All one needs is a Protagonist of One’s Own

The Bechdel test, otherwise known as The Rule, determines whether a film, or any piece of popular culture, shows gender bias.

The rules are:

  1. There are two female characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man.

Before you scoff, try and think of a movie that passes. It will be tougher than you think.

For example, these all fail (yes I made this amazing gif!):

On the other hand, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle passes. As do all the Twilights. One of my favourite films, Donnie Darko, passes because of the line: “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.” (I’m not responsible for the shameful quality of the video that links to.)

That’s probably my favourite moment in the whole movie, but it does highlight the test’s limitations …

The Bechdel test was invented by Alison Bechdel in 1985, in her cartoon strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Some people add a fourth rule, that the two women must have names, but that just adds another layer of complexity to an already imperfect system. In some movies none of the main characters are named.

There’s a user-edited online database dedicated to the Bechdel test, containing 3,479 movies – 46.1% fail it.

Those stats are problematic, however. In September 2011, 88% of 2540 failed. As the Bechdel test has become more well-known, I reckon there are more ‘lowest-common-denominator’ users, who are compelled to submit films that pass.

This shows the increase in searches for the term ‘Bechdel test’ over the past few years:

As Wikipedia helpfully points out (although of course I would have made the connection, having read A Room of One’s Own in, like, 2003) Virginia Woolf thought of it first.

All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that; and how little can a man know even of that when he observes it through the black or rosy spectacles which sex puts upon his nose.

Published in 1928. Things haven’t changed much. Men are still wearing sex-goggles. Amirite?

The Bechdel test isn’t perfect. Or rather, it doesn’t prove that a movie is good. Some great movies fail the test – and should. Fight Club fails, but is still a great psychological study, with a strong, interesting female character. The taut, masculine dynamic of Reservoir Dogs would have been needlessly demolished by a token female character. The Dude appears in practically every scene in The Big Lebowski, but that’s because … he’s The Dude.

Pulp Fiction passes, but only because of a conversation Jody and Trudi have about body piercings. You may remember the scene, but can you picture the actors? Probably not. One of them is Rosanna Arquette.

But most infuriating are films that don’t even have the excuse of being ‘art’. A couple more of the major players in Inception could easily have been chicks. Toy Story and Finding Nemo really have no excuse. As much as I loved it, the less said about The Avengers in this context the better. And The Matrix, which fails because the only conversation Switch and Trinity have is about Neo. That’s okay, he’s The One, and most conversations in the movie are going to revolve around him. But why did Neo have to be male in the first place?

Take Alien, for instance. The best movie ever, because when I watched it I didn’t have to choose a male character to identify with. That may be a childish impulse – I’ll be the blue Carebear, you can be the pink one! – but we all still do it, whether consciously or not. There are very, very few cool female characters for us to associate with – I know; I’m always looking out for them. With sad eyes.

All the roles in the Alien script were initially written as male, with the note: ‘The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women.’ And then Sigourney Weaver came along and nailed it. There’s no reason – at all – that Inception, The Matrix, Pulp Fiction and even Finding Nemo couldn’t approach things that way.

However, the Bechdel test doesn’t really work one film at a time; it’s more valuable as a tool to sum up all movies, ever. Looking at it like that, it’s undeniable that there is a scary gender bias that mostly goes unnoticed or uncommented on.

On a related note, according to a paper I found online:

In 2010, women comprised 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.  This represents a decline of 1 percentage point from 1998 and is even with 2009 figures.

Women accounted for 7% of directors in 2010, the same percentage as in 2009. This figure represents a decline of two percentage points from 1998.

If men are making the movies, are they just following the rule ‘write from personal experience’? Say it ain’t so … that would be just too boring for words.

To think of it another way, try to imagine a world in which most movies fulfil the reverse Bechdel: there’s usually just one male character, and if he gets any dialogue at all with a second male character, it will be about women. Now try and think of a movie – in our world – that fits that.

I know two from Googling, but I’m not going to tell you. Because I’m making a point.

As a parting note, there’s something similar called The Smurfette Principle, where a work of fiction with have just one female character, despite the fact that 50% of us are female, and that the female character will almost always be involved in a romance subplot.

We can’t blame the writers of Smurfs for this, however, because as we all know Gargamel created Smurfette.

Author: ProjectJennifer

Project Jennifer was one of the most complex, expensive, and secretive intelligence operations of the Cold War at a cost of about $800 million ($3.6 billion in 2012 dollars).

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