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The Bechdel Test

A couple of recent posts on feminist blogs alerted me to something that one of them was calling the Bechdel Test, although there seems to be some disagreement on the name of the thing. It comes from a comic strip called "The Rule" from Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For. As stated in the strip, the rule/test is a movie that:

1) has at least two women in it
2) who talk to each other
3) about something other than men.

This is a pretty interesting way to look at movies. In the strip, one of the jokes is that Alien qualifies, because "the two women in it talk to each other about the monster." A movie that doesn't qualify is Hellboy 2, which Denys and I saw last night. Thinking about other movies I've seen recently, Tell No One qualifies, but what about Shall We Dance? I'm not sure that Ginger Rogers ever talks to the other women in the movie, let alone about something other than Fred Astaire. The Fall would qualify, as long as you count the conversations the little girl has with the nurse or with her mother.

One thing that this test gets at is a way of pointing at "dick flicks" (as opposed to "chick flicks"). A lot of action or adventure films, like Hellboy 2, do not satisfy the conditions, and they might be thought of as movies aimed at boys. As someone in one of the other threads pointed out, the LOTR movies don't cut it, because the women (e.g., Arwen, Galadriel, and Eowyn) don't talk to other women. Movies like Iron Man (and like Hellboy) pretty much only have one woman in them to begin with. Then again, Shall We Dance is hardly what I would think of as a dick flick.

It's also interesting to try to figure out if there are movies that satisfy the rule but aren't particularly woman-oriented. I suppose The Fall would be an example. Also the 1939 Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy's conversations with the Good and Bad Witches (and with her aunt, and between the aunt and Miss Gulch) would seem to qualify. Of course, these are both fantasy films with girl protagonists, so maybe they really are woman-oriented. I haven't yet come up with a good example of a dick flick that satisfies the Bechdel Test. Well, maybe Alien, as she pointed out herself.

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( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
wrdnrd
Jul. 23rd, 2008 10:15 pm (UTC)
Another thing the Bechdel Test is good at highlighting, as you alluded to in noting LOTR as an example: There just aren't a lot of women in a lot of movies. Some movies fail to satisfy the rule because the events in the movie are all perpetrated by men. For example, "Kung Fu Hustle" might qualify, except the one time i recall (off the top of my head) the few women actually talking to each other (Rabbit-Tooth Jane talking with the Landlady), they're talking about the trouble in Pig Sty Alley -- which is both perpetrated (by the Axe Gang) and defended (by the tailor, coolie, and baker) by men.

Of course, "Kung Fu Hustle" is about 50% Hollywood and 50% Hong Kong, and i have a theory (which caused Mary Kay Kare to crack up) about Hong Kong martial arts movies possibly being more progressive than Hollywood movies about portraying strong women. I should probably formalize that theory and publish it in a zine some day.
randy_byers
Jul. 23rd, 2008 10:37 pm (UTC)
Certainly there is a long tradition of strong women in the wuxia genre, although it's still within a basically patriarchal system. Speaking of which, Michelle Yeoh shows up in a couple of trailers now playing in theaters. One is for the new Mummy movie (also with Jet Li), and the other is a French-produced English-language near-future action movie called Bablyon AD. Of course, in neither trailer is she identified by name.

Some of the wuxia films may confuse the Bechdel Test by putting the women into male disguise, or in the case of Swordsman 2, by having the woman turn into a man (while still being played by a woman).

Another thought about the LOTR movies is that they actually give Arwen more appearances in the story than the books without making her any more important *to* the story. (Does that qualify as a distinction without a difference?) All of a sudden I wonder what she and Eowyn would have said to each other had they talked. No doubt they would have had a catfight over Aragorn, yes, that's it.
surliminal
Jul. 23rd, 2008 11:22 pm (UTC)
I think some of the point of the Bechdel test is that a movie with a woman protagonist is good enough to be a female oriented movie. That's true of all the Alien movies even if the Weaver role was originally written for a man (or should that be especially??)

Oddly thinking of Teeth the vagina dentata nmovie, if ever there was a grrl film that's it but I don't think it passes the test. can't remember any other women in it!

have you got the verdamt Corflu date settled yet?!
randy_byers
Jul. 23rd, 2008 11:34 pm (UTC)
Is your soton e-dress still good? Have e-mailed you there.

I was thinking about Aliens earlier and wondering if it passed the Bechdel test. Again, it certainly would if you count Ripley's interactions with the little girl. Not sure if she ever talks to the butch Marine woman. Trying to think what other women there are in the movie.

Also, a one-woman play wouldn't pass the Bechdel test!
bohemiancoast
Jul. 24th, 2008 08:15 am (UTC)
The one-woman play is irrelevant here; this is a test for movies, and it pretty much only operates in mainstream movies at that.

