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Revisiting the Bechdel Test Using M. Asli Dukan's 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

2
Hmm

Revisiting the Bechdel Test, taking into consideration filmmaker M. Asli Dukan's 5 basic criteria which she used as she came up with her "30 Significant Black Characters In Science Fiction Films" video series, which I posted on this blog recently. First, the Bechdel Test: Theaters in Sweden have adopted the Bechdel Test as a way to highlight gender bias in cinema.

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 - a move that could affect box office for some films. Thus far, the initiative has been well-received by film-goers in the country. Even the state-funded Swedish Film Institute supports it, as well as Scandinavian cable TV channel Viasat Film, who previously announced that it would start using the Bechdel ratings in its film reviews. 

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

With regards to our continuous discussions on defining black film, or identifying a black film aesthetic, on the old S&A site (pre-Indiewire) 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 cinema. 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?

M. Asli Dukan
M. Asli Dukan

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

But I was reminded of it today thanks to Asli Dukan's "30 Significant Black Characters In Science Fiction Films" video series in which she highlighted black characters in sci-fi films of note, who, based on her criteria, were fully-formed characters. Dukan came up with 5 basic criteria to use in narrowing down her selections for her video series, which she actually came up with years ago (but I'm only just discovering it). And what she put together might be a sufficient start in helping to solve our "S&A Racial Diversity Test" problem; maybe we can call it the "Dukan Test" instead, since she came up with the criteria.

Here are her 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 the character have historical, political or social relevance? 

Each black character in every film she looked at for her series had to meet these 5 criteria. 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."

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).

And if we applied this test to movies (maybe specifically Hollywood movies), would we be surprised by the results? 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 number 1 item on the list!

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


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