“How to Score with Women”: Why the Bechdel Test is not the solution to gender inequality in cinema

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Adèle Exarchopoulos in a still from “Blue is the Warmest Colour”

Featured today in The Guardian was an article about a new rating being promoted in Sweden, whereby cinemas “are introducing a new rating to highlight gender bias, or rather the absence of it.” Admirable though the attempt may be, appealing to the dictates of a standardised test is a flawed way of determining which films ‘make the grade’ to promote gender equality.

According to the article, “To get an A rating, a movie must pass the so-called Bechdel test, which means it must have at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.” By these inane criteria, Gravity fails. Is anyone seriously going to argue that a film which features a female astronaut doctor who never makes a single mention of a partner (male or otherwise) who tries to overcome grief and who must use her wits and will to survive doesn’t feature female empowerment? Similarly, almost all of James Cameron’s works (discounting the arguably misogynistic True Lies), so notable for their strong and empowering representations of women, fail the test.

The test, originally designed by artist Alison Bechdel in 1985, succeeds as an effective consciousness raiser (in the same way that showing a map of the world with the southern hemisphere on top does), but becomes dangerously insufficient as grounds for anything more. In the same way that showing a map of the world “upside down” does little more than bear out the fact that North America is no more up than South America, determining whether a film includes a scene in which women don’t talk about a man does not designate whether that film features gender equality. To complete the analogy, it would be like arguing that the Southern Hemisphere should be printed on top, because that’s the way it ought to be considered by everyone. More damnably, the argument would contend that even if not accurate (the position of the poles is entirely arbitrary) it would at least counter-balance the centuries of North-centric world maps. If my obvious rendering hasn’t made the problem clear, then the facile nature of this test should be enough to discount its legitimacy, that is to say, the way in which it allows for arbitrary reductions of the complex processes of cinematic language to a simple pass or fail.

The issue, as it may very well become, is if films are valued purely for a ridiculous conflation between speech and gender equality, and furthermore if people are led to eschew films without the grade in favour of material which do purport to pass this criteria. If you’ll indulge this slippery slope fallacy a jot further, consider that an offensively stupid movie where Katherine Heigl talks about electrostimulating panties with a woman gets an A grade (that is to say, gets branded as a film promoting gender equality simply by association), while the vast majority of films do not simply because the art is not concerned in making two women swap stories.

As Swedish film critic Hynek Pallas (quoted in the article) notes, “There are far too many films that pass the Bechdel test that don’t help at all in making society more equal or better, and lots of films that don’t pass the test but are fantastic at those things.”

While I do agree gender inequality is an issue in cinema (arguably a major issue), the imposition of a draconian measure of conduct seems altogether too simplistic to be of any use–other than to promote dullness. Part of the problem underlying this apparent inequality stems from a very real inequality in the Hollywood system. Quite simply, there aren’t many female directors or writers. When they do exist (the late and incomparable Nora Ephron comes to mind, as she no doubt comes to the minds of many) they usually operate within the spheres of drama or comedy, which save for a few exceptions do not generally do big business, at least, not big enough to have every studio clawing for an encore. Notably, when a film like Hurt Locker wins Best Picture, and its female director the top prize as well, the dual win is notable not only for the film’s male-dominated and typically hyper-masculine genre and the director’s gender, but for the way in which the latter successfully operates within the former. Important to note, in yet another example of how this letter-grade system is little more than an interesting game of statistics than it is a designation of any real cultural value: the Hurt Locker also fails the Bechdel test.

While Hollywood’s currently male-dominated system has no doubt created a situation where women aren’t in power (though it’s also important to note that equality doesn’t mean simply seceding all rights to another group just for a change of pace), the solution is not so simple as merely throwing more women on the screen to have conversations about nothing just to pass the test. Moreover, even if men do attempt to depict women on film they’re either called misguided or accused of appropriating the female for their own needs. The most recent example of this trend, Blue is the Warmest Colour, is a lesbian-themed film written and directed by a man, which left more than a few critics wondering if they were going to put up with that sort of thing, but which does pass the Bechdel test despite this (even though the women swap spit as much as they do small-talk). So the problems then are that we have not enough women making movies, not enough men comfortable enough to make movies from a female perspective (or which includes a female perspective), and a general public of female viewers who, for all their inchoate appeals for greater female characters, can’t quite decide what exactly they want to see these characters do. Taken together then, it is a problem of a greater magnitude than that which our recidivist impulses to make lists can fix.

