The Bechdel Test Wants to Reveal Gender Discrimination in Film. But If Two Female Characters Talk For a Minute About The Weather, That’s a Triumph?
Devised by American graphic artist Alison Bechdel, The Bechdel Test is a simple formula for measuring gender equality that produces real Holy Crap! results. To pass the Bechdel Test, a film simply needs to feature two women who at some point talk to each other about something besides a man. Even for those armed with the knowledge women are woefully underrepresented in media, the set of circumstances laid out by the Bechdel doesn’t seem to set the bar very high. But then comes the Holy Crap! part. An astounding number of successful (and diverse) movies still don’t clear this shockingly low bar. A list of popular films that fails to pass the Bechdel includes the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (that’s, like, ten hours without two women talking to each other), Avatar, Ratatouille, Slumdog Millionaire, WALL-E, Big Fish, North by Northwest, Groundhog Day, Manhattan, and even Amelie. Not one of these films features two women speaking to each other about something other than a man.
Sweden is getting international attention for adding a new ratings system based on Bechdel at many of its independent theaters–and it’s certainly opening some eyes. But like all ratings systems, the Bechdel Test attempts to quantify–and its critics worry that it’s far too facile in reducing a complex entity like a film. Movies are an art form, after all, whatever Hollywood does with them. And even if it’s just a natural everyday occurrence such as two women speaking to one another, dictating what art must contain to be viable and important is a slippery slope. And just because there is a giant equality problem doesn’t mean this is the solution, critics say. In fact, it may work to equality’s detriment. Films that pass the test in Sweden are being labeled “A,” just like restaurants in New York that don’t have rats. But whereas a sanitary restaurant is inarguably better than a filthy one, a Bechdel “A” movie may rank far higher on, say, a misogyny scale than one that fails the Bechdel Test. A decent number of porn films, for instance, would get an “A”.