Could Use of the Bechdel Test Change the Face of Cinema?

The Bechdel test is a clever way of examining gender imbalance in cinema, but could it actually change the face of film for the long term?

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]o apply the Bechdel test to a film, you must ask of it three questions:


1. Does the film have at least two female characters in it?

2. Do the female characters talk to each other?

3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?


(Some also stipulate that the female characters must both have names, and talk to each other for longer than a minute – probably to rule out those films where the folks don’t have no clothes on. You know the ones I mean.)

The Bechdel test has been back in the news recently due to the decision of four independent Swedish cinemas to give a stamp of approval to every film they screen that passes it. Is this something that could catch on, I wonder? Could you wander down to your local flick box in a couple of years time, and gaze up at the marquee in search of the elusive little symbol (perhaps a glyph of Rosie the Riveter, or the Goddess of Willendorf) lurking next to your chosen title?

In Virginia Woolf’s seminal work A Room of One’s Own, the writer examines a fictional novel called Life’s Adventure. Upon coming across a description of the relationship between two female characters – ‘Chloe liked Olivia’ – the narrator comes to the realisation of how revolutionary this short statement is. Stunned, she acknowledges how original it is not only for Chloe to be liking Olivia, but for Chloe and Olivia to have actually been given a paragraph in which to be interacting with each other at all.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly, if you happen to watch a lot of movies while possessing a vagina) sitting in a cinema screen and watching a couple of women actually talk to each other about their business is still a pretty rare occurrence. Even when there are women interacting socially in a film, they usually have to be in a pretty extreme situation to actually get around to talking about something other than a man. Sigourney-centric Alien only scrapes a pass due to Ripley and Lambert taking a few seconds to discuss the fact that they’re about to be sliced and diced by a slavering monster (something that would certainly take precedence over girlish gossip about Captain Dallas).

Hell, even in The Hunger Games, our patriarchy-smashing Bechdel-passer for the present day, Rue still takes time out from climbing trees and hunting gophers to ask Katniss if it’s true that her and Peeta are getting it on.

Obviously, the Bechdel test has massive limitations, and can’t be used as a consistent yardstick for measuring just how feminist and inclusive a film is. Run Lola Run for example, the story of a strong, independent female character who spends the whole film trying to save her feckless boyfriend, would not pass the test simply because she’s pretty much the only woman in the thing.

This has led some to claim that the Bechdel test is actually damaging to cinema, as it can throw up a lot of false passes and fails, and it is therefore impossible to draw any solid conclusions from its use. This is of course true, but supporters of the test would argue that it is not meant to be used to draw conclusions, but to draw attention.

Seeing that little Venus glyph on the marquee of a film might not change the face of cinema overnight, and it might not lead filmmakers into creating more gender balanced movies, but it would ask us as cinema-goers to look a little more deeply at what we’re watching, and why we’re watching it. After all, the future is now – it’s probably time we got to see a film about a couple of women setting up a drug cartel.

Bechdel Test Fails: Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Avatar, Fight Club, Reservoir Dogs, Blade Runner, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyThe Social Network, The Godfather, and many more…
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  • I would love to see a Rosie the Riveter in the corner of film posters. Hopefully people would seek out films that had one just like people did with parental advisory stickers in the '90s for albums If only there was a way to force the BBFCs hand on this one... a simple trial run would be fascinating

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