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Should There Be a Bechdel Test for Rating Movie Sexism?

posted by Nell Minow

Alison Bechdel once had a character in her comic strip explain what she looked for in a movie.  There had to be two named female characters and they had to talk about something other than men.  It was a joke, but it has come to be known as the Bechdel test.  And while some people point out that a movie like “Gravity” can have a strong, independent, female lead (indeed one who is alone on screen for most of the movie) and still fail the test, it is still a good reminder that many movies fail to include female characters with anything to do but sigh and say things like, “Johnny, when are you ever going to grow up and learn to commit?”  (I’m talking to you, Seth Rogan and Seth MacFarlane.)

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There’s a website that rates movies according to the Bechdel test.  Four Swedish theaters have now made the Bechdel test an official movie rating.  No one, and certainly not Bechdel, intended the test to be definitive.  But, just consider, as Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris did, what it would be like applied to male characters.

If the Bechdel Test had suddenly landed in Hollywood with the force of law, it would have seriously jeopardized five of last year’s 10 Best Picture nominees. If we’d rewritten the rule to apply to men, it would have seriously jeopardized… um… let’s see… “Precious.” And that inequity only covers good movies. Apply the comparison to a roster of summer blockbusters, and the results are even less attractive. Not to mention Comic-Con, which now represents the ruling aesthetic of mainstream Hollywood movies and which, under the Bechdel Test, probably could have been knocked down from five days to 45 minutes and not strained the seating capacity of a local Olive Garden.

 

  • Matthew Lane

    “Should There Be a Bechdel Test for Rating Movie Sexism?”

    I think you pretty clearly answered your own question when you said:

    • Nell Minow

      Thanks for a very thoughtful comment. Of course, I agree, and even Bechdel (who did not create the “test” but only had two of her characters mention it in a comic strip) did not intend it to be definitive. I do think it is a worthwhile reality check, however, as a starting point that is helpful in questioning assumptions. You could never imagine even asking those questions about the male characters.

      • Matthew Lane

        ” I do think it is a worthwhile reality check”

        you can’t even call it that: There is no reason a movie MUST have female characters & the pretense that is the Bechdel test isn’t going to change that.

        All the Bechdel test ends up doing is pissing off people as feminist people sit around exclaiming “this movie failed this pretend test that is incapable of testing the very thing we are pretending it tests, so I declare SEXISM!”

        If your goal is animosity then keep the Bechdel test, because that’s exactly what the non-test & the people who subscribe to it end up achieving.

        Because shouting sexism isn’t a starting point for a conversation, its an ending point, its the point where one essentially declares “my view is right because I intoned the magic word sexism first, hence that ends the conversations & if you disagree I’ll use the magic word of sexism against them, which I feel invalidates any further conversation because you are a sexist because I say so.”

        That’s not a starting point, as it presumes straight off the bat that the reason a property fails it is sexism: It then presumes that collectively not enough movies pass the test because of wide spread sexism.

        Instead one should be looking at why the bechdel test insists on asking the wrong question: The question isn’t why do so many movies fail this test & should be “why do I think movies should pass this test”, or even better yet “why do I think that representation should be the goal of entertainment, instead of entertainment.”

        Or the ultimate question: If women are so interested in telling their “own stories”, why do so few female directors actually do that & more importantly why do so few people including women go watch them when they do?

