Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Passing "The Bechdel Test"

Cerebus Vol 8: Women (1994)
Art by Dave Sim & Gerhard
THE BECHDEL TEST:
What is now known as the Bechdel test was introduced in Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In a 1985 strip titled "The Rule", an unnamed female character says that she only watches a movie if it satisfies the following requirements:
  • it has to have at least two women in it,
  • who talk to each other,
  • about something besides a man.
Bechdel credited the idea for the test to a friend and karate training partner, Liz Wallace. She later wrote that she was pretty certain that Wallace was inspired by Virginia Woolf's essay A Room of One’s Own... The test, which has been described as "the standard by which feminist critics judge television, movies, books, and other media", moved into mainstream criticism in the 2010s. By 2013, an Internet newspaper described it as "almost a household phrase, common shorthand to capture whether a film is woman-friendly", and the failure of major Hollywood productions such as Pacific Rim (2013) to pass it was addressed in depth in the media. According to Neda Ulaby, the test still resonates because "it articulates something often missing in popular culture: not the number of women we see on screen, but the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns."
Dykes To Watch Out For: The Rule (1985)
by Alison Bechdel
(Click image to enlarge)
(via Wikipiedia

18 comments:

Glen said...

For the sake of Dave's health please don't mention the "Bechdel Test" to him.

This is one instance where I'm glad he doesn't have the internet.

Sean Michael Robinson said...

As you can see from the original comic, it wasn't intended to be a "test", just an example of how even the smallest, seemingly insignificant bar can't be cleared by most movies, because most movies aren't attentive to women as real people, only as props that fulfil various functions.

However you might feel about Dave's stated politics, it would be difficult (foolish) to argue he's inattentive to his characters. Take Women, since it's the book pictured here. The whole book is framed as a philosophical debate between the ideologies of two different female characters. Far from a typical hollywood scenario where women exist solely as romantic plot devices or motivators/prizes.

Dave Kopperman said...

Yes, paradoxically, "Women" actually does pass the Bechdel Test.

George Peter Gatsis said...

Well here is something that hits me close to home...

Since I am making a feature film...
one of my concerns was just how many females/males should I put in my movie?
What is the right amount to be able to capture both the male and female audience?

THEN, I came across this :

http://stephenfollows.com/films-that-fail-the-bechdel-test-are-better-than-those-that-pass/

It's one thing to talk about it...

It's another thing all together to see it in play.

Jeff R. said...

Hm...how early in Cerebus do you get your first Bedchel-passing scene? Obviously the third book of Jaka's Story, but anything before that? Did any of the Sophia/Mrs Henrot-Gutch scenes include conversations not about Cerebus or Sophia's Dad? Any asides in "Mind Games" in which the Cirinists aren't talking about Cerebus? (Actually, in the usual as-applied sense of the test, that issue probably works anyway, since they're not talking about Cerebus as a potential romantic partner but as a ritual magic focus...)

Sean Michael Robinson said...

I believe the earliest instances would be the issues (23-24?) that are based on the Clint Eastwood movie the Beguiled ...

Jim Sheridan said...

George wrote "Since I am making a feature film...
one of my concerns was just how many females/males should I put in my movie?
What is the right amount to be able to capture both the male and female audience?"

I guess I would say that it might depend on if you are looking at the question from a marketing standpoint or an artistic one. Or from other perspectives.

Bechdel herself has noted, as someone mentioned above, that this "rule" was not intended as an absolute. It is indeed a solid thought-generator, though, a good way to ask yourself a story functions in a certain way.

A Moment Of Cerebus said...

Personally, I find the idea of any sort of content checklist appalling. Surely there are only 'good' or 'bad' films / books / comics etc.

Tim

Sandeep Atwal said...

Excellent point, Tim.

Sean Michael Robinson said...

Except, as mentioned above, the "test" isn't supposed to function as a check list -- it's a thought experiment that ends up saying something about the function of characters in a story.

If you can accept the idea that some of the "quality" in a given piece of art comes from the dimensionality of the characters, or even the believably of their interior lives, then it's not a stretch to say that a long-form piece of narrative art that doesn't meet these very low-bar standards is, at best, indifferent to the interior lives of its female characters.

David Birdsong said...

I doubt this entry would cause anything more than a wordy opinion from Dave and yes, WOMEN passes the test, but setting such limitations on what you will or will not view makes you miss out on a lot of great Three Stooges shorts.

lylemcd said...

One of my favorite movie critics talks about the Bechdel test. I thought he made some great points and it's kind of surprising what movies do and don't pass.

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/the-big-picture/8695-Blecch-Dull-Tests

Sandeep Atwal said...

The problem with this rule is that it doesn't say anything about the artistic merits of a film, only the "gender merits" of it. It doesn't tell you anything about the ideas conveyed in the film or how well they're conveyed. Lawrence of Arabia, Reservoir Dogs, The Wild Bunch, 12 Angry Men, My Dinner with Andre and Apocalypse Now basically have no speaking parts for women. So what? That they fail the Bechdel Test is about the least interesting thing you can say about them.

Sean Michael Robinson said...

All you're saying is that failing the test doesn't make something a bad movie. That doesn't mean it doesn't say something about the movie. Far from it.

A quick example-- the Wild Bunch is undoubtedly a great movie, mainly for aesthetic reasons. However, what does it say about the two movies that Wild Bunch fails, whereas Seven Samurai, from which it's derived, passes? Doesn't it say something about the goals and scopes of the two films?

Sandeep Atwal said...


Yes, "all" I'm saying is that failing the test doesn't make something a bad movie. Isn't that important? We agree, then, that it's not a value judgment about the artistic merits of a work. You can impose any number of tests if you want. Do the characters discuss the oppression of the working classes? Do they discuss the rights of animals? Do they discuss the importance of a good breakfast? Whether they do or do not discuss those things says "something" about a film...just not something very interesting in my opinion.

Tony Dunlop said...

David, everyone knows women don't like the Three Stooges. It's a scientifically established fact.

Oh wait; did someone mention the working classes?

ChrisW said...

I always wondered how anyone could decide whether or not they'd see a movie based on whether or not two female characters have a conversation, if they've never seen the movie in the first place.

How would you know in the first place? Maybe you have subordinates who will report back to you that there were two female characters and they did indeed have the interaction required for you to see the movie in the first place, or at least that's what the subordinates report. If you have such subordinates, you're in a much more favorable position than the average man/woman on the street, who might just want to see a movie because they think it will be fun.

Jeff Seiler said...

George, if you're actually trying to decide what balance of male vs. female characters to put into a movie, the best to capture the best mix of male and female viewers, then IMHO you are going to fail with the movie, overall.

Write a compelling story, give it good production design and art direction, cast the best available actors and let your MOVIE draw in the viewers. All the best movies (with a few notable slam-bang action movies that are made just for spectacle) rely on the story, first and foremost. Even Tom Hanks, arguably the most likable actor of our generation, has been in a few stinkers.

I appreciate the work you are doing on behalf of Dave, so I hope you understand that I'm not trying to be intentionally insulting, but I absolutely loath formulaic movies made by formulaic producers, directors, writers, etc.

Unless said movies tell a good story.