The Bechdel Test is a very basic gauge to measure women’s relevance to a film’s plot and generally to assess female presence in Hollywood movies. It was popularized by Allison Bechdel in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For back in 1985. In order to pass the test a film just needs to fulfill these three, very simple, criteria: A movie has to have at least two women in it who have names, who talk to each other, about something besides a man. Pretty simple right? I mean this is really the absolute lowest that we could possibly set the bar for women’s meaningful presence in movies.Now, I gotta say, this just makes me climb the walls. I have a strong dislike for simplistic litmus tests that allegedly determine the quality (or even more generally the qualities) of fiction, and I also dislike "gotcha" tests that are supposed to determine hidden bias. These seems at the confluence of these two, and as a result it takes a certain amount of effort to separate my annoyance from the topic enough to try to come up with some less gut-level reaction to it. Given this aim, I'll start with working through the things I can't accuse the test (in this particular use) of, than then work back to why I have an issue with it as a means of evaluating fiction.
First off, the way that the test is being discussed here is not necessarily that advocated by the comic strip characters who originated it -- where "the rule" was to not watch any movie that didn't fit the criteria. Feminist Frequency (and Kyle) on the other hand, admit that a movie might be quite good while not passing the test. Here's Feminist Frequency again:
Again, to be clear this test does not gauge the quality of a film, it doesn’t determine whether a film is feminist or not, and it doesn’t even determine whether a film is woman centered. Some pretty awful movies including ones that have stereotypical and/or sexist representations of women might pass the test with flying colours. Where really well made films that I would highly recommend might not.Obviously, there's some level of tension here, because while she insists that some really good and recommendable films might not pass the test, she also seems to see it as a problem when individual films (such as 7 out of 9 Best Picture nominees) do not clearly pass. But still, at least formally the concession is clearly made that passing the test is not necessary to a movie's being good or indeed to having strong and essential female characters.
Also, I feel I should concede that passing the test will correlate fairly decently with films that have more female representation in them. Yes, you can have a woman-centered story with a female main character but structured in such a way that the film doesn't pass, or a story which is evenly balanced between one male and one female character, but in general movies in which a woman or women have a lot of screen time will pass.
This leads to the beginning of my criticisms, however, because although most stores that have a lot of screen time for women will pass, they will often do so rather incidentally. So, for instance, I'm finishing up reading Jane Eyre -- certainly generally considered a "girl book", and one that has such a strong female main character, who repeatedly stands up against the expectations of a male dominated world, that it is considered by some critics to be an example of proto-feminist fiction. Thinking of the recent movie of Jane Eyre, it does indeed pass, but even so probably 90% of the screen time involves either Jane interacting with men or Jane talking with other women about men. Even with the more spacious book, if you cut it down to only the scenes which involve Jane talking to another woman about something that does not involve any men, you get some fairly pedestrian scenes in which she talks to her female cousins (and listens to them argue), talks to Helen Burns about books and life, talks to her teachers and to the kitchen maid and her aunt's house, and talks to her pupil Adèle. You miss virtually all of what's interesting in the plot: the conflict.
Now, someone will be pointing out to me that the claim isn't that the scenes that meet the Bechtel Test are the most interesting in the story, just that if the story has a substantial part for women that it is likely to pass the test. And I get that. But it frustrates me that someone would try to analyze fiction based on a criteria that is clearly and admittedly incidental to what it is they're trying to measure. Measuring something like the percentage of the time a named woman character is on screen, or the percentage of lines spoken by a woman, would, however, but a lot less fun than the gimmicky three criteria Test. And something like "are female characters realistic and important to the plot" is hard to quantify, and thus wouldn't produce a fun site full of people rating movies according to one's criteria.
Aside from the fact that the Bechtel Test is clearly measuring something incidental to what it's actually looking to find, it seems to me that by design it isn't really set up "to measure women’s relevance to a film’s plot" as to determine the extent to which women are a separate and self sufficient group within the plot. So, for instance, despite it's female protagonist the movie True Grit fails the Bechtel Test as applied by Feminist Frequency:
Interestingly, even though True Grit is a female centered story, following the adventures of Mattie Ross struggling to get by in a man’s world, when we apply the 60 second rule the film doesn’t pass. In fact the only exchange she has with any other woman is with Mrs. Floyd the innkeeper and those incidental interactions total less than a minute. This style of film where the female lead inhabits an almost entirely male world, brings to mind the Smurfette Principle which I’ve discussed in my Tropes vs Women video series.So clearly, what's being tested for (and what Feminist Frequency desires to see in a movie) is not simply that women in the movie be well rounded character or that they be essential to the plot, but rather that they be in a world which is at least moderately separate from men. This seemed particularly driven home to me by her complaint against a movie I haven't actually seen (and thus can't provide my own evaluation of the characterization) but the analysis itself is telling:
Tree of Life is a more experimental film about a boy and his family. It fails the test because the only brief scene where two women talk, the conversation is about the death of the family’s son. While it’s true there’s very little dialogue in the film as a whole, the father and the son do speak to each other on multiple occasions.So, a conversation between to women isn't real if it's about how they feel about a male who has died. If it was a woman, that would be fine, since they're talking about the death of a male, it fails. (Heck, if they'd talked about designer shoes instead of about the death of a family member, it would have passed.)
Similarly, any film which is tightly focused on a relationship (between a man and a woman) is going to at least flirt with failing.
Now, given that this test originates on a comic stripe entitled "Dykes to Watch Out For" perhaps that's reasonable enough. But if one's interest really is in characters and stories well told, I don't see why one would allow oneself to get caught up in this particular analysis gimmick. I don't think that woman characters are less real when they talk to men than when they talk to women, or when they talk about male characters than when they talk about female characters. Yes, perhaps that fact that many Hollywood films don't pass it says something about the extent to which women are represented as independent characters in mainstream films, but if so only in a very incidental fashion. And given that the majority of films lack any well rounded characters of either sex, I find this hard to get particularly excited about.