        • Nell Minow

          It’s a shorthand for “does this movie include female characters who are portrayed with as much depth and importance as the male characters?” That’s a fair question. The question is not about the test. It is about why so many films still fail to give half the audience characters they can relate to and identify with. There are similar ‘tests” for characters of color, disabled characters, gay characters, etc. Why a movie fails to pass the test is not the question. I don’t care much whether the answer is “sexism” or “because we’ve always done it that way.” I wonder how you would respond if movies overwhelmingly did as poor a job of portraying men as they do in portraying women. If “Moby Dick” fails the test, it is only because it is an accurate depiction of a story that had no female characters. And I’m fine with the idea that the purpose of entertainment is to be entertained. But some people of both genders do not find it entertaining to see a movie that has no interesting women characters or that gives its women characters nothing interesting to do. Female directors and screenwriters actually do tell female stories pretty well, when they can get the financing, which is remarkably difficult. Producer Gale Anne Hurd has explained that she had to call “Terminator” after the character with only 17 lines to disguise the fact that the central character was female. And women do go see movies that tell women’s stories or stories from a female point of view. “Fifty Shades of Grey” was based on a book by a woman, written by a woman, and directed by a woman. Last year, “Belle” and “Beyond the Lights” did very well with limited distribution and marketing. And the top movie of the year was “Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1,” with a female lead character. “Lucy” and “Maleficent” also did very well last year, as did the awful “Tammy.” I still think the Bechdel test is a good reality check for filmmakers and — as critics assess what is missing from a film that does not seem as “entertaining” as it intended to be.

          • Matthew Lane

            “It’s a shorthand for does this movie include female characters who are portrayed with as much depth and importance as the male characters?”

            No its short hand for “I want an excuse to pretend that this is sexist, so I can announce it sexist without looking at my own uninvestigated biases like why do I think the absence of female characters is the same thing as exclusion.”

            It can never be a short hand about the inclusion of female characters, or the representation of female characters since as I’ve already pointed out it doesn’t test representation, it simply tests a set of arbitrary qualifiers that have nothing to do with inclusion or representation: That’s why the Vagina monologues, an all female production can & does fail the test.

            “The question is not about the test. It is about why so many films still fail to give half the audience characters they can relate to and identify with.”

            Except they are given that, even in movies which fail the BT: Because as has been pointed out the BT does not measure inclusion or representation, it measures arbitrary qualifiers that have nothing to do with representation or inclusion.

            “I wonder how you would respond if movies overwhelmingly did as poor a job of portraying men as they do in portraying women”

            Except they don’t do a bad job of portraying women, your position starts from a faulty premise: Women are well represented in television/movies & have been for a couple of decades now.

            “But some people of both genders do not find it entertaining to see a movie that has no interesting women characters or that gives its women characters nothing interesting to do.”

            You mean in the same way that some people of both genders do not find it entertaining to see a movie that has no interesting males characters or that gives its male characters nothing interesting to do.

            So what? If you aren’t interested in specific material then don’t pursue it: For instance I couldn’t give two brass razoos for the Sex and the City movie, so I chose not to watch it.

            An that’s where my preference for material ends: If I have no interest in some material then I have the choice of not partake, I do not have the option of expecting the material to bend over backwards to please my personal preferences.

            That is called equality in practice.

            “Female directors and screenwriters actually do tell female stories pretty well, when they can get the financing, which is remarkably difficult. Producer Gale Anne Hurd has explained that she had to call ‘Terminator’ after the character with only 17 lines to disguise the fact that the central character was female.”

            As she should do, after all its the gosh darn main premise of the pitch. I honestly don’t know why for to many women the actual premise is considered secondary to the gender of the character in the actual pitch.

            The PITCH is the important part of the PITCH, that’s why its called THE PITCH & not “rambling on about the sex of your characters.”

            A pitch meeting exists to pitch a concept, that’s it.

            It baffles me for the same reason it baffles me when female authors refer to their own protagonist as a “strong female character”, because that’s not a description of any character ever. I mean it’s literally just a tautology with the word strong thrown in.

            ” I still think the Bechdel test is a good reality check for filmmakers”

            It’s not & we’ve covered why it’s not

            “as critics assess what is missing from a film that does not seem as ‘entertaining’ as it intended to be.”

            But it’s not missing, it is simply absent in the same way that your website not having a page dedicated to WWE wrestling doesn’t mean the page is “missing”, because missing assumes that there should be one & that it not being there is aberrational. You simply chose not to have such a page, such a page is absent.

            Secondly it’s your subjective conjecture that it’s not as entertaining as it was intended to be.

            I mean if you are going to with an arbitrary test, at least go with an objectively better test like the Mako Mori Test.

