The Importance of Character Development: SciFi and the Bechdel Test

 

Amber Atalaya Evans Pinel

You may or may not be familiar with the Bechdel Test; it’s a strategy for looking at movies and TV shows in depth to determine whether or not they are featuring a realistic portrayal of women. Rather, the test asks three simple questions: Does it have at least two named female characters? Do these female characters talk to one another? And, if they do, do they talk about something other than a man?

This may sound ridiculous to you—of course movies feature women who talk to one another about something other than a man! Right? Actually, in most cases, wrong. As I continue to scrutinize my media, it becomes increasingly apparent that fully developed female characters are a rarity. It seems absurd, considering the number of women in our country alone who consume media. Obviously we do talk to one another, and we most certainly have more to talk about than men.

However, I was surprised to find that some of my own favorite movies fail the Bechdel Test. Underworld (2003), for example, the extremely popular Kate Beckinsale vampire vs. werewolf movie that started the vampire craze (in my opinion), totally fails. At first glance, it may appear that Selene is the most badass female character to ever grace the big screen with her presence. A few years ago I would have completely agreed. But let’s take the movie through the Bechdel Test.

Sure, there are quite a few female extras, but there are only three named female characters in the whole movie; Selene (the main character), Erika (her “female rival”), and Amelia (a royal elder of the vampires.) Amelia doesn’t even have lines, she only has two half-scenes where she is present. Erika is also completely lacking development; her only goal in the movie is to take Selene’s place as Kraven’s favorite hot vampire chick. Selene and Erika have a couple of scenes together, and in those scenes they only speak about Kraven and Michael (the other half of the love triangle.) For the rest of the movie, Selene is battling against men and speaking only with men. She appears to be the only female vampire in this world capable of fighting.

Not a whole lot of media passes the Bechdel Test, including everyone’s favorites. Doctor Who (2005 reboot) had a long standing reputation of fully developed companions. But recently I’ve been reading reviews from fans who are less than pleased about the direction the show is going in. Ever since Steven Moffat (co-creator of Sherlock) became the showrunner of Doctor Who, the development of female characters in that show has significantly dropped.

Moffat is receiving a lot of criticism for the direction he’s taken the show since Matt Smith became the Doctor. (Disclaimer: I haven’t seen more than a handful of episodes since Steven Moffat became the showrunner, so everything I am about to say is being reiterated from online blogs and columns I have read about the issue.)

A new companion was introduced–Amy Pond–who met the doctor when she was a child, and then meets him again as an adult. Basically, her entire life already revolved around the Doctor by the time she becomes his companion. However, this alone doesn’t make her a two dimensional character. The problem is that she was never really humanized. She faced numerous challenges and struggles throughout her time as the Doctor’s companion; things happened to her and her family that would be considered emotionally scarring by most psychologists. But by the time the next episode rolls around she seems to be totally un-phased emotionally. Her biggest struggle in the show is that she has to choose between the Doctor and her boyfriend/husband. Other than that decision, she has no goals in life, no prospects or dreams. She is totally governed as a character by the men around her. If you want a really in depth analysis of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, and Amy Pond as a character,  this one is the best you’ll ever find.

But Moffat isn’t just receiving criticism on Amy Pond; he’s well known for saying rather offensive things about women in general, including the female fans of Doctor Who and Sherlock. Not to mention the serious lack of developed LGBTQIA characters in his shows.

So, why is this a problem? A lot of people think that’s a dumb question, but Steven Moffat doesn’t. And neither do the all male writers and directors of Underworld. It’s a problem for several reasons: first of all, it’s not an accurate representation of real people. Women do have aspirations beyond choosing which man to follow around. Also, they do talk about other things besides men. Lot’s of other things. (Not to mention LGBTQIA people exist as real people in the real world.) But I think the biggest problem with popular TV shows like Doctor Who failing to show well developed female characters is that so many young people are getting social cues from media these days. Young people eat Doctor Who up. So if they see characters like Amy Pond, who only think about the men in their lives, what does that teach youth? It teaches them that women should only think about men, and that the biggest source of existential struggle they’ll ever have is always going to surround men.

Obviously, women will face a lot of challenges in their lives. Some of them may revolve around men. Many of those challenges will be overcoming gender-biased people trying to tell them they aren’t worth as much as their male counterparts. But what’s important is the media accurately reflect real people of all genders and sexual orientations, and that includes creating well developed characters that pass the Bechdel Test.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Commentary, Opinion

One response to “The Importance of Character Development: SciFi and the Bechdel Test

  1. I’m sure somebody could come up with a better statistical test than this one – one that illustrates the strength of the association. As it stands it might be possible to find an alternative explanation for this statistic – e.g. maybe cheaper films generate a better return per dollar spent than expensive ones (a couple of really big turkeys is likely to skew a stat that is merely based on a crude average of total take divided by total production costs.

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