Hey, The Devil Wears Prada passes. In spades.
randy_byers
Jul. 24th, 2008 02:58 pm (UTC)
I guess the other interesting thing about this test is that it theoretically eliminates a lot of romantic comedies as well, even though they will typically have several female characters in them.
wrdnrd
Jul. 24th, 2008 05:23 pm (UTC)
Cat fight WITH SWORDS! Rowr!
wrdnrd
Jul. 24th, 2008 05:31 pm (UTC)
Also wanted to say:

Certainly there is a long tradition of strong women in the wuxia genre, although it's still within a basically patriarchal system.

Well, show me any Hollywood movie that isn't set in a patriarchal system. No, seriously, show me one. 'Cause last i checked, i was still living in a patriarchal system, and Hollywood isn't any paragon of progressiveness.

So, yeah, i agree that Hong Kong cinema isn't *terribly* progressive, but i'll still take strong women in a patriarchy over ... whatever the hell that shit is coming out of Hollywood.
randy_byers
Jul. 24th, 2008 05:54 pm (UTC)
I don't disagree with any of this, although I may have a less hostile attitude toward Hollywood than you do. (It helps to apply Sturgeon's Law pretty much everywhere.) I was just pointing out that Chinese cinema is patriarchal; not denying that Hollywood is too.

Just to make it clear: I love wuxia, and I love the strong women in it. I could watch Cheng Pei Pei in Come Drink with Me all day long.
bohemiancoast
Jul. 24th, 2008 02:07 am (UTC)
Critically: it needs to be two named characters who are women. Because there are plenty of movies where the one proper female character has conversations with bystanders about various things. Doesn't count.
randy_byers
Jul. 24th, 2008 03:55 am (UTC)
Excellent point! One woman buying a train ticket from another in passing shouldn't make the grade.
farmgirl1146
Jul. 24th, 2008 02:38 am (UTC)
What a great way to look at movies. Now I have something new to look for.
randy_byers
Jul. 24th, 2008 03:57 am (UTC)
It's interesting how hard it is for me to remember whether movies I've already seen pass the test or not.
farmgirl1146
Jul. 24th, 2008 04:46 am (UTC)
Yes. I thought for a long time about this, and I just can't remember. I don't think that Batman Begins passes the test. Auntie Mame (1958) Rosalind Russell does pass. I'm sure that Driving Miss Daisy passes, I just can't remember.

You watch many more movies than I do, what's your take on this?
randy_byers
Jul. 24th, 2008 03:08 pm (UTC)
Well, as I say, I'm having a hard time remembering whether movies pass the test or not, which probably says something about my own limited perspective. My guess is that certain genres are more likely to pass the test than others, but that the exceptions would be interesting.

One of the threads on the feminist blogs talked about how Samuel R. Delany had some similar rules for how to create well-rounded female characters. The one I remember is that they should be shown to act intentionally, habitually, and gratuitously -- all three. I think there was one about how they should all be shown to have at least one female friend, too. These were again as much comments on what is lacking in typical portrayals and a way to think about them than a true prescription, I think.
hal_obrien
Jul. 24th, 2008 07:03 am (UTC)
How to tighten it up even further
"3) about something other than men."

3a)...or being mother and daughter.

Citizen Kane does not qualify. (Three major characters are women, but they never talk to each other.)

Edited at 2008-07-24 07:07 am (UTC)
randy_byers
Jul. 24th, 2008 03:01 pm (UTC)
Re: How to tighten it up even further
I'm not sure why you would want to eliminate mother/daughter conversations if the goal is to identify women-friendly films. And of course this being an exchange with you, I think of To Catch A Thief. Does Grace Kelly talk to her mother about anything other than men?

hal_obrien
Jul. 24th, 2008 03:13 pm (UTC)
Re: How to tighten it up even further
No, my point is, I suspect a very large percentage of the time women in movies speak when it isn't about men, it's between a mother/daughter pair, and it's about how each thinks the other is boneheaded. I'm thinking of Home for the Holidays and its ilk.

So it isn't about elimination as such. It's about the limited palette of topics.
randy_byers
Jul. 24th, 2008 03:42 pm (UTC)
Re: How to tighten it up even further
I suppose you're right. How many women in movies have the Pinky and the Brain exchange, for example?
wrdnrd
Jul. 24th, 2008 05:27 pm (UTC)
Re: How to tighten it up even further
I think it's a little ... limited to suggest that the scope of the Bechdel Test is to identify women-friendly films. I mean, lots of romantic comedies already are "women-friendly." I think the Bechdel Test is trying to note films that show women being real, fully-developed characters. A film with fully-realized women-as-characters might not necessarily be strictly "women-friendly."
randy_byers
Jul. 24th, 2008 05:56 pm (UTC)
Re: How to tighten it up even further
True, that.
bibliofile
Jul. 26th, 2008 08:54 am (UTC)
Re: How to tighten it up even further
Yes.

I did say that I found the "dick flick" vs. "chick flick" dichotomy amusing in this context, as I never picture either genre as ever passing the test (or if one does, it's an exception).
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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