Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Testing the Bechdel Test: The Failures

Since one of my friends went to see the new Star Wars movie, I was curious as to whether it passed the Bechdel Test. The original trilogy lacks in the female characters department, but according to my friend and the news, The Force Awakens passes.

For those unfamiliar with the Bechdel Test, it examines the portrayal of women in film based on three criteria: (1) there are two [named] female characters, [2] who converse, [3] about something other than a man. It’s low-hanging fruit, but when you consider exactly how many movies don’t pass—everything from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Lord of the Rings to all but four Pixar movies… ouch.

As we discussed Star Wars, though, my friends raised criticism. The Bechdel Test is very subjective, like giving art a standardized test. Even if two female characters pass the test, but only have six minutes of screen time, how can we praise that as the pinnacle of feminism?

Well, I agree with my friends—we can’t. Sometimes we blow the Bechdel Test out of proportion. Though BechdelTest.com is handy for posts like this, glorifying it turns the test into a goal instead of a wake-up call. The test isn’t meant to be passed, but exceeded. Unfortunately, sometimes that isn’t easy to see behind the action, action, action, and also sex, and the Strong Female Characters whom we know and love.

I thought it would be interesting to look at the advantages and limitations of the Bechdel Test by examining female portrayals against their test ratings. We’ll start with what is depressing—because that means things can only get better from here. I hope.


Poor Female Portrayal, Bechdel Test Fail

via

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (source)


Seeing as there were no female characters in the book, it’s a surprise the second movie passes at all. But this is the first Hobbit movie. Bilbo is a dude. Gandalf is a dude. The twelve dwarves are dudes. They meet a lot of dudes on their journeys. In fact, the only lady in the film is Galadriel, who, while awesome, is only significant to the film because she gives Gandalf a mental pat on the back at the White Council.

Not only does this film fail to pass even the first criterion, but Galadriel doesn’t serve a particularly significant purpose. The story would have ended the same way without her short contribution. Of course, I can appreciate Peter Jackson’s effort, he was working with what he had… But, in the end, the value of women in this world is reduced to whatever Galadriel can offer, and that isn’t much.

Pretty fancy lady doesn’t make up for female experience. Representation FAIL.


via

Up (source)


Everyone goes gooshy about Up’s first ten minutes, but I remind you that Ellie is the only named female who speaks, limited within those ten minutes. Almost everyone of any significance afterwards is a guy. Of course, Ellie never ceases to be significant to the plot because her death motivates Carl to the end, but Ellie is still dead. Dead women don’t talk in this film (though alive people talk to her). The only other significant women are Russell’s mom, who waves at him at his Wilderness Explorer ceremony, and Kevin the bird. Kevin is also significant to the plot in relationship to Charles Muntz, but birds still don’t talk.

Up is a cute story, focusing on dealing after death, paternal bonds, and the meaning of heroism. That’s good, but Ellie is dead. Kevin is a bird. Russell’s mom smiles and waves at him at his ceremony like it somehow DOESN’T BOTHER HER THAT HER CHILD RANDOMLY DISAPPEARED FOR DAYS ON THE WHIM OF AN ELDERLY, GRIEF-STRICKEN HERMIT BEFORE TURNING UP A CONTINENT AWAY IN VENEZUELA. I get that this film isn’t structured for female bonding, but for Pete’s sake. Even if they had offered up one other female character—even a female dog, if it came to that—in the end motherhood is characterized by two men saving a helpless lady bird so that she can go take care of her chicks. Thank God for boys and their adventures, otherwise those chicks never would have gotten their mom back. Also, thank God human mothers—who aren’t known for worrying after their kids or concerning themselves when they disappear, and can only fake pride under the most dire of conditions—aren’t nearly so active in their children’s lives. Because if Russell’s mom had had a personality? The whole movie would have been ruined.

Women? Women together? Women experiencing motherhood? What? Representation FAIL.

How do you feel about the Bechdel Test? What are some movies that fail the test that bother you?


16 comments :

  1. This is a great post. And now I'm not sure about this, but I don't think Galadriel appears in the Hobbit book. Again: not sure. But it still irks me. And relevant to both movies, they both have guys (Thranduil and Old Dude -- sorry, I'm too lazy to scroll up and find out his name :P) who are motivated by the deaths of lady characters. The Lost Lenore trope isn't bad, but I definitely feel its use has to be reconsidered when women are shoved into a story (and promptly taken out) for the sake of motivating guys to do stuff.

    YOUR CAPS SCREAMING AT THE KIDDO'S MUM WAS PERFECT AND ON POINT.

    Have you seen Star Wars 7? HAVE YOU??

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I've been told that there were actually no female characters at all in the books. Which sounds sort of extreme, but I didn't finish The Hobbit so I don't know. And yeah, I feel like Lost Lenore would be more acceptable if there were non-Lost Lenores with an important influence on the story, too.

      THANK YOU I WAS VERY FRUSTRATED

      I haven't yet! But I will, eventually.

      Delete
  2. This has nothing to do with you, but I just think the whole Bechdel test thing is stupid. I mean, does it really matter? Isn't a great story more important than being politically correct? Just sayin'....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I guess if you believe that you can have a good story without accurate female representation, then the Bechdel test doesn't matter. If you believe that women don't or shouldn't play prominent roles in the real world, exist for something more than to satisfy men, and have developed personalities... I guess you're right. Being politically correct and doing your best to give women characters they can identify and relate to and admire could never be as important as the story. Unless, of course, you believe that a story that treats women like people is inherently better than any other story that doesn't. Then the Bechdel test would matter.

