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The Bechdel Test: Not Just For Feminists and Filmmakers Anymore

Guest Blogger: Jennie Jarvis

In 1985, Alison Bechdel featured the following passage in her comic, Dykes to Look Out For:

Bechdel

While the above “requirements” of a movie worth watching began as a bit of a joke, it has since grown into a real Test used to evaluate the presence of women in a film. Keep in mind, this test evaluates the PRESENCE of women, not the quality of those women. It also doesn’t evaluate if the women are treated fairly or with any misogyny. It just asks the film whether or not women have any kind of place in the world of that film. Look at the rules again:

  1. Are there two or more NAMED women?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

When I first learned about this Test, I was sure the majority of the DVDs in my own personal movie collection would pass. I was, after all, a young feminist and a filmmaker. Sadly, when I got home and evaluated my home movie collection, I was shocked to discover the majority of titles in my DVD collection failed. Jurassic Park? Fail. Slumdog Millionaire? Fail. Beauty and the Beast? Fail. The entire Star Wars series? Or Lord of the Rings? Fail and Fail.

I was shocked. How could I have allowed my film collection to be made up of such male-dominated films? Then I watched this video on the Feministic Frequency YouTube channel:

As the presenter said, this is systemic problem and not just a fluke created by a few misogynistic filmmakers who are trying to give all the good roles to men. Sadly, the film industry has, for many years, been geared towards male audience members, and as a result, the storylines they create are focused on the male character’s story over that of the females. For a long time, the only “chick films” out there were romantic comedies (in which the women were only able to find a “happy ending” when they wound up together with the male lead). The non-romantic comedies still focused on women getting married/finding love (i.e. Steel Magnolias, Mama Mia, Eat Prey Love, pretty much every Disney movie except those of the last few years) or just getting out of marriages (i.e. Under the Tuscan Sun, Hope Floats, How To Make An American Quilt).

Was this because Hollywood believed the only thing women care about is finding love or getting married? While that’s definitely a possibility, I don’t think it’s true across the board. Sometimes, the filmmakers want to do everything they can to promote strong women, but they still wind up failing the Bechdel Test. In the new Star Trek reboot movies, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura can hold her own against the men on the Enterprise, but she never talks to any other females. Despite the presence of strong female characters, the Harry Potter films only barely pass the test (usually because Hermione interacts with a teacher in class). Heck, even The Avengers, made by the uber-geek feministic Joss Whedon, fails the Test.

Does this even matter? Many critics of the Bechdel Test claim it’s more important to make good movies than to make movies that pass the Test. While I can see their point of view, you can’t ignore the facts. In 2013, films that passed the Test made more money at the box office than films that didn’t pass the Test.

Bechdel_BR2498464922

Audiences across the country are putting their money where their sensibilities lie. They want to see more women on the screen who care about more than just finding love and getting married. It’s becoming commonplace for film schools across the country to offer Film Studies classes that include lessons on feminist theory as part of their curriculum. As a result, I’m hopeful about seeing more films come out that pass the Bechdel Test in the future. This year, while most of the Oscar nominated movies failed the test, there were still a lot of great films that not only passed passed but that had nothing to do with women finding love. These included Philomenia, The Dallas Buyer’s Club and Nebraska.

As a screenwriter turned novelist, I think it’s important to take this lesson from the world of film into the literary community as well. We, as novelists, write for the same Americans who purchase tickets to the movies. If those audiences want to see female protagonists who do more than just pine for men, it’s important we give them those narratives. In every book I write, I ask myself those three essential questions:

  1. Do I have at least two NAMED women?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk to each other about something other than men?

If my novel passes this Test, it doesn’t mean it’s any good (that’s for my agent and my readers to decide). But it tells me I’m at least succeeding in providing a world in which women are more than just the playthings of men. I’m creating a world where they are permitted to have an agency of their own.

How do your novels hold up under the Bechdel Test?

Jennie JarvisJennie Jarvis is a former screenwriter turned literary writer. She is co-owner of 5writers.com and regularly conducts writing workshops. She has appeared in Writer’s Digest Magazine and The Florida Writer, and she teaches screenwriting at Full Sail University. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. She is an active member of the Florida Writer’s Association and regularly conducts networking and writing workshops. Her novels are represented by Saritza Hernandez, Corvisiero Literary Agency. Jennie can be found at facebook.com/JarvisWrites and on Twitter @JarvisWrites. 

 

 

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2 comments on “The Bechdel Test: Not Just For Feminists and Filmmakers Anymore

  1. Really enjoyed this article. This whole concept hasn’t really been on my radar screen, but I’ll be keeping my eyes open for it now. Happily, the fiction project I’m working on right now easily passes this test. Yay, me. ;-)

  2. I tend to write a lot of female characters because … well, because I’m a girl. But I also tend to write romantic stories, so a lot of their conversations are about guys. I also want to be more aware of this when I review books on Amazon and Goodreads.

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