The Bechdel Test

Does a movie have two named female characters? Do these characters talk to each other? And if so, do they talk about something other than a man? If you can answer “yes” to these three questions, then the movie has just passed the Bechdel Test.

This elegant little checklist was popularized by Alison Bechdel and her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Apparently, a character refused to watch movies if they failed this test. There’s even a website that lists and discusses movies with regards to this test. Despite not being affiliated with Bechdel, the site does seem to uphold the spirit of the test. It rates films and allows readers to post comments and dispute ratings. It provides links to IMDB pages and reviews. It also points out that passing movies are not necessarily good or even “feminist-friendly” movies. If one scene in a macho action movie has two housewives exchanging Tupperware tips, the movie passes. Of course, most of the 1530 movies included (as of September 24, 2010) are from the last decade, but a decent amount of older films are there too.

Okay, so why is this interesting?

Does a movie have two named female characters? Do these characters talk to each other? And if so, do they talk about something other than a man? If you can answer “yes” to these three questions, then the movie has just passed the Bechdel Test.

This elegant little checklist was popularized by Alison Bechdel and her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Apparently, a character refused to watch movies if they failed this test. There’s even a website that lists and discusses movies with regards to this test. Despite not being affiliated with Bechdel, the site does seem to uphold the spirit of the test. It rates films and allows readers to post comments and dispute ratings. It provides links to IMDB pages and reviews. It also points out that passing movies are not necessarily good or even “feminist-friendly” movies. If one scene in a macho action movie has two housewives exchanging Tupperware tips, the movie passes. Of course, most of the 1530 movies included (as of September 24, 2010) are from the last decade, but a decent amount of older films are there too.

Okay, so why is this interesting? Well, for one it is possible that this whole idea was spawned from the hilarious 1982 SNL “Focus on Film” skit in which Eddie Murphy, playing a film critic with a big racial chip on his shoulder, refuses to see movies that lack black people. Murphy is making fun of a certain kind of black person here. It’s funny. I don’t know if “Dykes to Watch Out For” plays along with the humor or takes such an absolutist stance seriously, but the blog sure seems to follow this latter course. This seems like an instance of life imitating art, but maybe not in the way the artist had originally intended.

Another interesting bit is that the Bechdel Test makes us A) think back to all the movies we’ve seen to determine if they pass the test, and B) wonder why we never seemed to notice or care that so many of them failed. (Only around 50% of the movies cataloged on the website pass the test). Nice food for thought for the mildly peckish. I say this not to be snarky, but to point out that the Bechdel Test will always be ancillary to everyone’s own personal Liked It/Disliked It test. A movie can have two women discussing astrophysics and still be a waste of one’s time and money.

What’s most interesting however is how unfair and insufficient the test really is. For one, it rates movies that don’t include women at all. So Deliverance, Das Boot, Paths of Glory, Patton, and many other of my favorite films all fail. No way I can get on board with that.

There are certain assumptions you have to buy if you want to enjoy any dramatic art. Some of these include time and place. So if a story assumes to take place, say, in a maximum security prison, or in a medieval monastery, or on the Moon July 20, 1969, or some other setting in which women for some reason or another are scarce, well then, that’s okay. There are countless times and places in life, and audiences should accept the same for movies too. A setting shouldn’t be off limits simply because it lacks a certain kind of person. But the Bechdel Test asserts that it is.

Another problem with the test is that it simply does not apply in so many circumstances even when movies do include named female characters. What about something like the Blair Witch Project? One girl, two guys. Or how about Boys Don’t Cry? The website says BDC passes the test, but there is apparently much controversy over whether a female character who identifies herself as male should be considered female. Then, of course, I would like to see someone Bechdel this.

So in response, I did a little research that would help explain why so many films fail the Bechdel Test. My hypothesis was that film producers tend to want their movies to make a lot of money. And if you write scripts with the Bechdel Test in mind, then the odds for making a lot of money go way down.

