Question of the week: is a mandatory Bechdel test a good idea?

An interesting news nugget from Sweden is that in addition to the existing rating system, that country is going to implement a Bechdel test system for all its movies, too. For those that don’t know, the Bechdel test is designed to see just how male-centric a story is. The story passes if:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man

Now, obviously this isn’t science. If you have a story about two female cops chasing a male suspect, for example, even though they’re the focus of the story, if they spend all their time talking about the suspect, the film will fail the test.

But despite these flaws, it’s a useful rule of thumb to see if a story is perhaps a little too focused on what the men are up to to the detriment of the female characters. So this week I’m asking the question: 

Is a mandatory Bechdel test for movies a good idea or something too clumsy to be meaningful in practice? And would you welcome its introduction in your country?

As always, answers below or on your own blog, please.

  • Craig Grannell

    “If you have a story about two female cops chasing a male suspect, for example, even though they're the focus of the story, if they spend all their time talking about the suspect, the film will fail the test.”

    The point being, presumably, that they shouldn't spend every single line of dialogue only ever talking about the male suspect? Even a single line of dialogue with one asking the other if they're OK and the other responding (assuming they are both named roles) would be enough to pass the test.

    It's interesting looking through movies with this filter on. So many big names fail dismally, such as Star Wars (which, when I recently watched after the first time in years, felt uncomfortably Smurf-like), but these days there's very little reason to not use more women in film and also to have them talk to each other.

    Would I welcome its introduction? Sure. Do I think it'd make an iota of difference regarding films that are made? Sadly, no.

  • Rullsenberg

    I agree with Craig: it would be great to add it in, but I can't imagine it would make a difference to those making films (though a few more loud grumbles from audiences may make some think a little more about the issue – doubt it will change practice long-term)

  • JustStark

    I don't understand why this has become so popular: it's a stupidly specific 'test' that was basically the punchline to a joke.

    Like all good observational jokes, it has a kernel of truth: specifically, the fact that the characters in most films are arranged in sort of star structure, with two to four (a protagonist and an antagonist (without which you don't have a story), and optionally a buddy and a mentor) in the middle, and then the others arranged around them. The central characters relate to each other, but the purpose of the 'outer' characters is to illustrate a particular aspect of one of the 'inner' characters, so the 'outer' characters never interact with each other, only with the 'inner' character to whom the are connected.

    So for example, the protagonist might have a girlfriend and a mother: each of them is meant to illustrate a particular aspect of the protagonist's character, so they interact with him, but they don't interact with each other (or if they do, it has to reveal an aspect of the relevant inner character even though they are not present: hence the 'conversations about a man').

    There are good reasons for this structure, mainly to do with narrative economy: a film is a necessarily compressed structure where every moment counts, and every minute in which secondary characters interact would be a minute which doesn't progress the story or reveal aspects of any of the main characters.

    The observation that the joke was making was how rarely any of the four central roles are given to female characters, and how even when one is it is very, very rare for more than one of the 'inner' characters to be female in the same film.

    So to concentrate on how many conversations female characters have with each other is to miss the point. Consider that one way to 'pass' the test would be to have secondary female characters have conversations unrelated to their main character. But this would be terrible screenwriting, wasting time to pointlessly check a box.

    On the other hand, if two of the 'inner' characters were female, then they would automatically have to interact with each other — the protagonist has to interact with the antagonist, their buddy and the mentor — and so the test would be passed without any special effort.

    So. It's a stupid 'test'. As a joke, it works because it points out a specific symptom which is caused by the extreme rarity of films which have two female characters in the core cast (that is how jokes work: you don't make a general point, you make a concrete specific observation). But as a 'test' it addresses exactly the wrong thing (It's incredibly easy to find feminist films that don't pass it, or non-feminist films that do).

    It's not even useful as a 'rule of thumb to see if a story is perhaps a little too focused on what the men are up to to the detriment of the female characters' because, well, that has it backwards: it implies that the story's focus could be shifted, while keeping the same cast. But it can't: you can't shift the focus of a film more onto the detective's girlfriend and mother because the story isn't about them and on screen every second counts.

    If you want a rule of thumb, it's not 'is the story focussed on the male rather than the female characters', it's 'of the characters on whom the story is focussed, why are they all, or all but one, male?'

  • Steffan Alun

    I don't necessarily disagree with your starting point here. Thing is, the Bechdel test is good for proving a point about the big picture (when x% of films fail a test that's so simple you'd assume most films should pass without trying, we question for what values of x this fact is (un)acceptable) but bad for actual testing.

