Alison Bechdel on the test that bears her name.
So apparently some cinemas in Sweden are instituting a “Bechdel rating” on films.
Basically everything fails:
“The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, all Star Wars movies, The Social Network, Pulp Fiction and all but one of the Harry Potter movies fail this test,” said Ellen Tejle, the director of Bio Rio, an art-house cinema in Stockholm’s trendy Södermalm district.
Beliefs about women’s roles in society are influenced by the fact that movie watchers rarely see “a female superhero or a female professor or person who makes it through exciting challenges and masters them”, Tejle said, noting that the rating doesn’t say anything about the quality of the film. “The goal is to see more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens,” he added.
Bechdel has been getting a bit of a beating lately, largely due to some films failing in spite of expectations. See in particular Pacific Rim, which butts heads between a brutal Bechdel gender failure, yet an equally unusual pass on race (plus the even rarer inclusion of a heroine of colour).
The problem, of course, is that Bechdel isn’t really a “test” at all. “Test” implies a grade, implies some kind of pass-fail binary. And yet pretty much everyone can name a film that “fails” the test, yet does well by its female characters–Gravity being a recent example–and another that “passes”, yet manages to be problematic in other areas.
Bechdel isn’t a test, but it is a tool. Films that “fail” Bechdel aren’t necessarily sexist/anti-feminist in and of themselves, but I’d still be giving them a pretty hard side-eye for extenuating circumstances. Gravity fails, for example, because it really only has five characters; two of whom are only ever encountered as radio voices, and one of whom dies within the first few minutes. Yet it’s still a good two-plus hours of watching a woman struggle with and (spoiler alert!) overcome enormous hardship and obstacles, largely with no outside assistance. (On the other other hand, it’s probably reasonable to ask why at least one of those other “bit part” characters wasn’t a woman. Progress being a journey, not a destination, and all that.)
Harry Potter, meanwhile, has no excuse; despite its male protagonist, it’s still awash in a diverse array of female supporting cast members. I confess I haven’t seen any films past the first–or read any books past about the fourth–but I’m honestly surprised to learn it fails so frequently. I’m also going to bet (and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) that this is a side-effect of the transition to screen, not something in the original texts. And what that means is that someone, somewhere–a lot of someones, in fact–deliberately made the choices to edit the “Bechdel-y” parts out. Not due to intentional malice or conspiracy, but simply because constructive, independent relationships between women are just so generally invisible in media that most people don’t even notice their absence.
That’s what I mean about Bechdel being a tool, not a test. Not everything’s a nail, true. But there sure are a lot of thin, pointy, flat-topped spikes floating around…
(Also: Apologies to Alison Bechdel herself for using her name as a generic shorthand. Er… I’ve got not excuse, really.)