          • Nell Minow

            I believe Hurd’s point was that THE PITCH was in fact the story of a careless young woman who had to learn resilience and courage when a murderous cyborg from the future comes after her. Of course there are many stories of careless young men who have to learn resilience and courage, including almost every Tom Cruise movie. But “Terminator” is the story of Sarah, not the story of the cyborg.

            As reassuring as it may be to hear that you do not find certain films sexist, I hope you can understand that other people might have a different response that is at least equally as valid, based on their own experiences and perspective.

            And a better analogy than “missing” a page covering WWE would be “missing” the failure of a movie to tell its story in a manner that respects characters other than white males. If, as I said, a particular film is not as entertaining as its creators intended, it may be that one reason is the superficial portrayal of the female characters, and if in fact that is the case, it is more than fair for a critic to make that point. A study showed that there are three male characters for every female character in family movies. Even the crowd scenes are primarily male. If a movie shows all the working people as male (which often happens), it presents a picture so completely out of whack with what goes on in real life it is a distraction (does the movie take place in some alternate reality?) It is sexist. And it is worth pointing out. Maybe you have an example of a movie that you think is sexist (as of the year in which it was made — not just some 50’s movie about housewives). If so, I’d be glad to hear about it.

          • Matthew Lane

            “As reassuring as it may be to hear that you do not find certain films sexist, I hope you can understand that other people might have a different response that is at least equally as valid, based on their own experiences and perspective.”

            An that’s called subjective conjecture, which is EXACTLY why trying to pretend that the BT is an objective test of representation is so blatantly idiotic. You’d have an easier time creating an objective measure of artistic merit, by asking “does this image contain an urn, a cherub, or some grapes” & then assuming that any image that didn’t contain that must not be art & anything that isn’t art must be pornography….. It’s just a complete non sequitur.

            An that’s exactly what bringing the BT into the conversation is, its essentially screaming “I’m irrationally going to announce something is sexist & because I’ve intoned the BT I am going to pretend my subjective opinion is ano objective fact.”

            That’s not a conversation starter, that’s a authoritarian conversation ender that circumvents any and all discussion about the actual qualities of the intellectual property.

            .”And a better analogy than ‘missing’ a page covering WWE would be “missing” the failure of a movie to tell its story in a manner that respects characters other than white males.”

            Except that as has been pointed out you are starting from a faulty premise that women are some how hard done by in narrative fiction, specifically movies: This is not the case & has also been pointed out, you cannot draw that conclusion from the BT because the BT is completely incapable of demonstrating that.

            “If, as I said, a particular film is not as entertaining as its creators intended, it may be that one reason is the superficial portrayal of the female characters, and if in fact that is the case, it is more than fair for a critic to make that point.”

            Ditto male characters & so we come back round to, so what? You didn’t like the lack of active roles for women in a specific movie, so what? I didn’t like the lack of active roles for men in any number of movies made specifically for women, but outside of deciding that either

            A. I care & so choose not to partake

            B. I don’t care & choose to partake

            That’s as far as my rights extend, because just because I care & didn’t like it, doesn’t mean other people were not suitably entertained.

            “A study showed that there are three male characters for every female character in family movies.”

            I’m sure there is a study that shows that…. There are also studies on the internet that show the Earth is flat…. The internet is great like that it’s full of nonsense people WANT to believe.

            “Even the crowd scenes are primarily male. If a movie shows all the working people as male (which often happens), it presents a picture so completely out of whack with what goes on in real life it is a distraction (does the movie take place in some alternate reality?)”

            No it doesn’t: that’s objectively builltwaddle.

          • Nell Minow

            All art is subjective, because it reflects the points of view of the people who create it. All responses to art are subjective. You seem to think that you possess some kind of objective logic but even if such a thing was possible, it is not reflected in in the points you are making or your manner of making them. And you’re the one who is screaming — with the vocabulary of accusation and insult, but with very little by way of actual debate. Failing to state the other side’s views in a manner they approve of is an automatic loss. So is insult. You concede any points you have not rebutted as well, which goes for most of what I wrote. In addition, you accused me of making an argument I didn’t make, also an automatic lose. I never said that a movie that fails the BT test or a movie that is downright sexist cannot be entertaining to some audiences. In fact, that is explicitly the opposite of what I said in acknowledging that your reaction to a film might be different from others in the audience.

