Thursday, September 30, 2010

In which I argue against a named Test.

If you've been on the Internet more than a week, you've almost surely heard of the Bechdel Test. Named after artist that wrote Dykes to Watch Out For, the Bechdel Test is intended to filter out movies that fail to feature fully fledged female characters. A movie is said to pass the Test only if:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something besides a man.
There is some genuine insight here, as far too many movies do in fact fail to respectfully represent a whole half of humanity in their cast. The goal of encouraging more strong and interesting female characters is laudable, and likely a necessary step towards true equality. Thus, I without reservation say that the Test has contributed to the cultural conversation on equality.

On the other hand, I generally find invocations of the Test annoying, as it is far too easy to take such arguments too literally. I don't generally find much insight in discussing whether a particular movie passes or fails the Test, any more than I find that remarking upon a particularly warm day produces insight into climate change. Rather, I think the Test is best used as a means of making an argument, not as a metric.

To try and offer some support to this view, I want to list a few movies that I have seen and that definitely fail the Bechdel Test but which are nonetheless good movies which are hardly bastions of sexism. Such false negatives demonstrate to me that the Test cannot be taken overly literally without missing the rationale. Without further ado, then:
  • 12 Angry Men: No female characters at all, as the movie is a jury drama set in a time when women on juries were very rare due to sexism.
  • Dr. Strangelove: The movie is a comedy of errors about the leaders of major world powers in the 1960s--- a group that is not well known for its inclusion of women.
  • Memento: The movie is narrated by a male character who speaks almost entirely to one person at a time.
  • Moon: There's not enough characters in the cast to pass.
  • Run Lola Run: This movie also has an incredibly tight cast. (And no, I don't count it when her neighbor asks Lola to pick up some shampoo.)
  • Voices of a Distant Star: Again, only two characters with lines, each of opposite gender.
  • Wall-E: The relative lack of human characters makes it hard for this movie to pass the Test, to say nothing of the movie being nearly a silent film.
  • Hush (Buffy episode): Not a movie, I know, but I'm too sarcastic not to include it anyway.
Note that these movies fail not for their content, but for how the Test happens to be phrased. To hold it against Moon that Sam lives alone on his space station would be patently ridiculous, for instance, but it technically fails the Test for its isolated cast.

Even more ridiculous would be to hold it against Wall-E for failing the Test--- it doesn't even pass the Reverse Bechdel Test:
  1. It has to have at least two men  in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something besides a woman.
No one should seriously think that the existence of movies which fail the reverse Test is evidence for a bias against men, so why is the mere existence of movies which fail the Test taken as evidence of such bias against women? Such a bias exists, to be sure, but it is not well demonstrated by applying the Test to this or that particular movie.

By continuing to fixate on the Test, I feel that we do ourselves a disservice. The problem of ensuring equality in media is not an easy problem, and isn't well suited to glib analysis. Arguments such as the Bechdel Test serve well to raise awareness, but at the end of the day, are a poor substitute for informed insight.

1 comment:

John Armstrong said...

I think you're missing the point. It's not about arguing that a given movie is good (Sex and the City passes) or that it isn't "sexist". In fact, arguing that any given movie is or is not sexist is as misguided as arguing whether or not any given person is or is not sexist.

The point isn't that there exist movies that don't pass, it's that vanishingly few movies do. The distribution points to systemic biases more than individual instances.