To test this hypothesis, I looked at the most financially successful movies of all time to see how many of them pass the test. I was guessing the answer was not many. My source was the IMDB All Time Box Office movies list. As of September, 19, 2010, 412 films grossed over $200 million. Of these, 238 were included on the Bechdel Test page. So with 238 as our denominator, we got 156 fails and 82 passes. This is a fail rate of almost two-thirds. So clearly, films with two women talking to each other about anything other than a man are riskier propositions that films lack such scenes. Slam dunk, right? If you’re a producer, director, or scriptwriter and you want to make a successful movie perhaps passing the Bechdel Test shouldn’t be so high upon your list of priorities.

It gets even more interesting when you segment the list. Among the top ten movies, it’s fifty-fifty. In the top twenty, eleven fail and nine pass. It’s only among your run of the mill

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blockbusters that the failures start pulling away. Among the top fifty, it’s 32 to 18 (64%). Top hundred: 68 to 32 (68%). Top 200: 133 to 67 (66.5%). I believe this is what statisticians would call a trend. 2 in 3 blockbusters fail the Bechdel Test.

Before I conclude, something must be said of the movies not included on the Bechdel List site, all 174 of them. Perhaps if these were included the results might be different. Yes, perhaps. I’ve included my sources, so you can see for yourselves. Here are some male-centric movies, more or less oozing testosterone, that the Bechdel site has yet to rate:

5 James Bond movies
3 Fast and Furious movies
3 of 4 Lethal Weapon movies
3 Mummy movies
3 Spider-Man movies
2 Beverly Hills Cop movies
2 Crocodile Dundee movies
2 Die Hard movies
2 Mission: Impossible movies
2 National Treasure movies
2 Jaws movies
2 Rocky movies
2 Superman movies
American Gangster
Bad Boys 2
Bourne Ultimatum
Cliffhanger
Face/Off
Minority Report
Rambo: First Blood Part 2
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Terminator 3
Top Gun
XXX

There are many others, of course. And some of them may pass the test. Judging from their IMDB pages, however, it’s rather unlikely. It seems to me that the two-thirds failure rate might actually increase if all 412 movies were tested. Perhaps when the people at the www.Bechdeltest.com add more movies to their page (and to their credit, they do update frequently), we’ll know for sure.

As for the Bechdel Test itself, there seems to be two purposes:

1) Applying a kind of popular pressure on movie producers to include more women in meaningful ways in movies by,
2) Letting people know when movies don’t include women in meaningful ways, so they can avoid them.

While this is admirable in a consumer-advocate kind of way, it is my opinion that it will have little, if any effect. Reason why is that people have always known that the most popular movies typically involve men more than women. And they’ve never really cared, or else they would have done something about it years ago. I doubt a simple test is going to change that.

First Post

Hello! My name is RC Speck, and I’m a writer and computer programmer living in Durham, North Carolina, USA. After some experience writing for WCPE the Classical Station and posting on the WCPE blog, I’m finally starting my own blog. The topics will be many, but mostly I will focus on novels, short stories, music, films, and comix. I may occasionally dabble in art, TV, history, or poetry. Also, don’t be too surprised if I hit you with the occasional post on boxing or MMA.

Hello! My name is RC Speck, and I’m a writer and computer programmer living in Durham, North Carolina, USA. After some experience writing for WCPE the Classical Station, I’m finally starting my own blog. The topics will be many, but mostly I will focus on novels, short stories, music, films, and comix. I may occasionally dabble in art, TV, history, or poetry. Also, don’t be too surprised if I hit you with the occasional post on boxing or MMA.

I am a member of the . I’ve also published two short stories, Nirvana and Xenophobic Heart with Scars Publications. They both won the Editor’s Choice Award for 2009. You can read them . Just scroll on the left until you see my name and click.

To dive right in, I’d like to discuss the ingredients needed for a good story.

Impossible to say conclusively, of course, but Flannery O’Connor took a good stab at it in her essay “Writing Short Stories” found her in posthumously published volume Mystery and Manners.

The peculiar problem of the short story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible. He has only a short space to do it in and he can’t do it by statement. He has to do it by showing, not by saying, and by showing the concrete-so that his problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him.

I think by “double time” O’Connor refers to what we call ‘meaning’. Something tangible that symbolizes something intangible. If you paid attention in English class as a kid you’ll know what I mean:

  • Lady Macbeth has trouble ridding her hands of blood.
  • Ahab constantly searches for the White Whale.
  • Piggy is possessive of his specs.

