Stop using the Bechdel Test to Measure Feminism
I’ve spent a considerable portion of my life telling people I wasn’t a feminist because I was friends with too many men, or because I believed in “equality.” My journey into the heart of feminism isn’t important now, though, because I am now a woman in the film and television industry and because of this, I hear a lot about “The Bechdel Test” and I feel like we need to clear some things up (video version of this post above). Lets jump right in:
Why the Bechdel Test is Actually Not A Good Way to Measure Feminism in Film and Television
I spent all of my senior year of college performing a speech about the Bechdel Test and why it’s bad for feminism in my college forensics circuit. I did pretty well with it, too, because although most speech and debate judges are used to hearing women talk about feminism in their performances, these performances aren’t usually critiquing a well-loved feminist tenet in service of feminism as a whole. My basic premise for the speech was this: the data provided by the Bechdel Test leads to misguided critiques that ultimately do not fix gender disparities in film, and in fact may make them worse.
Let’s step back a second and clarify some things before moving on with my critique.
Created by graphic artist Alison Bechdel in 1985, the Bechdel Test requires movies to fulfill three simple tenets in order to pass: it must have at least two female characters, the two female characters must have a conversation with one another, and that conversation must not be about a man.
Interesting parameters, right? For a comic book, sure! For measuring feminism and female representation in film and television? Not so much.
Listen- that video up top is top notch, and you should definitely watch it. I’m going to repeat myself a bit, but I wanted a text record of these thoughts because this is an actual, tangible issue, and I will not be ignored, damn it!
Top facts via the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film:
- In 2015–16, 79% of the broadcast, cable, and streaming programs considered featured casts with more male than female characters.
- In 2015, females comprised 22% of protagonists, 18% of antagonists, 34% of major characters, and 33% of all speaking characters in the top 100 domestic grossing films.
This also isn’t even getting intersectional with race and sexuality, which are their own massive topics. Suffice it to say, overall, white straight women have it the best. This is likely unsurprising.
I am not getting into this topic right now- intersectionality in feminism is very important but to discuss the Bechdel Test as a whole I can’t get into it any more specifically right now. If you want to read about how garbage the film and television industries are to women, especially women of color and LGBT women, read here:
- The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2016 (Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film)
- Boxed In 2015–16: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television (Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film)
- Hollywood Has A Major Diversity Problem, USC Study Finds (NPR)
- Somehow, The Number Of Female Directors Got Even Smaller Last Year (Huffington Post)
Back in late 2013, several Swedish cinemas decided to start rating movies using the Bechdel Test, and the internet rejoiced! Take this quote from Jezebel:
“Consumers will now be able to select what entertainment they consume based on how successfully it treats women like human beings.”
Except, no, because the Bechdel Test does not measure “how successfully a film treats women like human beings.” In fact, using the Bechdel Test like this might actually make things worse, because simply following the tenets of the Bechdel Test to create a movie you want deemed acceptable by feminists is not enough and, frankly, kind of insulting.
Why should I stop using the Bechdel Test to evaluate feminism in media?
First, it’s a quantitative analysis being used as a qualitative one.
The Bechdel Test only looks at numbers, and in no way determines whether or not the female characters that allow a movie to pass said test are “strong” or even “good” characters.
This is not the Bechdel Test’s fault, but rather the fault of people who misunderstand how analysis works. Having two women speak in your movie does not equal feminism, and having that be the bar is worrying to say the least.
To this test’s credit, it does bring to light a fairly obvious issue of gender bias in pop culture. The Toronto Sun reported on May 16th, 2013 that of the top-grossing films in 2012, a mere third of the speaking roles went to women (for the record, being a speaking character only requires saying a single line). Furthermore, the New York Film Academy found that between 2007 and 2013, 2.25 males are depicted in film to every 1 female.
That being said, in no way does the data provided by ranking movies using the Bechdel Test allow for any level of quality interpretation.
Second, the “test” defines “male” too broadly
If a woman talks with another woman about a male child, the movie fails the test, which to me seems a little harsh. The Bechdel Test isn’t specific enough if we’re going to be using it to measure “how successfully movies treat women like human beings” which is colloquially how many people have decided to use it, and “fails” a movie if the women talk to one another about ANY man, be that man 2 months old, a sibling, or gay. This effectively discounts any movie about motherhood unless the child is female.
Third, using the Bechdel Test to rate feminism in media confirms the worst stereotypes about feminism, and is actually kind of sexist towards women.
The second step of the test, where the two women have to talk to each other, essentially implicitly makes the claim that women are only valuable to “the cause” or treated well by the filmmakers when they’re around another woman, which is, of course, absurd.
By framing movies in context of the Bechdel test, we are effectively telling women that they are hurting the cause of feminism whenever they speak to or of men, and we’re telling men that their very existence hurts women.
And what does this say about modern feminism? Does no one else see the irony in a feminist pop culture test claiming that women are only valuable to the feminist agenda if they’re in pairs?
To once again clarify, this is not the Bechdel Test’s fault. The Bechdel Test was a satirical statement by a character in a comic book based on a conversation the author had with a friend. The purpose of the “test” was never to qualitatively analyze depictions of women in pop culture, but rather to point out how truly few movies manage to center women, rather than using women characters as set dressing to continue to center men, and feature more than one at a time. This is why this post is explicitly referring to the USE of the Bechdel “Test” and not the tenets in and of itself.
Finally, the Bechdel Test discounts any non-romantic conversation between a man and a woman as non-progress.
If a woman talks to a man about her job, her children, her fears, a war they’re both part of, the fate of the world, or her experience as a woman in a world made for men, how is that harming female representation in film?
We should be celebrating movies that allow men and women to be friends, or even more than friends, if both characters are full, actual people.
What will move us forward as a culture is not just randomly throwing in conversations between women about their periods, but, perhaps, making characters whose gender is not important to the plot women instead of the default “man,” or making characters whose whiteness is not required by the plot people of color.
Or, better yet, write stories about women being women and people of color experiencing the world as people of color that aren’t indie films or outliers from pop culture, and rather just STORIES. And maybe hire women and people of color to write and direct them too.
And now for…
THE CASTELLINI TEST!
This is mostly a joke, but it’s also not a joke, because if you probably still want something catchy to evaluate (non intersectional) female representation in film and television. I’ve dismantled the Bechdel Test, and would be remiss if I didn’t offer an alternative. Enter: The Castellini Test!
- There have to be at least two named women characters with at least 5 lines of dialog each.
- Those characters must have a conversation, not necessarily with the other woman, either not about their partner or with their partner (future or current) and not about their relationship.
- At least one of the women has to be integral to the plot, meaning that if she were written out of the film, it couldn’t reach the same ending.
I mean, you could also Google “feminist film theory” and take more than two seconds to decide whether or not a piece of media is problematic or otherwise, but where’s the fun in that?
Despite its intentions of illustrating a problem with gender disparity in media, the Bechdel Test (as it is used by lazy journalists and casual viewers) ends up telling women that they only matter when around other women, and tells men that in a perfect world, they don’t exist. We all have a personal responsibility to critically evaluate other critical examinations of our art and culture, and to critically evaluate them broadly.