For the most part, it seems that movies, even the most fantastical ones, are essentially meant to be representations of real life, depicting interpersonal relationships, challenges, and the human condition as a whole. We watch them, we relate to them, and we relate to the characters.
At least, that’s the idea.
But a lot of times, movies, particularly mainstream film designed to appeal to broad swaths of the population—meaning the 18-to-35-year-old-males that make up the largest movie-going audiences, don’t really get it right. Instead, they rely on tried-and-true stereotypes because that’s what people—all people—are familiar with. As I get more aware of the world around me, sometimes it’s hard to see the seemingly harmless “jokes” about people of various races, sexes, and sexualities (and much more) that actually come from places of mistrust, ignorance and even hate. To tell the truth, they make me wince. In part because the joke was made, and in part because people still laugh at it.
So, in an effort to spread the idea of conscious movie watching, I bring you the Bechdel Test.
The Bechdel Test comes from a comic, which I've included, by cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel, known for her serial Dykes to Watch Out For and author of graphic novel Fun Home. In it, a character describes her criteria for movies, which has become known as the “Bechdel Test” or “Bechdel Rule.” The criteria is as follows:
The movie must have 1) at least two female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man.
Now, just to clarify, this list does not attempt to separate good movies from bad, or even the sexist from the non-sexist. Just because a movie fails the Bechdel test doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie, and just because a movie passes doesn’t mean it’s good. I’ve seen movies that pass that also happened to be filled with sexist, offensive tripe, and movies that fail that are thought-provoking and realistic in their treatment of female characters and women in general. After all, the Bechdel Test was conceived as the punchline for a cartoon and was never intended (as far as I know) to be used as any kind of standard in film criticism. But that being said, I think the Bechdel Test is still a useful tool in navigating cinema.
This is also not to say that if you like a movie that fails the Bechdel Test, or otherwise has less-than-inclusive bits, that you’re somehow less enlightened. There are many movies I can appreciate for other reasons with the full knowledge that some line in it might be cringe-inducing. I’m simply trying to look at movies objectively.
What the Bechdel Test is meant to do is to make people think about the roles and presence of women in film, and calls to attention the fact that often, women are relegated to identities based solely on their relationships with male characters (wife, girlfriend, mother, person who must be rescued), and that frequently, they are not fleshed out into whole people. Often, there’s only one woman. Or if there are more than one, they either don’t have anything to do with one another. If they communicate, it’s usually girlfriends talking about their guys, or two women cattily vying for the affections of the same man.
But even though this happens a lot, there are plenty of movies, even mainstream, big-budget ones, that pass the Bechdel Test, including The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Prometheus. Again, this is not to say that these movies where good or not, but just that they allow their female characters more than just their relation to men.
Here’s a list of some Bechdel-passers that I also happen to really, really like. They run the range from movies about friendship to movies about zombies, but they all feature relatable and realistic female characters, and, while it’s not necessary in the Bechdel Test, these five all also feature women as the lead characters. Have a look:
- Girls Town. 1996, Jim McKay. Shot in Astoria, Queens, Girls Town follows three high school girls with the sudden suicide of their friend. The girls are sensitive and intelligent, while still retaining a realistically teenage tendency to bungle and be reactionary. The story, while it begins with the suicide of their friend Nikki, it follows the girls as they come to understand the various oppressions of classism, racism, and sexism. But it’s not all heavy; often the movie and characters are very funny and relatable. A fun fact about this movie is that the actresses playing the three main characters (Bruklin Harris, Anna Grace, and Lili Taylor) collaborated with the director to write the script. Plus it features a lot of ‘90s music like Queen Latifah, Luscious Jackson and PJ Harvey, as well as a very meta conversation about what would happen “if this was a movie.”
- All I Wanna Do. 1998, Sarah Kernochan. Originally titled both Strike! and The Hairy Bird, this is film stars Rachel Leigh Cook, Lynn Redgrave, Heather Matarazzo and Kirsten Dunst, and somehow still managed to slip under the radar. In the early 1960s, the students of an all-girls boarding school stage a strike, occupying the buildings and fending off outsiders with field hockey sticks, to protest the merging of their school with an all-boys school. This, of course, comes after a series of pranks, plots and general mischief. While this might seem odd, remember that this was the early ‘60s, where gender roles ruled, and the girls feared they would be treated like second-class citizens if the school went coed. Yes, that’s right. Teenage girls thinking about things other than boys. The girls here are snappy, smart and hilariously devious while still retaining a core of solid personality. The girls discuss boys, yes, but they also talk about their aspirations and their dreams. My favorite was the flirtatious Tinka (Monica Keena)’s goal to become a famous “actress/folk singer/slut."
- Aliens. 1986, James Cameron. The sequel to Alien, which I discussed in the last post, continues the story of Ellen Ripley and the aliens that are coming to destroy humanity. While Alien also passes the Bechdel Test (they talk about the monster), this installment features more complex female relationships. There’s Ripley’s relationship with Newt, a small girl who is the lone survivor of an alien attack, which shows that Ripley can be a badass alien killer while still being tender towards a child—I mean, just look at the poster. There’s also Private Vasquez, a flame-thrower-toting, shit-talking space marine who pulls some serious badassery of her own, who carries on a professional, not-entirely-friendly relationship with Ripley. Her “butch” persona may be a bit stereotypical, but she, Ripley and Newt all illustrate women reacting to perilous situations with bravery as well as humanity.
- Night of the Comet. 1984, Thom Eberhardt. Who says really bad B movies can’t pass the Bechdel Test? Night of the Comet is an unintentionally funny, sci-fi/zombie/horror/mess that features two sisters and a few other survivors battling it out in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. The girls have distinct personalities, and prove capable of handling firefights as well as burgeoning romances and teen jealousy. While there’s a scene of a standard boy-saves-girl rescue, the male and female characters ultimately prove to be on equal footing when it comes to surviving disease-inducing comet dust, zombies, and ruthless government scientists. They even have time for a shopping spree to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” For some reason.
- Grindhouse. 2007, Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino. The two movies that make up this glorious splatter-fest, Planet Terror and Death Proof, both pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors (mainly blood red), and also include zombies, stunt-drivers, a machine gun prosthesis and a jar full of testicles. Really. While made in homage to exploitation and B films, both features have female characters who discuss cars, film, useless talents as well as men, somersault over zombie hordes, give lap dances (of their own volition—and you can make up your own opinion about that), and beat up Kurt Russell with a sign post. The main characters of both features are women, and in the case of Death Proof, a group of women who decide they’ve had enough of being menaced by movie villains. This double-feature is raunchy, slimy, and full of gross-outs and hilarity. The secret ingredient is blood and hysterical fake trailers, including one for what became the film Machete.
So there you have it. These, of course, are my personal favorites off the Bechdel list. There are, as I mentioned, plenty on the list that are, frankly, really really bad and not always progressive in terms of female portrayal, but I like the Bechdel Test as an exercise into looking at how filmmakers see their female characters, and how women are portrayed to other women. You can check to see if your favorite movies measure up on the unofficial Bechdel Test List, and check out some more in-depth analyses at Talk To Her, a Bechdel-based blog.