Still, I suppose they’ve earned an A for effort.

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7 thoughts on ““How to Score with Women”: Why the Bechdel Test is not the solution to gender inequality in cinema

  1. The acceptance of women in less traditional roles and more as protagonists does seem to slowly be making its way into films, albeit with some definite stereotypes still apparant. Even as I was younger and watched “Gone with the Wind,” the first time, I was able to appreciate the powerful (and sometimes violent) display of a woman’s actions and her will through film. I feel that on other mediums, like tv and videogames, women have been given more of a chance to show a range of personalities and play a larger role to the progression of a story. Even though there have been many dull and nagging, homemaker Rita’s or wild-child, flashing Lila’s (“Dexter”), there have also been given more chances for women characters. One of the most prominent characters that come to my mind is Jackie from “Nurse Jackie.” I feel as though her character is one of the best portrayals of women in media. Not because she is a role model, she certainly is not given that she is a married woman having an affair, stealing medicine from a seizuring victim to nurse her own addiction, and causing patients deaths due to some unintended, but sloppy diagnoses. Jackie is given the opportunity to show her more loving nature through her interactions with her children and the care she is able to give her patients; however, her inability to cope with her addictions and progress and also not always learning from her mistakes is what makes her character so refreshing. The fact that she is not shown to be a passive woman character and to not have every one of her mistakes be treated like an after school program with a resolution and promise not to make the same mistake again are what I believe show a real female character. I would almost liken her to Walter White, a character that has been given so much praise recently, in that they both begin the show as having a semblance of a peaceful, quiet life and are then turned into antiheroes by creating their own problems and becoming their undoing. These, I believe, are the roles most important to the progression to gender equality. The women characters who show real emotions and responses, not the ones who only stand around discussing their about their children’s play dates or gossiping about other women. Not even the overly strong, masculinized female character like Black Widow in “Avengers,” who is given none,or poor backstory and instead shown as the “here! We included a woman! She can beat up guys, yeah!” It’s still stereotypical even if they are not discussing a man or beating him up without a proper context or story. My favorite videogame, the Nancy Drew series -by HerInteractive, is able to have the main protagonist both involved in smart, conversation and engage the player, mostly younger girls, in tasks relating to chemistry, language, and logic problems. The ability of HerInteractive to recognize girls desire for a character who is able to learn about cultures & solve difficult problems, while still being able to phone her girl friends and show her feminine side, shows that there is definitely a market for girls in the entertainment industry that seems to be recognized and responded to more by game companies than the film industry. In Bioshock Infinite the main character (who is by all right a stereotypical leading man) is tasked with finding and escorting a female character through the game. My first instinct was to groan and was reminded of the horrible scenario in Resident Evil where the dim witted NPC was easily killed and of no help. Elizabeth instead proved herself to be both helpful and smart in giving me ammo, health, providing distractions, causing me to change my mind and instead be greatful for her role. This does not seem to change the fact that the developers did decide to have a girl that can pick locks and create tears in time and space need to wait to be rescued by a man, ughhh. This seems to stand out to me that both the film and most fps game industries feel the absolute need to cast their lead heroes as males. I think that they are too afraid to be invested in an expensive project that would be judged so harshly in these days and not be marketable enough to males due to their preconceived notions of female characters, which is probably why tv networks have given chances to smaller shows and games the “option” to change gender. One of the small instances are in the Mass Effect games which do give the option for the player to choose to have a female character in the role of Shepard without greatly changing her actions due to the gender switch. It’s my hope that by introducing these female characters into other forms of media and giving the option to the audience of a female lead that they might work themselves over into film and that people will be able to choose a movie to watch knowing there will be gender equality in a film without a mediocre test.

