Luke Owen looks at an old movie theory that is making a comeback…
It was mentioned on our podcast review of Pacific Rim, Kermode was talking about it during one of his latest reviews and it seems to be on the tips of the tongues of every film critic both off and online. Yes, it appears as though The Bechdel Test has swept film criticism once again with a “it’s crazy how many films fail when you think about it” attitude.
For those of you unaware, the Bechdel Test was concocted by Alison Bechdel in her 1985 comic strip The Rule, in which an (ironically) unnamed female character tells her other unnamed friend that she will only watch a film based on a three point criteria. This has since been revamped to:
Does the film have two or more named female characters?
Do they talk to each other?
Do they talk to each other about something other than men?
Right off the bat, you can see why this “test” doesn’t work.
One of the arguments to support the Bechdel Test is that it shows movies do not have strong female leads and that they are underutilised as a gender in the art form. There are plenty of discussions that have been made over the years and at least some of them have made very valid points on the subject. There is no denying on an argument to be made about the portrayal of women in modern movies (particularly summer blockbusters), but the Bechdel Test is not one of them. Why? Because some films that fail the test actually portray women better than the ones that pass.
For example, Alien3 is a movie in which Ripley, a strong female ass-kicker who has survived two Alien attacks over her male counterparts, is now stranded on a Prison Planet dominated by men. But despite being a woman on a planet full of rapist, thieves and murderers who could do unspeakable things to her, she fights her corner and comes out on top, putting a stop to the possible breeding of an Alien species (something that is sadly retconned in Alien: Resurrection). However, despite being a strong female character to be admired, Alien3 in theory should “not be watched” because it fails Miss Bechdel’s test by only having one female character.
One of the best examples of summer blockbuster comedies is Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black – it gets everything right in terms of character, storytelling, action and comedy. However, it fails the Bechdel Test because Laurel Weaver is the only real female star of the movie. Of course there is Edgar’s wife Beatrice, but the two are never on screen together and the rest of MiB is made up of male and female extras. I raise Men in Black in this argument because, like Alien3, the female character is not your typical representation of the gender in this genre. Laurel is not a damsel in distress that needs to be saved by our heroes nor does she end up the love interest for Jay. In fact, she actually saves their lives at the end of the movie to become an Agent herself (which again is all ruined in the sequel, but that’s another argument for another day).
Can you see why this “test” doesn’t work? Hell, even Pacific Rim features its only female character fighting alongside the men and taking down the supposedly best fighters the world has to offer. It fails the Bechdel Test because she’s the only one with breasts, but she was hardly a weak role model. Run Lola Run, arguably featuring one of the most rounded female characters committed to film, also fails the test on the basis none of the female characters interact.
The funniest thing about the “test” is that there are films that pass the criteria, but are terrible movies with woeful presentations of the female gender. Both of the Sex in the City movies feature horrific representations of ‘today’s woman’ whose only concern is getting married and buying shoes. The second film in particular is one of the worst examples of female depiction ever seen on film, but both movies pass with the Bechdel Test with flying colours as they talk about things other than men. The Twilight Saga and The Notebook also feature terrible depictions of female characters who strive for nothing but a ‘man in their life’ as well as stringing along other guys because they might not get the man they really want – but they both pass the test.
Do you know what else passes the test? Transformers.
That’s right, one of the most misogynistic and pornographic depictions of a children’s action figure passes the Bechdel Test as it features a scene where two named female characters talk to each other about how pretty Mikaela is rather than how annoying Shia LaBeouf is. Because of this one scene, a Michael Bay movie which features a panning shot of Megan Fox’s backside bent over a car passes the Bechdel Test.
This is what happens when you put more focus on gender than you do character. Ripley is not defined by her chromosomes but rather her character’s ability to get out of life or death situations. If the writers get the characters right then it doesn’t matter if there is an equal balance of gender roles. Furthermore, some films do not require to pass the Bechdel Test in order to be a success. Mud is one of the best films to be released this year, but it’s story is about a boys trust in a father figure during his parent’s divorce and therefore didn’t call for two women to be in the same room talking about things other than men. So why force it in? Robot & Frank is a beautiful and touching movie about an old man battling with dementia, but my enjoyment of it was not marred by the fact that the two named female characters do not interact because the story didn’t require them to do so.
Prometheus is another movie that passes the test with flying colours, but it doesn’t stop it being a stupid movie that makes no sense, because the script reads like the writings of a bad science fiction author trying to get all of his ideas into his first book. Should its idiocy be given forgiven because it passes the test?
I’d like to think that Bechdel put this “test” together with her tongue placed firmly in her cheek (the comic would suggest so), because taking it seriously exposes it for how flawed it is. What I worry is that many people are taking it seriously – especially in film critic circles.
It is true that female characters are poorly represented within the medium, but this test is not the way to prove that. A better argument is that there is a lack of women in positions of power in the business, but this is an industry that didn’t give Behind The Candelabra a US cinematic release because a story of a gay couple was considered to be “taboo”. I can’t see it changing anytime soon.
Much like Siskel and Ebert’s ‘Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down’ method of film criticism, the Bechdel Test comes down to nothing more than binary judgement. A film should not live or die by its portrayal of a gender but instead by its portrayal of characters.