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Taking Aim At Gender Bias In Movies w/ The Bechdel Test. How Would It Work w/ Race?

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by Tambay A. Obenson
November 13, 2013 12:14 PM
10 Comments
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Does your film pass the Bechdel Test?


Imagine if the test caught on here in the USA. Theaters in Sweden have adopted the test as a new 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 says it'll start using the ratings in its film reviews. And 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

In watching the below explanation of the test, I thought, about our continuous discussions on defining black film, or identifying a black film aesthetic. And I tried to come up with a similar kind of test that we could use to measure similar *racial* inequalities in every film. But I couldn't so simplistically narrow it down to just 3 questions, as in the Bechdel test. 

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? 

What would that "XXXX" be? Again, I don't think 3 questions would suffice. We'd need to go even broader, because, while there are films that satisfy the first 2 criteria, there isn't some readily identifiable subject that's discussed consistently, widely, solely between black characters in cinema is there? Maybe race, or "blackness," or something related to being black, since that's the one thing the characters would have in common. 

And 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?

 

Watch the below video explanation first, and share your thoughts in the comments section, if you have any:

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10 Comments

  • Daryl | November 13, 2013 6:14 PMReply

    This is a waste of time, just focus on making movies and telling the stories you want to tell and stop waiting on hollywood to do the right thing by you, we have the tools so let's just focused on us and let hollywood do them.

  • No | November 13, 2013 4:13 PMReply

    @ Troy: "I tried to pick out movies that targeted a wider audiences." You basically confirmed my whole point: film aimed at "wider audiences" are not feminist by design or intent. They are commercial entertainment and not overtly ideological.

    This whole premise is silly because virtually no film out of Hollywood is basically feminist or black by the three strikes formula.

    This argument is beginning to smack of "socialist realism."

  • Troy | November 13, 2013 5:48 PM

    I agree. Shared truths= Socialist realism
    The most successful example is the bible, the leading lady, the forward pass, and the slam dunk. When shared truths go mainstream we act like is has been here all along. If Hollywood continued to ignore women they would cease to exist. Therefore the feminist point of view has grounds to stand on. Black audience is segmented with many black women and men getting their fix through people of other colors. As long as female and male driven vehicles it doesn't matter to black audiences. If they enjoyed only black fair then odds are they wouldn't be a viable market segment. Rotten tomatoes wasn't relevant until other media outlets started quoting them. This doesn't hurt nor help but the only reason for it to not exist is never having a reason to talk about it.

  • TH | November 13, 2013 3:23 PMReply

    Maaaaan. My POC list would be vast! Too long for those purposes. Does the POC have a personality and life that exists even when the white protagonist isn't in the scene ? Does the POC exist merely as a straight/fall person for the main character's antics? Are they the primary comic relief, where their otherness and perceived cluelessness-not to mention sassiness- is used as the punch line for the movie? Does the POC do anything besides play a sport? Does the POC speak proper English, rely on dialect or slang, or code switch, as many of us are required to do? Is the POC something other than the "exception to the rule" or the flip, which means they're from a poor neighborhood or have immigrant parents (it's rare to see something in the middle, which is odd considering most folks probably live somewhere in the middle) ? Really, we could do this all day. All year, probably.

  • sthn | November 13, 2013 3:11 PMReply

    1. Are there two or more black characters with names in the film?
    2. Do they talk to each other?
    That's funny, but let's expand.
    How about the BLACK list.
    1. Are there at least three main black characters.
    2. Are any of the black characters not slaves, maids, butlers...you get my drift.
    3. Is there an oscar worthy role for the black actor or actress that shows them as something we rarely see. A teacher, CIA agent, FBI agent, superhero, or prominent adapted story character from a novel or short story that is not stereotypical.

    Oh hell, we'll never make that black list.

  • No | November 13, 2013 2:24 PMReply

    The above short is silly. Of course none of the films shown are feminist. Why should they be. They weren't made for an ideological reason but for entertainment. This whole thing is a cheap shot, and if a feminist film has to fulfill those three criteria, then feminism has been reduced to being a joke in re to filmmaking.

    What's really dishonest is that the woman didn't even show clips of films that passed the test. Is she saying that even feminist filmmakers don't pass that smell taste?

    I can name a few: Pariah, Frozen River, Bound, Go Fish.

  • Troy | November 13, 2013 2:46 PM

    I tried to pick out movies that targeted a wider audiences.

  • R. | November 13, 2013 1:51 PMReply

    A great answer to this question is answered by the author herself toward the end of a video titled "The Oscars and The Bechdel Test"

    the "XXXX" is "does a person of color talk to another person of color about something other than a white person." I think that's pretty fair.

  • Troy | November 13, 2013 12:57 PMReply

    Do they not oppose each other for token status, should be the third question. A la boardwalk empire, Blood Diamond, and if Django wasn't the lone surviving male protagonist, and any other best black competition. Movies like Brooklyn's finest, Takers, Predator, Richochet, the Wire, Treme, House of Lies, Hell on Wheels, Scandal, and a few others.

  • Monique a. Willams | November 13, 2013 12:36 PMReply

    When I became familiar with this, I started thinking of a Black version too! #greatminds

    My "XXXX" was "Do the characters act in a way contrary to stereotypes?" Of course, this is broad, yet we know stereotypes when we see them. More importantly, we feel them. I'm interested in other thoughts on this...

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