In 1986’s collection of her comic “Dykes to Watch Out For,” cartoonist Alison Bechdel wrote a strip about two women planning to go to the movies. One of the women tells her friend that she has a rule about movies: she won’t see a film unless it has at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man. The last movie she was able to watch, she says, was Alien, because the two women in it “talk to each other about the monster.”
“Two women talk about non-guy-related things” isn’t exactly a high bar for female empowerment, which is why it’s fairly ridiculous that such a few number of films actually pass. Some of Hollywood’s most beloved films, such as “Star Wars: A New Hope” or the final installment of the “Harry Potter” franchise fail the test, bringing to light the abysmal state of female characters in media today. If one actually limited themselves to seeing films that only passed the test, they wouldn’t be able to watch very many films at all. In fact, that is exactly the punch line.
In recent years, The Bechdel Test has somehow become the ultimate method of gauging whether or not a film is feminist. The issue is that as soon as the joke becomes an end-all, be-all pass/fail test rather than a study in popular media, it stops working.
[bctt tweet=”In recent years, The Bechdel Test has somehow become the ultimate method.”]
“Run Lola Run,” which contains one of cinema’s most well-written female characters— doesn’t pass. Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry” stars Hilary Swank as a transgender man— doesn’t pass. In 2008, “The Hurt Locker” scored Kathryn Bigelow the first Best Director Oscar ever awarded to a woman— doesn’t pass.
Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” (which Feminist Frequency did a great analysis of) passes the Bechdel test, which is (one of many) reasons the general public mistook the film as a form of feminine empowerment. Even Scary Movie technically passes, despite containing a scene in which two women are plastered to a wall in semen. Alison Bechdel herself said in an interview to Cosmopolitan that Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” “absolutely fails the Bechdel test but it has one of the strongest female protagonists [she has] seen in a Hollywood movie — it’s an amazing feminist text.”
This is where the issue lies: critiquing a film through a feminist lens is a complicated, nuanced web, tangled with issues of racism, gender and sexuality, and classism, which is exactly why we’re so eager to adopt an easy pass/fail style test. Even calling it a “test” (in the strip it’s referred to as the character’s “rule”) is misleading, because it implies that the results are infallible, just as we expect tests and rules to be. So many films don’t pass the test but still portray a female lead who goes beyond flatly written tropes or tired character arcs, and that should be the starting point for feminist film critique, not the Bechdel Test.
“Is this film feminist?” is a question that deserves discussion, and oftentimes will not have a simple answer. It’s our responsibility to use the observations made by jokes and humor to expand on ideas rather than distilling them into a binary yes/no analyses. A good joke offers perspective to the world, which Bechdel’s strip succeeds at doing— but we need to go beyond it.