            Another automatic lose: you did not answer my question. Either you have never found a movie sexist enough to disturb your enjoyment, in which case we have a good sense of the limits of your perspective, or you have and do not want to acknowledge it because you think it will make it more difficult for you to uphold your increasingly untenable argument, in which we have a good sense of what it is you are seeking here.

            You’ve ignored my original comment that the BT is a useful starting point, what we lawyers call a rebuttable presumption. If a movie doesn’t pass the test, a good response is, “Well, it’s Moby Dick, Lawrence of Arabia, or a WWII battle.” Presumption rebutted. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good reality check and a good way to begin a conversation — as opposed to shrill, defensive, insistence that your experience applies to everyone.

            I presume your right “A” includes the right to explain why you choose not to partake, and the right to evaluate and comment on the quality of the film in question. Though I prefer to hear from those who have seen the film before commenting. In which case, what exactly are you saying? That filmmakers have the right to be sexist or otherwise offensive? No argument there. That those who object should just shut up about it? Well, I don’t think that’s your point, since you are clearly in favor of expressing your own opinions quite extensively. So I really don’t know what your point is.

            And if you do not agree with the study I cited, which is extensively documented, the correct response is to present better data. Saying that there’s a lot of nonsense on the internet is not rebutting it.

            I think we’ve come to the end of the road in this discussion. Both of us have had the opportunity to make our points and visitors to the site are able to evaluate them accordingly. So you go ahead and tell me whatever it is you want to add, and we’ll leave it there.

          • Matthew Lane

            “All responses to art are subjective.”

            Except for when one attempts to pretend that their response is objective by inventing a set of arbitrary qualifiers & then calling it a test….. Or then attempting to put the results of that test on to that material as a ranking as if it were objective, which is exactly what your article was about: In essence you have just answered your own initial question.

            “And you’re the one who is screaming”

            Nope, no screaming has taken place in this conversation. What you just attempted is called tone policing, its what one does when one cannot refute an argument, one instead attempts to target the “tone” of the argument.

            “with the vocabulary of accusation and insult, but with very little by way of actual debate.”

            LOL no. Once again this is an attempt at tone policing. You weren’t insulted, you were simply told something you didn’t want to hear.

            ” Failing to state the other side’s views in a manner they approve of is an automatic loss”

            LOL no. I know you think this statement is profound or deep, but essentially what you’ve just said is “if someone is wrong, correcting them means you immediately lose.” That is pure sophistry of the worst kind & I think on some level you know that.

            “You concede any points you have not rebutted as well,”

            LOL no, again this is sophistry, but also immaterial since I refuted everything on a point by point basis.

            “In addition, you accused me of making an argument I didn’t make, also an automatic lose.”

            But you are making those arguments, that’s why I’ve high lighted the arguments you are making by quoting them & pointing out the logical conclusions of your arguments.

            “You’ve ignored my original comment that the BT is a useful starting point, what we lawyers call a rebuttable presumption.”

            I’ve not ignored it at all, I’ve addressed it directly on multiple occasions, you simply don’t like the answer. The BT is not a starting point, its an end point, its the pretense at an objective stance, with the explicit statement that its a sign of a negative issue in movies….. You yourself have stated as much yourself during this very conversation..

            “If a movie doesn’t pass the test, a good response is,”

            Let me stop you there: A good response to something failing a test is asking “what the hell is this test exactly? Does it actually test the thing it say it tests? Does it consistently get false negatives and positives? Why are we pretending this test is objective & why are we using this set of arbitrary qualifiers unrelated to representation to measure representation.

            Look, no matter which way you cut it, the test is a failure, a joke, a flim-flam sham utilized by the professionally offended to attempt to add objective credence to their specific subjective conjecture.

            “And if you do not agree with the study I cited, which is extensively documented, the correct response is to present better data.”
            What study? You’ve cited no study, you’ve cited the idea of a study. A study which as has already been pointed out is immaterial to this conversation.

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