities too. I love Hollywood, but like everything, it’s flawed.

  3. RachelA August 31, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    You make a very good point. I think the Bechdel test is still quite useful as an introduction to gender in film. And I think it helps make an important point about how far Hollywood still has to go in terms of its blatant sexism. But I also think you are quite right to point out that it has limitations and we shouldn’t dismiss films solely on that basis. It makes for a good general rule of thumb, but we need to be nuanced enough to accept that there are exceptions to it.

  4. Sophia September 17, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    I think the Bechdel test as often interpreted where the two women have to have names makes the test stronger, but otherwise the test as is is good. I like the simplicity and objectivity. Since even two feminists can’t usually agree on a precise definition of feminism, I don’t think we want to get into trying to make the test capture what is a feminist film. If you want that create another test, if you can.

  5. Jade September 25, 2010 at 11:46 am

    Just a quick note: I enjoyed the article and you brought up good points, but the Bechdel test is merely to determine the presence of women in a film, not whether the film is feminist or not.

  6. Andrew December 22, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    bechdeltest.com/statistics/ shows that 51% of the 1782 movies listed pass the Bechdel test. Assuming that the ratio of male:female movie comsumers would be about 50:50 I wonder could it be that we are simply seeing movies produced to cater for the market?

  7. Joetheporpoise October 29, 2013 at 12:41 am

    Doesn’t matter. Why? B/c you can use feminist reasoning style to damn ANY film. Any at all. You just read misogyny into something and presto, it’s a film made by the man, for the man. Thelma and Louise? All about how women who buck the system should just kill themselves. Totally misogynistic.

    It’s easy.

    Try starting off with a fair assessment of reality instead of starting off with a chip on your collective shoulders and then trying to make the facts fit your preconceived notions.

    Me? Ex-feminist.

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