Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Bechdel Test is Flawed

The Bechdel test, used for determining female presence in movies, is flawed. It wasn't started to be a concept for serious feminist film analysis; it was just a joke in a one-shot comic where a lesbian character describes her rule for seeing movies. Because it wasn't defined in a sufficiently thorough way, it becomes difficult to use it for analysis.

The original Bechdel test (actually written by Liz Wallace, so it should be called the Wallace test) had three rules:
  1. The film has to have at least two women in it
  2. Who talk to each other about
  3. Something other than a man
The character then notes that Alien passes because Ripley and Lambert talk to each other about the monster.

I, however, learned of the test from TV Tropes, which at the time had the following version of the test:
  1. The show has to have at least two named women
  2. Who have a conversation about
  3. Something other than a man or men
There was then a discussion about what such a "conversation" entails, with the consensus that it be women talking to each other by themselves. A man could be present, but he must not be an active participant. This more restrictive version does not allow Alien to pass, because Ripley and Lambert are only a few members of a larger conversation consisting of the ship's crew. This being the case, I'm inclined to think that it's too restrictive.

The issue is complicated in films that depict gendered characters that are not human adults, such as WALL-E. The character Eve is coded as female despite not being a literal woman. The test might therefore be expanded to include symbolic women and symbolic men as conversation subjects. However, this also makes Alien not pass because the alien is symbolically male. Technically, its Drone appearance is androgynous because part of its mouth looks like a vagina, but the rest of its mouth and its whole head look like penises, not to mention the orally raping Facehugger and phallic Chestburster stages (Note: this was an intentional design to make the creature scary, not my bizarre interpretation). The addition of the Queen in Aliens retroactively makes the Alien Drone literally male. The test could specify that a male conversation subject could be allowed if the male isn't an intelligent lifeform, but it's hard to tell whether or not the alien is intelligent in Alien (it's mostly just a strange threat) and Alien Resurrection depicts the Drones as intelligent planners, which would retroactively make the Alien Drone intelligent. Dismissing the alien as "the monster", an item rather than a "man", ignores the diversity of intelligent beings present in such science-fiction films.

An issue also present in WALL-E is communication. The robots do talk, but much of their interaction is nonverbal. The original concept for 9 had the animated dolls' interaction completely nonverbal. Should the Bechdel test really specify talking? I suspect there would be automatic leniency for films made for deaf people, as communication with sign language would be recognized as sufficient "talking", but stranger situations in science-fiction/fantasy such as robots and dolls communicating via facial expression, gestures, and tones are more easily dismissible, especially when there are characters capable of verbal conversation in the same movie. Nonverbal communication should be acknowledged.

On the other hand, nonverbal communication probably should only be counted in situations where that is the primary or almost primary form of communication. It should not include brief nonverbal communications if the characters primarily verbalize. In Serenity, there's a brief exchange between River and Zoe conveyed through facial expression.
River: (points to prisoner planning to attack)
Zoe: ("What? Really?")
River: ("Duh!")
It doesn't pass, anyway, because it's about a man, but because the exchange's so minor, I don't think it would count if it was about a woman. Mal and Zoe often give little orders amounting to "you, go there" with head tilts and nods, which is nonverbal communication but so simplistic it shouldn't count as an actual conversation.

I'd do something similar for the name issue. It would only be necessary for the female characters to have names if names are standard for the show. Some shows do not name their characters. Monty Python did this a fair bit. You're just expected to identify the characters by their roles in the story. In cases like that, having no name doesn't indicate a lack of prominence.

Back to the gender issue: How critical is it for the conversation participants to be strictly female? I'm thinking of odd transgender situations like Let the Right One In. It doesn't pass, but if Eli talked to Virginia about vampirism, would it count? Eli isn't a girl, but ze appears as one. In the movie, the state of hir gender is unclear to a lot of viewers, and many perceive hir as a cis girl. Could someone as feminine as Eli pass the Bechdel test without being strictly female? This can get tricky as it approaches denying transgender identity, such as with some labeling Boys Don't Cry as a lesbian movie. I just think perception might matter to some extent more than hidden fact you'd have to read the book to learn.

What about androgynous science-fiction characters? Ringworld's Pierson puppeteers are two-headed ostrich-like characters who have extremely feminine voices. The puppeteer Nessus is only perceived as male because the protagonist/the author is sexist and can't conceive of a female being so capable. There are repeated mentions that Nessus' gender is indeterminate. Nessus doesn't clarify because puppeteers find it rude to discuss sex with aliens. If Louis Wu were more open to the possibility of Nessus being female, would Nessus' discussing the Ringworld with Teela Brown count? I don't know.

My version of the Bechdel test would be something like:
  1. The fictional media must have at least two characters coded as female
  2. Who have names if naming is standard in the media
  3. And communicate with each other using their primary form of such
  4. With or without the presence and/or contribution of a character or characters coded as male
  5. About something other than a character or characters coded as male


Bedelia Bloodyknuckle said...

This is a good post although the bechdal test does give movie directors some thought about the portrayal of women. As you say the test is flawed and vague. Again excellent post!

Kinders said...

The Bechdel Test is an interesting starting point for a discussion, but it's flawed by the second condition: that the women have to be talking to each other. A film that arguably represented total gender equality – one in which there is an equal number of men and women, their strengths and weaknesses equally divided – could fail the Bechdel Test simply because in each scene there's a man and a woman talking to each other, rather conversations divided up by sex.

Sadly there are some people who believe (and, perhaps worse, some feminists who give the impression) that feminism is not about redressing the gender balance but about swinging it too far in the opposite direction, and the second condition of the Bechdel Test supports such suspicions.

Bruce Torres said...

But the thing with the Bechdel Test is this: why women can only talk about man/men in movies? Why can't they talk about anything else? The Bechdel Test is good to be applied mainly on movies where there is an appeal to the audience concerning the possibility of a relationship - not only romantic comedies and drama, but also horror and action movies. So, I'd like to think that such test was devised in order to show that women do not just think about sex/men/relationship - they're not limited to such matters as society seems to believe.

Bruce Torres said...

Correction: "...that women don't think only about sex/men/relationship".

Clem Elwyn said...

The test doesn't account for quality of conversation. If say there was a scene in Sex and the City and the topic is about fashion, wouldn't that pass the test. As the test doesn't account for the quality of the conversation nor the depth of the characters or the scope of their environment.

In reply to Bruce Torres - how would that apply if two lesbians had a conversation about a man.

Anonymous said...

And I can just imagine the UPROAR that would ensue if there was a male version of the Bechdel / Wallace test. The bechdel / Wallace test, IN ITSELF, promotes sexism. I feel like I'm taking crazy pills here. Why is it NEVER ok for there to be sexism against women, yet when it is reversed.... No one bats an eye? Fuck the media and Fuck Feminism, Almost the same thing nowadays.


General Rylee said...

...There is a male version of the test. It's called the reverse Bechdel test. It's used to show how inequal the Hollywood landscape is because just about every single movie you can possibly think of would pass it. It's, in fact, laughable to think it would ever be a problem for men like it is for women because men are the default human being while women are special interest. Go ahead, run both tests together on the yearly film output and prove me wrong.