sesquipedality: (Queen of Swords)
[personal profile] sesquipedality
It's possible you've already seen my comments on the Bechdel Test, but if not, first, a quick recap.

The Bechdel Test (not in fact devised by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, but by a friend of hers, Liz Wallace) as originally expressed was a criterion for which films to go and watch. Wallace would only watch movies if they contained

1) at least two female characters
2) who have a conversation with each other
3) about something other than a man.

The test has become increasingly popular in modern years, and there's even a website which now indicates how much of the test films manage to pass. The problem is that of course it doesn't test a great deal. The point of the test is as a conceptual tool to demonstrate the narrow confines into which women are placed (particularly within film and television), as appendages to the really important male characters. But increasingly people are using it as a metric for a film's feminist credentials, which it was never really intended to be. Indeed, in Sweden, one chain of cinemas is now giving films a Bechdel rating. Consider that all the St Trinian's films pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Now I quite like the St. Trinian's films, but they are about as feminist as Bernard Manning.

After last night's trip to the cinema, I have an excellent example of a film I regard as feminist which utterly fails the Bechdel test. That film is Gravity. There are only two female characters (from a cast of five, only three of which are seen alive on screen), who never speak. But the lead character is an excellent female character. While she is out of her depth in a way that the male character is not, there are sound plot reasons for this (he is a retiring veteran astronaut, she a rookie on her first mission) and she is demonstrably an extremely capable scientist in her own right. The second and third acts of the film focus almost exclusively on her solving her own problems by her own agency, and the story is really about her rising to the challenging circumstances which she encounters. She is demonstrably capable, without in any way being "a woman with something to prove" (another lazy stereotype that plays into patriarchal story telling rather than subverting it). She has family related backstory that's possibly slightly playing to stereotypes, but actually it would work just as well for a father as for a mother.

Now it's not a perfect film from a feminist perspective. The unnecessary male forename ("my father wanted a boy", ugh - I do wonder if in early drafts the character was male), and a few very male gazey long body shots when she's outside of her spacesuit spring to mind, but it is a film that gives a female character her own arc, motivations, and reality.

I suppose my point is that "this film is misogynist because it fails the Bechdel Test" really isn't something we should be saying. The point of the Bechdel test was to demonstrate that Hollywood marginalises and dehumanises women, and it's doing that that makes a film misogynist. The Bechdel Test was a valuable tool in that it drew attention to this behaviour, but isn't it time we looked beyond the manifestation of that behaviour as expressed in the test to the underlying behaviour that causes so few films to pass it?

(Final paragraph edited to make the point a little clearer.)

Date: 2013-11-09 12:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lanfykins.livejournal.com
The Bechdel Test is an absolute minimum, and the point is how many films fail even that.

Passing the Bechdel Test means 'your film maybe doesn't assume that males are the only True Human Beings'. That is no cause for congratulations.

Date: 2013-11-09 12:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sesquipedality.livejournal.com
Indeed, but equally failing the Bechdel Test does not mean "your film is misogynist crap". That's my point. It's not really a test at all. Or rather it's an interesting metric in aggregate, not really in the case of individual data points.
Edited Date: 2013-11-09 01:16 pm (UTC)

Date: 2013-11-09 01:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lanfykins.livejournal.com
Same as all metrics, really :)

Date: 2013-11-09 01:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sesquipedality.livejournal.com
Well, all social science metrics. The physical ones tend to be quite useful individually. ;)

Date: 2013-11-09 02:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] angoel.livejournal.com
I believe that there will be value in having the Bechdel test until such a time as the proportion of films passing it, and the proportion of films passing the reverse Bechdel test is comparable. After all, while fixing the symptoms doesn't automatically fix the problem, it does remove some of the barriers to fixing the problem (e.g. scriptwriters being told to remove female to female dialogue because that'll prevent the film selling as well).

Of course, that doesn't mean people shouldn't also be looking beyond the test.
Edited Date: 2013-11-09 02:03 pm (UTC)

Date: 2013-11-10 12:12 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
It makes me want to deliberately re-write my stuff so it doesn't pass, but that's because I'm generally contrary.

S.

Date: 2013-11-09 04:21 pm (UTC)
rmc28: Rachel smiling against background of trees, with newly-cut short hair (Default)
From: [personal profile] rmc28
I've always thought it was most useful as an aggregate measure (how many films can you think of that pass this) rather than a way of evaluating individual films. There can be good plausible reasons why an individual film might not pass, but still not be hideously misogynistic, but when so few do, you have a system-wide problem.

Date: 2013-11-09 07:52 pm (UTC)
lnr: (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnr
That's a good way of looking at it

Date: 2013-11-11 11:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] naath.livejournal.com
Yeah, and also I think it's "interesting" (read, aggravating) not so much how many films don't pass, but the contrast between that and how many films don't pass the "reverse" test (two named men, talking to each other, about something that isn't a woman).

There are lots of films that have few characters, or a single-gendered cast, or very little talking, or all the talking is about the One Main Character... for good reasons to do with how to best tell the story that that film is trying to tell.

But IMO there are *just as many* good stories that are dominated by women as there are good stories that are dominated by men - but the men's stories are dominating film, which is not good. And looking at the aggregate figures can tell you how big that bias is.

Date: 2013-11-09 06:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lord-sandwich.livejournal.com
It would be actually very easy to have a film pass the test and still be very inherently misogynistic. People forget when it was first introduced it was more or less as a joke- the punchline being if you really used that criterion there would be very few films you could watch. It seems now its being used as a way of judging a films feminist creditials without really thinking about the implications.

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