By Morgan Fisher
While brainstorming things to write about this week, my mom very excitedly asked me if I’d ever heard of the Bechdel Test. I’ve been researching it for five days now, and it’s so fascinating that I have no clue how I’d never heard of it before.
The Bechdel Test comes from a 1985 Alison Bechdel comic called “Dykes to Watch Out For.” According to Bechdel, in order for a movie to pass this test, there have to be: two female characters; they have to talk to each other; and they have to talk to each other about something other than men.
This would initially seem like it wouldn’t be too challenging, especially because women are increasingly and fiercely striving for the equality they deserve. But it got me thinking, and I’m astounded to realize how many of my favorite movies don’t pass this seemingly simple test.
As I delved into my initial research of this test, my first question was about my favorite movie, Fight Club, and whether or not it passes the test. It took me about five seconds to recall that, no—it definitely does not. The entire movie has one dynamic female character in it (Helena Bonham Carter playing Marla Singer), and she is only part of the story because she plays Edward Norton’s love interest. She doesn’t talk to any women in the film, and she is, overall, a pretty minor part of the story.
With this new knowledge, I found myself feeling angry. I was angry with myself for not knowing that this test existed, I was angry that my favorite movie doesn’t pass such a simple test, and I was especially angry that this test even has to exist in the first place.
There’s a great deal of speculation about the Bechdel Test and what it actually proves. There are some arguments that claim that the test doesn’t take into consideration the pivotal roles of women in certain movies, even if there is only one main female character. Other arguments suggest that supporting actresses have no reason to discuss anyone other than the main (typically male) character if the film is about him. But these are examples of people dismissing this test rather than looking at the value in it.
The fact that this test exists shows that at least conversation about this issue is happening. Thirty years ago, Alison Bechdel acknowledged the unfairness of female representation in the movie industry, and it’s still being discussed today. That people take an interest in how women are being portrayed in film shows potential for progress. That being said, there is, of course, a long way to go.
The test definitely has its flaws. Sandra Bullock’s Gravity fails the test, whereas a movie such as Safe Haven would pass just because of a ten-second dialogue scene between two women about something other than a man. A major problem with the Bechdel Test is the idea that it only serves as a way of gauging whether or not a movie passes this test; it often just ends the conversation, rather than providing important insight on the deeper issues that stem from a movie that fails the test. A check mark, and that’s the end of it.
Furthermore, some of the most popular movies in the world do not pass this test. Movies like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, and even the original Star Wars Trilogy fall short of the Bechdel standards. It’s frustrating that so many of these classic films don’t pass this simple test. The fan bases for these movies are tremendous, and it’s concerning to think that these cult classics are so full of misogyny and damsel-in-distress nonsense that there isn’t enough incentive to add just two significant, powerful female characters into the script. And people are often so focused on the popularity of the films that they aren’t likely to think about the Bechdel Test and how it would factor into the categorizing of films like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. This only further perpetuates the idea that it’s okay to ignore it when a film doesn’t pass this test, so long as it’s a “good movie.”
The Bechdel Test sparks an important conversation about the role women play in film. But even though this conversation has been ongoing for thirty years, there’s still a great deal of discrepancy about where we stand in terms of equal representation in the movie industry. On one hand, this test allows for us to evaluate how we are representing women in film—but there are also no repercussions when a film doesn’t pass this test. It’s also not a well-known test, and sometimes it ends conversations instead of starting them. I’d like to think that if more people knew about the Bechdel Test, more would be done about this issue. I also think that if more people understood this issue, the Bechdel Test wouldn’t be necessary anymore, which is really what we should strive for.