Cinema sign / Clem Onojeghuo / Pexels
What makes a feminist film?
Representation in film and the media has been increasingly topical, with special concern over how women are portrayed. So let me introduce you to the Bechdel test. It’s been somewhat of a buzzword for representation since the mid-1980s, with lots of popular and academic engagement.
Formally called the Bechdel-Wallace test, it asks only three questions.
1. Does a movie have at least two named women?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Cartoonist Alison Bechdel first penned these criteria in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. The woman in the comic who upholds these rules for any movie she watches finds herself sorely wanting. Bechdel herself credits a conversation she had with her friend Liz Wallace for the comic, and Wallace in turn was likely inspired by Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own.
The problem that Bechdel, Wallace and Woolf all noticed, decades apart, was how women were frequently represented through their relation to men. They were often love interests or enemies. Occasionally mothers and daughters. But seldom friends who get together to talk about hobbies or careers. Alongside the Bechdel test’s rise in prominence has been a push for more realistic portrayals of women, which has given us fairly empowering movies like Hustlers, Hidden Figures, Bad Moms and the Ghostbusters remake.
However, simply passing the Bechdel test does not a feminist film make.
One scene with two women who talk about the pasta they just shared would give a film the Bechdel all-clear. Plenty of critically-acclaimed box office successes do not pass the test, which says more about the general nature of mainstream films than it does of each one’s quality.
The takeaway here is that the bar is on the ground with the Bechdel test. Not passing the test says more about a film than passing it would. Films without meaningful interaction between their female characters could still be popular and successful. Still, the Bechdel test is important for two reasons.
We can treat it as a first step on the pathway to better representation (rather than a yardstick).
And we can build further discussions from it.
The test is considered too broad by many industry professionals, especially those focused on the depictions of women of colour and LGBTQ+ individuals. FiveThirtyEight has put together a metric of multiple tests to strengthen the work that the Bechdel test started. Some of their tests include whether a film features a black woman in a position of power with a healthy relationship or if 50% of the behind-camera film crew were women.
Different professionals have different priorities for what makes a feminist film, whether it is based on the quantity of women behind or in front of the camera, or the quality of their screen time, or the diversity of their character. Sure, it might be difficult for a film to pass all twelve of the revised tests. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Diverse guidelines yield diverse results.
I’d appreciate a film with a completely gender equal crew. I’d appreciate a film with great LGBTQ+ characters. Some films will tick one or another box, and a few gems will manage to achieve it all. Even ticking one of the new Bechdel boxes will produce a wider range of films focused on the different concerns and priorities of women. That is a positive move towards more relatable and enjoyable viewing experiences.
Giving your favourite movies the Bechdel test can and should be a light-hearted affair — one that hopefully sparks interesting thoughts and conversations about the women we are watching.Support Villainesse