Female Presence: the Bechdel Test


One of my newest areas of interest has been paying attention to the ways women are portrayed in media. This is, indeed, a distinctly "first world problem," as many are wont to put it, but it is still important. Part of the "sisterhood" of feminism is understanding and knowing how women who are different from you are portrayed to society at large, and recognizing how that shapes your viewpoint.


For example: Pay attention to commercials sometime. How are men portrayed when it comes to household tasks? As idiots, right? We have the idiot husband who is so ignorant of cleaning products that he doesn't know how to make his life easier. We have the husband who apparently can't read. And we have the man who go to Vegas without bothering to understand how casinos work.


The opposite side of the coin is true, too: Women are almost exclusively featured as the ones doing the cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids, doing household-y, woman-y things.


Advertisements are just one area in which we get stereotypical (and often idiotic) portrayals of both men and women, but it doesn't just stop there.


This sort of media literacy lens can and needs to be extended to the media we consume in the everyday. And that's where the Bechdel Test comes in. The test is named for Alison Bechdel, a comic strip writer, and it is a simple three step process to check if a movie is trying to create an accurate portrayal of women:


1. Does the film have at least two women with names?


2. Do these women have at least one conversation?


3. Is this conversation about something other than a man?


It's simple, but eye-opening, and a great entryway into the discipline of media literacy. An astounding amount of the media we consume features overwhelming male characters, often in situations where a female actress would do just as well. Granted, there are some films where it wouldn't make sense to cast women (a movie about D-Day, for example, is probably not going to have very many women), but in a surprising amount of situations, our plots are still incredibly male-centric.


Take one of my favorite movies, for example: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. There are multiple women in the movie. Many of them do have names. Do they have a conversation about something other than a man?


Nope. So close, and yet so far.


Now, just because a movie has a female presence doesn't mean that it's a feminist movie. I ran this test on my own movie collection. I have, approximately, fifty movies. 36 of them failed the Bechdel test. The 11 that passed? Mostly "chick flicks." Amazingly, Never Been Kissed passes the Bechdel test, as well as 10 Things I Hate About You.


The Bechdel test isn't necessarily a sign that the movie you have is a feminist treatise or even a movie that isn't anti-women, but it does serve as a solid indication of female presence and is a good indicator of whether or not the cast is balanced. It alerts the observant viewer to the presence of women on the screen, and can be a good starting point for feminist criticism. And just because a movie does not pass the Bechdel test does not mean it's not feminist in nature - approximately ten of the movies I own that fail the test have feminist themes (Lord of the Rings, for example [the character of Eowyn, in case anyone forgot]).


And having a collection that fails the Bechdel test so extraordinarily does not mean that these movies are bad or that I am a bad feminist. You don't have to feel bad when you realize that your favorite screenwriter is terrible at writing women (coughAaronSorkincough). As this Occasional Planet blogger put it, "the test reminds us that biases like sexism, racism, heterosexism, and classism are the water in which we swim. They pervade our culture. They are our culture, and to such an extent that we sometimes forget about them until someone like Bechdel reminds us."


And it's important to be reminded.


So I invite you to do your own Bechdel test and think about the media you consume. How many of your movies have a female presence? Books? Favorite TV shows?