In all cases the object refers to something other than itself without the subject (or author) saying as much. Often this something is something important about the subject himself. O’Connor then explains how this works in her wonderful short story Good Country People in which “a lady PhD has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman whom she has tried to seduce.” She describes how, as a symbol, the wooden leg accumulates meaning throughout the story until, “when the Bible salesman steals it, the reader realizes that he has taken away part of the girl’s personality and has revealed her deeper affliction to her for the first time.”

This is all great. According to O’Connor, stories that have this kind of evolutionary unraveling are well on their way. And if a story chronicles dramatic events with a beginning, middle, and end in a world that “deals with reality through what could be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched”, then it would be a pretty good story, wouldn’t it?

But there is one thing that O’Connor sort of mentions in this essay as being crucial to good fiction, but doesn’t really expound upon. She says that a character in a good story must share “in the general human condition and in some specific human condition.”

So what does this mean? Here is our old friend Wikipedia: “The human condition encompasses the experiences of being human in a social, cultural, and personal context.”

This is about right for our purposes. O’Connor’s lady PhD thinks she’s a pretty sophisticated person since she has renounced all belief in God. Her heartfelt belief is that there is no God. This is what sustains her in a world in which few around her have read as many books as she has. And she’d tell you all about it, too. So far, so good. All humans need something to believe in. But when the Bible Salesman steals her leg, she encounters someone who doesn’t even have this belief. This is someone who truly has an empty soul (a lot like the chilling Misfit in her story A Good Man is Hard to Find) with no personal ethos other than the predatory need to satisfy selfish desires. In one of the best lines in American literature, he calls out as a parting shot with her leg tucked safely in his valise, “You ain’t so smart. I been believe in nothing ever since I was born!”

Just like that, the bottom falls out of her childish angst once she encounters the real thing. The intellectual support for her equanimity crumbles, and the fall, judging from the poor girl’s shrieks and “churning face”, hurts. Yes, this also satisfies O’Connor’s general human condition requirement since the loss of everything you know to be true can devastate anyone.

But as fiction, this scene would fail utterly if not for the location in which it takes place: he ditches her in a second-story barn loft, out of earshot from her house. This is probably what O’Connor meant by “some specific human condition”. Everyone knows what it’s like to be in a loft, and no one would want to be stuck in one minus a leg. The girl is stranded both physically and metaphysically.

Imagine if he had stolen her leg while she was sitting down on a sofa in her living room. Not such a predicament anymore, is it? More like a serious but mundane nuisance rather than an existential catastrophe. What if it weren’t her leg that was made out of wood, but her pinkie finger? Well, now it’s farce. And while human beings must deal with mundane nuisances and would rather not lose their pinkie fingers, these situations don’t share in the general human condition. Why? They don’t involve two really important things: Life As Opposed To Dying (LAOTD) and Death As Opposed To Living (DAOTL). Note I didn’t just say “Life and Death” simply because these two hypothetical situations do indeed involve the former and could very well involve the latter (a pinkie infection, perhaps?). I will leave you to figure out LAODT and DAOTL by yourselves, but will add that ‘death’ in this case does not necessarily denote giving up the ghost, as it were. The death of one’s innocence, marriage, peace of mind, belief in God… all these will do just fine. Death implies a certain change after which there is no going back. Ever.

But the question remains: why is involving the human condition in its general and specific forms so crucial for a story? Flannery O’Connor doesn’t say.

But I can. Because without it, readers will not want to take the place of the character. When witnessing the lady PhD’s misfortunes, careful readers will not just empathize with the character, but will try to become that character. They will imagine what she could possibly be feeling in such a circumstance. Hence the mystery and wonder—because we can never know for sure. Perhaps this is why so many of us find this transfer of emotion (whether happy or sad) so thrilling. For me, emotion-transfer is the very point of fiction. Any story that does not deliver in this regard is not worth the paper, ink, and glue used to put it together. For several days after reading Good Country People I was that lady PhD.

I’d call this process “transubstantiation”, but I think the term has already been taken. Instead, I think we can settle on the magic of fiction.