The Bechdel Test is a very handy measure for assessing the status of women in the eyes of the entertainment industry. But like most measures, the devil is in the details: what can be useful in assessment of the general state of things can fall down terribly when applied to individual movies.
The Bechdel Test was first postulated by Allison Bechdel in the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” It is quite simple, really: for a film (or television show) to pass the test, it must have at least two women, who have names, who have a conversation with each other, about something other than a man.
In an ideal world, given that women make up half the world's population, movies which fail the test would be outliers, like those set in an all male prison (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) or in a similar all male environment, such as professional baseball (Moneyball) or a Napoleonic era British battle ship (Master and Commander). In fact, just the opposite is true.
People who urge analysis of films using the Bechdel Test are quick to point out that many very worthwhile films fail the test (The Godfather Parts I & II, Citizen Kane), while some that pass are nothing but sexist garbage (Sucker Punch). It is about the total paucity of decent movies about women or with significant women characters, they say.
I agree. But then many of these commentators indulge in analysis of individual films that is superficial, to say the least.
One blogger, Feminist Frequency, took on this year's Best Picture nominees. Leaving aside The Help, which was woman-centered,* the only other film that passed was The Descendants. The blogger dismissed both Hugo and Midnight in Paris as having exchanges between women that were too short to qualify as conversations.
The blogger was particularly incensed about Midnight in Paris. Midnight in Paris had Gertrude Stein as a character, and to have Stein – an iconic feminist figure – not have a conversation with another woman was totally unacceptable.
This is where the problem with the Bechdel Test as an analytical tool for individual movies comes in. Midnight in Paris was about a single character, around which the movie revolved. There was no conversation in the movie in which Gil, the protagonist, was not either present for/part of, or failing that, were not about Gil. None. For Allen to have introduced a conversation which ignored that fact would have been incongruous and jarring.
You may not like Woody Allen, but he has written movies that fall squarely within the confines of the Bechdel Test: Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days. He should not be castigated because in the case of Midnight in Paris he chose to focus exclusively on a male character.
A different problem crops up in the case of Hugo. The conversation at stake is between a girl and her grandmother, about the work of her grandfather, the legendary George Melíès. Grandma Rose talked about his work, but if you listen carefully, she is also talking about her own history and the history of cinema. Yes, it is seen through the lens of a man, but it is still her story as much as his.
What does it mean to talk about a man? In any given picture, this can be uncertain. There are women, fictional and real, whose lives are bound up with a man, and who cannot discuss their own history in a vacuum excluding his. Are they to be denied the authenticity of their own stories?
Also, what about cases where the gender of the object of the conversation is incidental? Two women talking about a baby are talking about a baby, whether or not that baby is male. Two female cops talking about a serial killer are talking about a criminal. Depending upon the movie, the gender of the criminal may be irrelevant if the focus is on the cops.
Of course, the main focus should be those movies where it would be very much possible for two women to have a discussion, and it doesn't happen. The movie does not have to be “woman-centered”: Shakespeare in Love involved two very significant conversations between Queen Elizabeth and Viola de Lessops. One of them was on the nature of love in drama; one was on the difficulty of being a woman in a man's world, and the sad unbreakability of marriage vows. And one of my favorite movies, Stardust, manages to have several important conversations between various female characters that do not involve or revolve around men.
But what about The Artist? The young starlet Peppy Miller was interviewed by male radio commentators; why could she not instead have been interviewed by a female gossip columnist? Both Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper were forces to be reckoned with in the world of twentieth-century popular culture. Why couldn't they have been in the movie?
How many movies have there been with all-male police forces? Only male firefighters and paramedics? Only male politicians?
And let's not even get into Star Wars. Princess Leia was the lone female in an all-male universe. (Except for poor Aunt Beru, and various slave girls controlled by Jabba the Hutt.)
Hollywood needs more stories about women, and certainly many more with strong women characters. (More Bridesmaids! Better Steel Magnolias!) The Bechdel Test provides a crude but useful tool in assessing whether or not they are doing that. If we could only find a way to have more women studio heads, producers, writers and directors, that's more likely to happen, and after a while the Bechdel Test would become irrelevant. I would not write posts quibbling about its application to various individual movies.
I'm not holding my breath.
*The Help had other problems. There has been a variant of the Bechdel Test about race: are there two or more people of color who have a conversation about something other than a white person. The Help fails this, or if not it comes perilously close. The wonderful George Takei has suggested the movie should be renamed White People Solve Racism.