Episode 67: The Problem with The Bechdel Test


Last week, I had the awkward pleasure about talking about my girl crushes. I feel every girl is entitled to at least 5 of them. But this got me thinking about something I researched about for a class I had. It was about how women are portrayed in popular forms of media and one of the things I came across was the Bechdel Test.

For those who don’t know what it is, the Bechdel Test is named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In her comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, two girls go out to watch a movie. One of the girls tells her friend that she only watches films that meets a certain set of criteria.

These criteria are:

1) The film stars at least two women

2) They have to talk to each other at least once

3) The topic of conversation shouldn’t be about a man

Here’s the strip in all its glory:

If you can't read the text, click on the pic to open it!

If you can’t read the text, click on the pic to open it!

Anyway, the strip does make a good point: a lot of movies, TV shows and even video games (especially video games) have females as either token characters (they need to make their quota of female characters). If there are more than two women in it, they either don’t even talk to each other or, if they do, they just talk about boys.

I do agree with the message behind the strip and they really should make women in media more “human” in a sense. Rather than just making them these weird caricatures, they need to be given more personality and I think we’ve been doing a much better job recently. In movies, we have Blue is The Warmest Color, Toy Story and Black Swan. In video games, we have Tomb Raider, Mass Effect and Silent Hill. In TV, we have… well, I drawing a blank! Pretty Little Liars? I dunno. I don’t watch the show. Oh wait! Parks and Recreation! I knew there had to be at least one!

Great movie! Wish I didn't have to pirate it!

Great movie! Wish I didn’t have to pirate it!

While I do agree with the general idea behind the Bechdel Test, I don’t think it’s a great way to see if a movie is going to be good or not. If you look at the film, the two characters actually decide not to watch any movie since no films during that time met the criteria. And I think that’s just shortchanging yourself and is actually detrimental.

One of the points the Bechdel Test was supposed to make is that they want to have strong women in the film and not just token characters. But there are a lot of films that have only one woman but that woman is incredibly strong and should be an inspiration for young girls to follow.

Take Gravity for example. The film only has two characters: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. If you watch the film (and you really should), you know that Clooney bites the dust midway through the film, leaving Sandra Bullock all alone in space. She manages to find her way back to earth all by her lonesome. Sure, her oxygen deprived mind had Georgie give her advice but she still did it by herself. Technically, Gravity would fail the first criteria of the Bechdel Test by having only one woman. But thinking that it’s not going to show a strong woman in it because it fails is wrong!

Pilot that Chinese escape pod, Sandra! You can do it!

Pilot that Chinese escape pod, Sandra! You can do it!

The Bechdel Test doesn’t take into account the quality of the film. Just because a movie passes it, that doesn’t mean that the film will be any good. The Smurfs 2 and World War Z technically pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors but they are bad films. There is also a huge loophole in the test. The two female characters can talk about boys but they have to talk about something else. Well, I think even awful shows like Pretty Little Liars pass the test then!

Oh, go shush yourself!

Oh, go shush yourself!

I think there is a place for the Bechdel Test in modern media. It’s a great safeguard to check if women in film, television and video games are more than the boy-crazy, damsel in distress caricatures they were during the early days of media. But just because it doesn’t pass it, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy it.

It may be important to portray strong women in media. But it’s more important to show entertaining media.

Anyway, writing this got me thinking of Blue is the Warmest Color and how I didn’t get to watch an official release of the film. It’s not even available on DVD over here in the Philippines. Probably because the film is about lesbian love and has nudity in it. And I guess I’ll write about my problems with this kind of thinking next week!

What do you think of the Bechdel Test? Is it a good gauge for testing if you’ll watch the film or not? Whatever your thoughts on the matter, leave them in the comments section below!

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