Monday, 11 November 2013

Beyond Bechdel

In a recent AP article about a new Swedish film initiative based on the Bechdel test was the following section:
"The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, all Star Wars movies, The Social Network, Pulp Fiction and all but one of the Harry Potter movies fail this test," said Ellen Tejle, the director of Bio Rio, an art-house cinema in Stockholm's trendy Södermalm district. 
Bio Rio is one of four Swedish cinemas that launched the new rating last month to draw attention to how few movies pass the Bechdel test. Most filmgoers have reacted positively to the initiative. "For some people it has been an eye-opener," said Tejle. 
Beliefs about women's roles in society are influenced by the fact that movie watchers rarely see "a female superhero or a female professor or person who makes it through exciting challenges and masters them", Tejle said, noting that the rating doesn't say anything about the quality of the film. "The goal is to see more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens," he added.
Actually Pulp Fiction and all of the Harry Potter films pass the Bechdel test, and the test is not related to whether a film has female superheroes or tell "female stories" or not. Ellen Telje (who is a she, not a he) might have said, more honestly, "a number a key feminist films fail this test." but she does not, presumably because that would have complicated the sales pitch.

In a follow-up article, Guardian's chief arts writer Charlotte Higgins writes that "an alarming number of films showing in cinemas fail to reach it" and adds that "[o]ddly enough, Thor (in which Chris Hemsworth plays the Nordic god, come to save us all from Christopher Ecclestone) does pass, since it features a scene in which Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings discuss nuclear physics."

Higgins's claim that it is alarming how few films pass the test is very common and yet the vast majority of the thousands of films listed on the website (primarily popular mainstream films) do pass it, between 65% and 70% of the films released over the last two decades. If 70% is alarmingly few, how many are needed for it to be acceptable? Or maybe Higgins has her own statistics. But it is not in the least bit odd, if you understand the test, and films, that Thor passes the test. Any film can pass or fail, regardless of genre, country, year or feminist intentions.

Although the test has some uses it says nothing about the way a given film represents gender, or whether the film is progressive, reactionary, feminist or misogynistic. The test demands that a film has scenes with named female characters talking about something other than a man, but whether the lack of such scenes is an issue or not depends on the film. If a film for example has only two characters, a man and a woman, the test is pointless, and if there are several characters it is still not in itself sexist if the women only speak of men. That becomes an issue if the dialogue between the women is different from the dialogue between the men. If in a romcom or a drama about a failing marriage, with all the men talking about women, it does not matter if the women talk only about men. Context and content matters but the test ignores all that. Using it on all films regardless of their content is like a test that rates vehicles with wheels on whether they have catalytic converters, which diminishes the pollution from internal combustion engines, and where it is then considered shocking that so many vehicles lack the converters (even though the majority of those vehicles are bicycles that have no need for them).

But if tests are wanted, may I suggest a different one, maybe something like this: In the film under consideration, do the women characters have sufficient agency and are they in charge of their own well-being and if not, why? (I say sufficient because we are all more or less constrained by our surroundings and circumstances.) If they are dependent upon the men and lack the capacity to take their own initiative the film would fail the test, unless there is a perfectly good reason for this dependency such as being hospitalised after a car accident and taken care of by a male doctor. Let's call it "the agency test". Unlike the Bechdel test it means that you have to intellectually engage with the film, but that surely is a good thing.


  1. But isn't this the main objection to using the test as a marking and not just a wetted finger in the breeze?

    If I interpret it correctly Alison Bechdel herself says that your "agency"-test was what she was aiming for, but formulated it in simpler terms. Partly as a humorous jab, I suspect.

  2. I think the test has been hijacked, and that it originally was used in a more appropriate way.

  3. Interesting post! Very well written and I agree with your conclusions.

    I belong to a group of film bloggers that meet regulary. The Bechdel test has been mentioned on numerous occasions. I had not looked into the statistics given on the site before. But without the hard facts of numbers, I had gotten the impression by my fellow film bloggers that the numer of movies that passed all three tests was way much lower.

    How curious...