Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Bechdel Test

I thought everyone knew about the Bechdel Test, but when I posted a link on Facebook, I got enough of a reaction that I guess that isn't true! The video below gives a succinct explanation, but the test--named after a classic strip by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel--involves asking yourself three questions about any movie you've seen:

1. Are there more than two women in it?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than men?

You'll be hard pressed to think of examples that meet all three criteria. Let me test it on the movies I've seen this summer, limiting myself to just the ones I saw in the theater. (On DVD, I just watched Die Hard and Funny People, both of which fail hardcore!)

-Coco and Igor
-Get Him to the Greek
-Iron Man 2
-Shrek Forever After

(Parenthetical remark: wow, I've seen a lot of trash this summer. This was the consequence of living near a suburban multiplex until just recently.)

Quick scan, I don't think any of these make it. Coco and Igor had two women, but they talked to each other about Stravinsky. Inception had two women, and they did have a brief conversation, but as I recall it was revolving around Leo. Get Him to the Greek--ha! Eclipse? I don't recall every moment of the sodden and poorly-acted dialogue between Kristen Stewart and the various vampire ladies, but I'm going to guess that it fails as well. Lord knows that for a movie putatively about a girl, said girl is defined completely by her relationship with boys. Does Bella have any personality or character trait not related to interactions with boys?

I often bring up the Bedchel test as a counterpoint to the inevitable post-feministry that we find in our classrooms these days. It's not that a movie that fails the test is a bad movie. It's not even the case that all feminist movies pass the test. But if gender inequality is no longer a problem, why is it so hard for Hollywood to make a movie about anything other than boys and their issues?

Next: can we come up with a similar test for popular music?


Ralph P. Locke said...

Fascinating post, Phil! Not least your final question about representations of women in popular music.
This made me think about representations of women in Western music, generally.
Of course, it's always hard to draw comparisons between music--especially instrumental music--and a plainly representational genre such as a narrative film. I don't think we want to ask how many women are in a Brahms symphony and what they are talking about (which is not to say that there may not be gendered discourses alluded to in such a work, as Susan McClary and Bob Fink have explored).
But if we start with operas, as being easier to get a narrative handle on....
Yup, it's a problem. A whole lot of operas in the standard repertoire (hence part of present-day culture, which is what you're writing about) focus on one woman in a sea of men. Maybe she has a handmaiden, and perhaps a backup chorus echoing her various successive emotional states. Or a rival for the hero's affections (Norma/Adalgisa, Aida/Amneris).
Is the situation better in recently composed operas? Other readers of this blog are perhaps better placed than I am to make some suggestions.
I do want to go back to older operas, though, and at least suggest that some of them could plausibly be described as proto-feminist. A young woman's struggle to be permitted to marry the man she loves (and vice versa), the theme of so many operas, is a pretty basic issue that we should not reduce to just "girls talking about boys." In fact, it can easily be seen as a metaphor for a woman's more general desire to acquire agency in society. (Which is why I used the word proto-feminist earlier.) And sometimes it's not "just" a question of finding a husband. When Bru"nnhilde stands up to her father and tries to prevent him from allowing Siegmund to be killed, she's not trying to get together with Siegmund. Though she does eventually get together with his son....
Ah, opera!

nhvzr said...

Hilariously, I saw a Michael Snow film yesterday that technically failed the Bechdel test, not because it didn't have multiple women in it, nor because they didn't interact with each other, but because of uncertainty in the film surrounding the action of speech (vs. nonsense). It cracked me up: gotta be just about the only film in history to fail the test on that technicality.

brooke said...

I hadn't heard about the Bechdel test before, but I can't help but wonder -- what good does it do filmmakers to feature female characters *not* talking about men? Is that the only possible way they might assert their own agency? Women can talk about men for plenty of reasons, not just the stereotypical housewife/gossipy ones. This seems like an overly generalized rule, and I haven't seen enough movies in my lifetime to know if that final rule can be flipped: Are there movies wherein the men do not talk about women whatsoever? I can't think of any, and I'm not sure I see the problem with women talking about men anyway. People talk about each other -- why shouldn't that be represented in film? Of course the ways they are represented talking about each other is important; those representations affect the ways we conceive of gender differences. But as long as men and women continue to have antiquated opinions about gender, I don't see why a feminist movie should have to meet all those criteria before it could effectively challenge gender norms. Couldn't talking about men lay the groundwork for purposefully challenging expectations? That seems possibly more effective than just not talking about men at all.

PMG said...

@Ralph: Excellent point--you're very right there are a lot of very strong and empowering roles for women pre-second-wave feminism, in opera and also in literature and theater. And it's an especially good point that in those pre-feminist contexts, (the famous "female world of love and ritual") the centrality of love and romance isn't a choice for the women characters; it's simply the language they are allowed to speak and with which they articulate many concerns. Unlike your average movie today, in which the producers have the option to give their women characters a much more diverse palette of interests and languages, and choose not to.

@Brooke: I agree with most of what you say, but that's why there is that important caveat--this isn't a test for being a feminist movie! As you say, there are lots of great, smart feminist movies that fail it, especially those that parody and critique. But I would say that yes, if you flip the test, almost every movie passes--most movies have more than one male character with a name, who talk to each other about things other than women. It's not that they don't also talk about women (although legions of war, western, etc. movies don't), it's just that men in movies somehow also manage to carry on conversations about other things all well, and it is shocking how little women characters are allowed that same freedom.

The test is ultimately a way of revealing the role of ideology in the production of culture. Because it's not any one person or studio or anything that creates this situation; there's not any one in particular to blame. But when you step back and take the broader view of the industry, it's hard to believe that it is an accident that Hollywood so uniformly fails the test. Most people (I was about to say most college students, but this applies to a lot of musicologists as well!) are very resistant to the idea of ideology, since we like to think that we all control our destinies. So I think this is great tool for demonstrating how this one particular ideology somehow winds its way through the thousands of people involve in producing Hollywood movies, and still ends up so clearly articulated in the final product.

On a slightly related note, I had a student last semester who for her final paper interviewed a number of women film music composers--there aren't many, but there are some, and they had very interesting things to say about gendered dynamics in the flim music industry. I will see if I can get my student's permission to post some excerpts or something.