April 13, 2012

The Bechdel Test and Miss Representation

WARNING: If you dare be aware, and awaken your inner feminist, read on:

The Rule appeared in a 1985 comic strip created by Alison Bechdel. One of Bechdel’s characters refused to watch a film unless it met three criteria:

1) it had to have at least two women in it;
2) who talked to each other;
3) about something other than a man

Some people might assume The Rule is a joke (it was a comic strip, right?), drummed up by feminists picking on the patriarchy. "Come on now!" they say. "It’s Hollywood! It ain't real.  Why be so hysterical upset about a movie?" Well, I can name one reason why: Netflix. Everybody has Netflix. I used to see a handful of movies a year. Now we have movies on laptops, iPads, monitors, and television. Netflix is, if anything, convenient. Got ten minutes with nothing to do? Watch Netflix. 

Entertainment in general is becoming a part of everyone's daily life. That means The Rule should be applied more broadly than evaluating movies. During my childhood, television informed my social expectations. Learning about media’s influence on children's psyches has increased my awareness and my skepticism; it has also heartened deeper self-understanding. Like why I didn't see myself in leadership roles---other than women-oriented volunteer work that didn't compete with a man’s authority or his paycheck. I think that if we watch the films and television shows consumed during our adolescence, we’ll be more compassionate towards ourselves and other women. I’d venture a guess that the paucity of female exemplars in film is directly proportional to women’s leadership achievements. “You can’t be what you can’t see” quips the campaign for Miss Representation. So to all those women like me who could not imagine viable alternatives for personal happiness other than becoming a ‘helpmate' to her man, Peace Out. Be kind to yourself. At least we chose the June Cleaver model as opposed to the other occupation we qualified for: Miss Kitty. 

Movies movies everywhere and not a thought to think. 

My parents have Netflix and they're eighty-plus years old. They prefer ‘the classics’ without nudity, profanity, sex, and/or the violence capturing short attention spans. (Oh, look! A Squirrel!) During my stay at their home a few weeks ago, we enjoyed a nightly Netflix-Family-Ritual, usually a John Wayne film selected from Dad's Instant Queue. That's when I realized there was a reason for a fourth variant to the Bechdel Test: 4) two of the women in the movie must have names.

We let Dad have first pick: McClintock. When John Wayne spanked subordinated his women by walloping their behinds with a hairbrush, I peeked out the corner of my eye to witness my mother's reactions. She was clearly in distress, gripping the easy-chair armrests and clenching her teeth.  Dad was laughing without restraint. But you realize, he sees himself in the John Wayne authoritarian character, the man doing the spanking, not his subordinate-spankee. My nephew, who's lived with me for fifteen years so far, wisely and quietly left the family room. Looks like that kid knows who flips his pancakes. McClintock finally ended and much to Dad's surprise, I told him it sucked. He had been certain I’d love it because he did. What WAS my problem?

So to keep things fair and equal, we women selected the next movie and Dad was obliged to watch it with us. Mom and I sobbed through Strangers in Good Company (Oh, look! A woman with a name! And she’s old!), while Dad fidgeted like a firefly trapped in a mason jar. He managed to stay seated in his leather chair for the entire show ordeal, despite his agony. Still, the strange sounds he made were a tad distracting. Was he beating his forehead against the lamp? I didn't dare look. One thing I love about the old guard is their sense of duty. A man might squirm in his seat but his willingness to please his daughter says his heart's in the right place. We're making progress. 

If a movie passes the Bechdel Test, is it women-friendly? 

Not necessarily. An all-female cast may not reflect women's reality, integrity, or her leadership potential any better than an episode of Gunsmoke. At least Kitty owned her own saloon and was validated for her advice, not her ‘vice’. Consider modern films like Sex in the City, or even worse than that pile of steaming doggiedoo: Eat, Pray, Love. In either of those fantasies, the unhappy woman (whom we identify with) resolves her angst by choosing to be the Captain of her Ship, throw caution to the wind and steer that broken vessel towards--------a new-and-improved man. *sigh* It's more of the same ol’ crap we've suffered before only this time its packaged in gilded paper, tied up with a 21st century beau. I wonder sometimes, how many over-stressed and under-appreciated women throw caution to the wind because they were subliminally seduced by romantic comedies cinematic lies. Identifying with the privileged woman on the movie screen who can chuck her responsibilities and obligations without ruining her life and reputation. It's frightening how influential movies can be. How seductive the deception. What we learn about women’s leadership in these pseudo-woman-centered films, could fit inside my monogrammed quilting thimble.

