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Does It Matter If the Bechdel Test "Fails" Feminist Films?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire November 13, 2013 at 11:02AM

Swedish theaters' decisions to rate movies according to the female-focused metric revives the debate over how to measure the presence of women in film.
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'Gravity', starring Sandra Bullock, focuses on Sandra Bullock's astronaut, but fails the Bechdel Test because the movie has no other female characters.
'Gravity', starring Sandra Bullock, focuses on Sandra Bullock's astronaut, but fails the Bechdel Test because the movie has no other female characters.

The announcement that four Swedish movie theaters would be rating films according to the Bechdel Test, which Criticwire first reported on last week, has sparked a flurry of conversation about its utility and limitations. The test, which was inspired by a 1985 Dykes to Watch Out For strip by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, requires that a movie have at least two female characters, that those characters speak to each other, and that the subject of conversation is something other than a man.

In The Guardian, Leslie Felperin warned that the Bechdel Test could fail feminist films and pass regressive ones. It's fine as one way of measuring a film -- or, more accurately, films -- but it becomes more problematic when it's used to inform programming choices.

I'm not so sure if I feel so supportive of TV channel Viasat Film. Their idea of promoting Tejle and Co's Bechdel test-initiative is to have a "Super Sunday" on 17 November, showing surefire-ratings earner The Hunger Games (fair enough), the loathsome Margaret Thatcher biopic whitewash The Iron Lady and Oliver Stone's Savages, not exactly a woman-centric film even if it does technically pass the Bechdel test. Maybe any publicity is good publicity -- but really? Is that the best they could do?

At Film School Rejects, Samantha Wilson registered similar concerns:

When using the guideline, it’s going to be hard to gauge what is truly a harmful film and what isn’t getting the "A" based on a technicality. Getting the Sex and the City sequels their rating is fine as long as it means that good, worthy films also get due recognition. The Hollywood Reporter made the interesting point that films made by women -- also very important -- may not pass; In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to ever win the Oscar for Best Director with The Hurt Locker, a film that did not pass the test. But doesn't her achievement make the film, a very good film, something noteworthy?

(Note: According to a 2008 NPR story, Sex and the City actually flunks Bechdel, since the characters' conversations invariably revolve around romance.)

In Forbes, Melissa Silverstein -- whose Women and Hollywood blog is, like Criticwire, part of the Indiewire network -- counters that the debate over whether individual films pass or fail not only misses the point but distracts from the real issue

I find it incredibly interesting, but not surprising, that people are very concerned that this rating is a feminist litmus test and is PC feminism run amuck. The Bechdel Test is not a feminist test. It is a gender test.... The Bechdel Test doesn't check for quality, it doesn't check for violence, it doesn't check to see how women are treated. It just asks the simple question -- are women visible? And that is something we need to continue to ask and that is why Swedish ratings system should be just the beginning of this much needed conversation.

NPR's Linda Holmes made a similar point in the thick of the summer blockbuster season, when she ran the  offerings at her local theaters through a version of Bechdel and found that 90 percent of the 617 screens in her area were devoted to "stories about men or groups of men, where women play supporting roles or fill out ensembles primarily focused on men."

In a 2010 column in Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris argued that the Bechdel Test becomes especially striking when you compare it to its inverse: Replace "women" with "men" and it's almost impossible to find a movie that doesn't pass.

Consider the double standard: If the Bechdel Test had suddenly landed in Hollywood with the force of law, it would have seriously jeopardized five of last year's 10 Best Picture nominees. If we'd rewritten the rule to apply to men, it would have seriously jeopardized... um... let's see... Precious. And that inequity only covers good movies. Apply the comparison to a roster of summer blockbusters, and the results are even less attractive. Not to mention Comic-Con, which now represents the ruling aesthetic of mainstream Hollywood movies and which, under the Bechdel Test, probably could have been knocked down from five days to 45 minutes and not strained the seating capacity of a local Olive Garden.

Allison Bechdel herself has mostly stayed on the sidelines during this latest round, except for a single interview and a post on her blog

I feel bad about this. There seems to be something fundamentally wrong about not seizing every possible chance for publicity -- if not for myself, then at least for the brave Swedish cinema consortium, not to mention the cause of women everywhere. But inevitably in these interviews I say simplistic things, or find myself defending absurd accusations -- like that the formal application of the Test by a movie theater is somehow censorious.

Instead, she quotes a passage from Virginia Woolf's 1926 essay A Room of One's Own, which alongside the statistic that the ration of male to female characters has barely altered in the last 60 years, serves as a sobering reminder of how little things have changed: "'Chloe liked Olivia,' I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered had she done so!"

In The Atlantic, Holly L. Derr tries to make sense of it all by asking whether the debate over whether films are or aren't feminist, or sexist, distracts from the larger question of what those terms mean.

The truth is that the definition of feminism varies as much between feminists as it does between feminists, non-feminists, and sexists. For those of us in the artistic and theoretical realms, one focus of feminism has long been disrupting false binaries like male/female, masculine/feminine, and gay/straight so that equality is not something that's measured by whether you treat women the same way you treat men but by whether you regard everyone as a unique yet fully human individual. Feminist criticism needs to work to disrupt a binary, too -- the one that defines art as either feminist or sexist. Even the most socially conscious creator can be influenced by the sexism that pervades our culture, whereas a creator interested in telling stories primarily about men can still make a feminist film -- or at least a not-sexist one.

This article is related to: From the Wire, Bechdel Test, Gravity


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