      Delete
    2. You completely misunderstood me. I think it's really good when women are portrayed correctly, although in YA books now, it's more likely that the men aren't portrayed correctly. I just think that there are more important things to worry about than how women are portrayed. We have it really good in both real life and movies. I think it's more important to have stories with good themes and morals than to follow a checklist. Because even if a movie or a book passes this test, that doesn't mean it portrays women correctly. For the record, I'm not sexist, or feminist. I don't really care. It just saddens me to see that you care this much about this. And also for the record, I'm a woman, too. :P

      Delete
    3. I think I will just say that it's obvious we have a fundamentally different idea of what it looks like to have a good story and to have accurate representation of women in the film industry. The only thing I would hope you understand is that it makes me just as sad to know that you don't care about the same issue.

      Delete
  3. I'm forever get sad that my reaction to seeing women actually having excellent parts in movies and totally blowing the Bechdel Test out of the water is intense excitement. I MEAN THAT SOUNDS WEIRD TO PUT LIKE THAT? But I don't WANT to be amazed! I WANT IT TO BE NORMAL. *collapses* And I totally agree that when a movie/book passes the Bechdel test and everyone cheers...but they only really got 6 minutes screen time?! That's still not okay! Women need to play decent parts, impact the story, and be dimensional interesting characters. Because we are!! It's really sad that it's still not usual for this to happen. GAHHHH.
    And when you said "All but four Pixar movies" I was about to go "PFFFT."
    but.
    You're totally right. Finding Nemo? Cars? Monsters Inc? It's really saaaad.
    This post is excellent, Heather!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I KNOW. I don't want to be amazed, either. :/ I would love if it were normal, too! Dimensional characters are like, so important, regardless of what gender they are, I feel like. And yeah, the Pixar thing surprised me, but I'm pretty sure Brave is the only one that actually has a female protagonist.

      But Pixar is kind of marketed for boys, so. :( :( :( :(

      Thanks, Cait!

      Delete
  4. The Bechdel test is really great for pointing out lack of representation, but it is super depressing when a movie just passes the criteria but doesn't really do much with women beyond that. Like Cait said, it shouldn't be a matter for excitement when a movie passes--it should be relatively normal. I mean, I'm fine with movies like The Hobbit, don't get me wrong, and I'm not an uber feminist. But still, it does bother me that women are so often inserted as plot devices rather than people. And I wish that would change, sooner rather than later. I really wish more people in the story world would realize how cool women are and how wonderful they can be when you actually include them as fully formed characters. Grr.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know, that's what will be in the third installment and it is way depressing. But yeah, I think the Bechdel test isn't something to be passed but more to demonstrate how often women don't get to act like people in their stories. :P Here's to the developed female characters!

      Delete
    2. Yeah, I suppose it's more of a spotlight to illuminate the lack of representation, rather than a solution. :P Here's to fully dimensional female characters!

      Delete
    3. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. *nods vigorously*

      Delete
  5. Interesting post, and while I definitely think we need more strong female characters, don’t get me wrong, I’m not sure the Bechdel test is as encompassing as some might think. It’s good certainly, but it doesn’t take into account all of the possible variables or what the stories are actually about, so I don’t think it can be used as a blank criteria. Plus, like you mentioned, even if the test is "passed," it's not necessarily indicative of whether or not you have any strong female characters or if you’ve accurately represented women.

    Although, seriously, Russell’s mother should’ve done more than just wave. :p Yeah, honey, that’s a fail.


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com
    verbositybookreviews.wordpress.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nope, the Bechdel test is fairly low-hanging fruit. :P I'm definitely going to talk about that in the third installment of this series, because tests that pass are not always as great as we think they are.

      And... yeah. I don't even know why they thought that would make up for everything... *sigh*

      Delete
  6. While the Bechdel test is a good tool for pointing out underrepresentation, I don't think it's the be-all-end-all for talking about female representation in film. For example, I find that quite often it'll pass the test but still use women as plot devices or eye candy WHICH IS SO FRUSTRATING!!! GRRRR!!!! AAAHHH!!! *THROWS THINGS ANGRILY* *TURNS INTO HULK* *CALMS DOWN* But, in the other way the story can totally fail the test and still have great, fleshed-out female characters who just maybe don't come in contact with each other. Either way, I think it's a good starting point for looking at female representation in film. *nods* I'm interested to know where you'll take this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No way, not by a long shot! I think that the Bechdel test is kind of just one of those things where you're like "wow, this movie didn't even do that?" But we'll talk more about that in the third installment. Although, I do think that calling women "eye candy" can be sort of a slippery slope. On the one hand, yes, a lot of movies are geared towards male pleasure, but it can fall into undue slut-shaming-esque kind of talk, and that's not my cup of tea, either. :P And, yes, just because a movie doesn't pass the test doesn't mean there aren't cool female characters... But it does probably say something about the world they live in and the role of women there. After all, it's almost guaranteed that two men will talk to each other. :P So, you have to kind of balance everything and look at different aspects of a movie in their own turn.

      Delete

Check it out, comments and stuff. I love to hear from readers, and I always respond to commenters! Here's the fun part—if you leave a link to your blog I'll show up and comment back. I have just one rule down here: Don't Be a Problem. This spans the entire umbrella of rudeness and crudeness, so I reiterate: Don't Be a Problem. Thanks for stopping by!