  2. “we need to come up with a way to make sure movies are actually quality…”
    “I know! If there are no WOMEN in the movie, it is automatically garbage! If there ARE WOMEN… BUT they mention a SINGLE thing about a man / men… IT’S ALSO GARBAGE!”
    “Hmmm, ok… Is there a male version for this?”
    “Who gives a fuck about men? This is all you need to determine quality films!”
    -Feminism

    Honestly… how could you even argue against this. ALL feminism (and I REALLY mean ALL feminism) is evil. It is literally, figuratively, and metaphorically impossible / implausible for feminism to equal equality. That phrase in itself is contradictory. FEM loosely means female, NOT equality. Go fucking become humanists, the REAL wanting of equality between genders. Makes me sick to my stomach.

      • I thought about removing it, but as I read it, the gist is too unfocused and too rambling to do much other than to testify that extremism in any ideology is not advised. It also reminds me that gender inequality is an issue we’re still dealing with, and that false equivocations are at the root of this problem. But I dunno, maybe I should take it down? Thoughts?

      • It’s such a hateful, misguided, and ultimately vapourous comment clogging up what could become a good space for discussion. I can think of no reason to keep its presence, aside form this conversation. *shrugs*

      • I think the first part expresses a satirical opinion of a distinct brand of feminism, which I think is an acceptable criticism to make. (I hold the same regard of phallocentric filmmakers, ie those who make crass “manly men” films which celebrate masculinity as a domination and subjugation of women and “femininized” men). Although the rest of the comment veers quickly into fascist crackpotism of the highest degree, I can’t bring myself to censor it just because I disagree with his distorted viewpoint. I think he’s reacting against an understandable concern others might feel about their power and position in an evolving society. I don’t think it’s a valid concern, nor do I think it’s shared by many, but it is still a viewpoint that continues to be perpetuated, no matter how much it’s been silenced, so I figure I might as well acknowledge it once here, and I’ll probably delete all the rest such statements. On a more selfish note of why I can’t delete the comment, I enjoy its irony: he’s right, you can’t argue against this.

        The statement is so ridiculous that it deserves to be dissected, as a sort of gross aberration of logic and reason.
        The conflation of feminism with that hyperbolic “ALL” seems intended to provoke, and a weak-billed attack that announces anything as “evil” can’t possibly be taken seriously. Although I must concede that that version of feminism which he describes (not that I support or condone his description as an accurate one of feminism) cannot provide equality. Gender relations are not a literal scale which weighing one side against another will somehow balance. Furthermore, no centrism that holds at its core the interest of one side over another can be the basis for an equal compromise between two groups. There of course lies the problem with his thinking, since the true foundation of feminism is equal rights between men and women. Unfortunately, some have retconned feminism to mean rights for women, leaving that rather essential bit about equality out (you can experience their hateful rhetoric on any number of youtube videos, which unfortunately propagates this distorted and myopic opinion like the one expressed above about “all” feminism).
        The problem with their misguided philosophy is that they hold female domination as the solution to male domination, as a way of “leveling the field”. No such thing, all you do is transpose prejudice onto a new generation of sexes, and prolonging inequality. (Again, to clarify, I’m not meaning to say this represents feminism, only to a particular brand of ideology which distorts it). As comments like the one above demonstrate, their militant ideologies make it all too easy for angry people to construct straw (wo)men for the sake of burning down all of feminism.

        So I am most likely naive, but I don’t think the answer is to always silence these misguided people on both sides. As I said, sometimes their statements make useful specimens for investigation. Maybe people who hold these opinions can’t be argued with, and can’t understand the problems with their arguments, but other minds reading this dissection might, and might be able to understand the flaws and lapses in logic, the gross misrepresentation, and be guided away from it. That I think is the way to change opinions, with cathartic bursts of insanity, properly contained, but to be observed nonetheless.

      • I agree for the most part. One of the aspects that becomes frustrating is that there’s so much vitriol out there. In terms of feminism, writers with blogs are specifically taking a feminist lens of analysis towards culture typically become a lightning rod of hateful* comments they have to sort through daily. (Hence why some of the writers I follow have a moderated comments section.)

        It seems an effective way to change the conversation is to make pieces of media to forward the conversation. I also think to ‘niche’ markets that have their own insular crowd, comics and (hardcore) gaming. Certain internet critics like Linkara I find have made headway into deeper, long lasting discussions on comics. Granted, it takes years of videos to do so, but it makes for a more efficient way to get out your voice as opposed to rebuking every bad comment that comes one’s way

        *https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJqSbs_3_UY

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