Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

Revisiting The Bechdel Test Using M. Asli Dukan's "Blacks in Scifi Films" 5 Basic Criteria To Measure Racial Inequalities In Cinema

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act June 10, 2014 at 1:01PM

I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that most will probably fail the test. The majority won't even get past the first item on the list.

Revisiting the Bechdel Test, taking into consideration filmmaker M. Asli Dukan's 5 basic criteria as she came up with the "30 Significant Black Characters In Science Fiction Films" video series, which I posted on this blog recently.

As was previously reported, theaters in Sweden have adopted the Bechdel Test as a way to highlight gender bias in cinema. 

In short, if your movie passes the Bechdel test, it gets a passing grade. 

While it's not law in Sweden, theaters there are using it to draw attention to how few movies fully incorporate rich, complex female characters in their narratives, which could affect box office for some films. And it's an initiative that's been well-received by filmgoers in the country. Even the state-funded Swedish Film Institute supports it, as well as Scandinavian cable TV channel Viasat Film, who said previously that it would start using the ratings in its film reviews. 

So, by all accounts, it's something that's starting to catch on, with promoting gender equality in cinema, the goal.

The Bechdel test got its name from American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who introduced the concept in her comic strip "Dykes To Watch Out For" in 1985. 

To pass the test, each film must meet the following 3 criteria:

1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it...

2. ... Who talk to each other...

3. ... About something besides a man

When I initially shared this on S&A a year ago, with regards to our continuous discussions on defining black film, or identifying a black film aesthetic, I invited readers to help me in coming up with a similar kind of test that we could use to measure similar racial inequalities in every film. But, in the end, we couldn't so simplistically narrow it down to just 3 questions, as in the Bechdel test. 

For example, if we followed its lead, ours would look something like this: 

1. Are there two or more black characters with names in the film? 

2. Do they talk to each other? 

3. If they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than XXXX? 

We never did come up with anything that resembled a consensus, and thus the "S&A Racial Diversity Test" version of the Bechdel Test, never came to be.

But I was reminded of it thanks to Asli Dukan's piece, in which she came up with 5 basic criteria to use in narrowing down her picks for the "30 Significant Black Characters In Science Fiction Films" video series she created, in which she highlighted black characters in sci-fi films of note, who, based on her criteria, were fully-formed characters. And I thought what she came up with years ago, might actually be sufficient, and solve our "problem" today.

Here are Asli's 5 basic criteria for picking the characters she chose for her video series:

1. Character (is the character primary) 

2. Agency (does the character have the ability to make their own choices) 

3. Survival (does the character live until the end of the film) 

4. Boglesque (does the character appear as a stereotype) 

5. Relevance (does character have historical, political or social relevance) 

As Asli notes, this is all an informal, evolving survey of characters and is meant for educational and entertainment purposes only. And yes, I'm fully aware that even if a test like this existed, it wouldn't solve any of the existing problems black filmmakers, actors, audiences etc continue to endure in this business. But just indulge me... even if for "entertainment purposes only." 

But I do think Asli's off to a good start here with the above list of 5, keeping in mind that, again, it's about the characters specifically, and not the films (which might stink, but have black characters in them that do meet the above criteria, and thus should be looked at even more closely).

What would we call the test? And if we applied this test to movies (maybe specifically Hollywood movies), would we be surprised by the outcome? I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that most will probably fail the test. The majority won't even get past the first item on the list.

So we'll throw out the previous list of 3 that we came up with, and instead, build on Asli's 5.

Watch the below video explanation of the Bechdel test. And feel free to apply Asli's criteria to any number of films to see if they pass the "racial test." Share your findings in the comments section below:

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm..., M. Asli Dukan

Shadow & ActNewsletter