    I mean … let's imagine everyone broadly agreed that it was generally a bad thing for Doctor Who to have not left his spaceship in the first five minutes. As an exercise, we count how many stories are guilty of this, and work them out as a percentage of each era. We call it the Fucking Get Out Now Test.

    We might decide that an era that scored 5% on the test is “better” in that regard than one that scored 70%. But that doesn't mean that 5% are the rubbish episodes, nor that exactly 30% of the latter era is good. We have merely proven a point about the latter era – we have not sorted good stories from bad.

    So it seems to me to be missing the point to complain about specific films. It'd be fine for the film to fail … but not if 95% of films fail. (I've made up that number.)

    On the other hand, films haven't self-regulated, so fuck 'em. Name and shame the failures, show people how common it is to fail, put financial pressure on Hollywood to deliver, cause it's the only fucking pressure it understands. When they've had a word with themselves, then we can talk about what a silly and unfair test it is.

  • JustStark

    You seem to have missed my point, which is that the 'test' doesn't actually test what people are complaining about: it test instead a different, but correlated, thing.

    And we know what happens when you start to make 'tests' that are based not on what people actually want but on different, but correlated, things: you get farther away from what people actually want because they end up chasing the test rather than paying attention to what it was people actually wanted. It's how you get hospitals deliberately giving people consultation dates they can't make, because that gets them off the waiting lists.

    So if people continue to pay undue attention to this 'test' then what you'll get is people putting in dramatically unnecessary scenes where minor female characters have conversations that are not relevant to anything except passing the 'test'. The result: worse films, because that time is effectively wasted, and no progress on the actual issue, which is the disproportionately small number of films where two or more of the core characters are female.

  • Steffan Alun

    Rubbish films might put in stupid scenes – but who cares about rubbish films? Anyone trying to make their film good, they'll either ignore the test completely, or they'll find a solution that isn't stupid.

    I think we end up with a net gain of films about women with this system. It might not be the best solution – indeed, I agreed with you that it wasn't – but it's also not totally pointless.

  • JustStark

    Anyone trying to make their film good will have to ignore it completely, so it is pointless.

    It's fuelled by the same impulse as a network executive who reads Vogler and then starts about complaining about every film that doesn't have a Refusal of the Call in it: it's a way that people who fundamentally don't understand how films work can pretend to have something to say about them, because there's a rule they can easily and mindlessly apply without ever having to engage their brain.

    Whereas to address the actual issue takes understanding the domain of the problem, which is beyond most people, so they grasp at pointless 'rules'.

    Fortunately its adoption by a four-cinema art-house chain is pretty much the definition of 'gimmick', so it's only likely to persist on the internet, and everybody sensible knows to ignore everything on the internet.

    Still, it does irk me.

  • Steffan Alun

    Absolute nonsense. The idea that you have to ignore a push to ensure dialogue between multiple named women in order to make your film good is just obviously stupid. There are already daft pressures on films that are purely driven by profit.

  • JustStark

    In order to make your film good you have to ignore things that would make it bad, and including scenes just to check boxes off a list — whether that's some Vogler-inspired list of obligatory hero's journey scenes or a gratuitous conversation between characters just because of they happen to be a certain sex — will do that, due to the constraints that films operate under.

    So yes, in order to make your film good you have to ignore wrong-headed check-listing exercises that say your film must include a certain kind of scene.

  • Steffan Alun

    Silly. Plenty of good films are already being produced despite having to adhere to daft checklists.

  • JustStark

    Name six.

    Perhaps more to the point, it's pointless in that it won't actually achieve its aim. As I tried to explain patiently above, the actual issue is the rarity of films in which two or more of the central characters are female. Including a scene in which two secondary female characters have a conversation means the film satisfies the test, but addresses the real problem not one jot.

    There is a problem. People who don't understand the problem and how the arena in which the problem exists have fixated on a symptom of the problem, because that symptom is easy to address without doing any actual thinking: you just have to be able to count. This happens a lot, and it is always at best pointless and at worst counter-productive because it makes people think that the symptom is the problem, so they address the symptom, usually make things worse in the process, and the initial problem remains.

    To be clear, I don't blame the person who made the initial joke for this: I get the impression she knew that what she was doing was making some passable observational humour by identifying a concrete symptom of a more complex, nebulous problem. The problem is that it was picked up by the hard-of-thinking who populate the internet.

    (Indeed, I thought I read a while ago that the person who made the initial joke has tried to distance herself from what it has become, presumably because she realises that using it as a real test is worse-than-useless in terms of addressing the actual problem).