So much for fixing Hollywood's misrepresentations with an all-female cast. And lest you be fooled, a 'true story' can be just as fantastical as a fairy tale, the difference being unrecognized privilege and the real-life consequences when you don't have it.  So, give me McClintock over Sex In The City any day. At least McClintock's women resisted their spankings...and they kept their skirts down.

To be sure, there are inspirational all-male films with emulative human values. Failing or passing the Bechdel Test doesn’t measure the quality of a film. Maybe the scriptwriters are told to appease their critics and include women characters engaged in conversation that isn't about a man, (Oh Look! A red herring!) but what are those women talking about? Are they token characters discussing topics so irrelevant we can go to the kitchen for popcorn? Or do their conversations move the story along?  

The Bechdel Test is a measure of women’s relevance to the film plot.

How women are portrayed. If they are portrayed.

We can't be what we can't see, right?  

Resources of Interest
Dykes to Watch Out For on Wikipedia
Bechdel Test Movie List (great site)
Miss Representation documents media's gender disparity

Feminist Frequency "The Bechdel test is best when used as a tool to evaluate Hollywood as an institution." ~Anita Sarkeesian

The Bechdel Test by Emily Monaghan "...how weird would a reverse Bechdel world be? Most movies [would] only have one male character, if that; and if he gets any dialogue at all with a rare second male character, it will inevitably be about women. Challenge of the day: have you ever seen that film? Think, and think hard, and if you come up with a title please comment. If you can name one, what kind of film is it? Is it making a point, or aimed at a particular demographic – or is the lack of testosterone entirely by accident, because no one is paying attention."


  1. I recently saw "The Hunger Games." I'm not exactly the demographic (pushing 60) and I hadn't read the books. But the main character is a strong female protagonist who combines her wits and emotions to battle the powers that be. I understand why young adults (and the not so young) relate to this character. Having grown up with many of the same films/role models that you did CZ, I find it a breath of fresh air when both sexes are rooting for a strong woman to kick some ass.

    1. Hi Jan!

      I read 'The Hunger Games' last week and finally went to the movie yesterday. It was excellent...tears and thrills and the joy of seeing a female character that actually looked 'normal'. (no giant boobs nor cleavage! YAYA!)

      I've seen a few woman-warrior films lately but they've exaggerated her female features or dressed her in a thong when the men were wearing armor. And she cuts off heads and spears people in the chest and kills, maims and murders without remorse, regret or restraint and all in high heels and garters. ha!

      I loved the Steampunk decadence (re: narcissism) of the ruling class in "The Hunger Games". I also appreciated Katniss's humanness. She suffered stress reactions, even a few scenes bordering on delusional escapes because of the trauma. Violence was not glorified which was a relief.

      I give The Hunger Games 'two thumbs up'. Thanks for mentioning this movie!


  2. Great post CZ. My husband gets a bit bored of me always pointing out the "undercurrents" in films, but I always reply that it's important to be aware of the hidden messages in films so that we're not manipulated.


    Kara xx

    1. Thanks, Kara! Once your eyes are open, it's hard to ignore the blatant sexism in our media. Which has, at least in my view, gotten WORSE over the years. It seems that the more empowered women become, the more aggressive the marketing--intended to reduce them to objects. What could be more reductive than SEX?

      What's incredibly frustrating today though is that women behave as if being a porn star is an advancement of her equality! Instead of role models like Simone deBeauvoir or even June Callwood (linked on my blog) or Gloria Steinhem (I so admire that woman!), young women and even older women aspire to be Jenna Jamison. They install dance poles in the family room so they can show their humm-humm's and what-nots.

      I'm reading a book today titled, "Female Chauvinist Pigs: women and the rise of raunch culture" by Ariel Levy and hope to post something about her book next week. I may need to keep a fire extinguisher near my keyboard in case it bursts into flames!



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