It’s hard to believe that during the 18 months of blogging, I have barely mentioned the Bechdel test. It is what I like to think of as being something which is ‘traditional’ in the world of feminist critiquing, and which is seen as a standard by which feminist films are discussed. However, 30 years later, I believe it needs some serious looking at to give it a bit of an update in relation to how we understand feminism, films and representations in 2015.
For those of you who may not know, the inception of the Bechdel test was in a 1985 comicstrip ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ created by Alison Bechdel. The test itself originated in the form of two female characters in a comic strip joking about the lack of female representation in films and discussing one of the women’s rules concerning attending the cinema. Her rules are;
- films must include 2 women
- who have at least 1 conversation
- about something other than a man
Sounds simple, right? Think again. Although the test is taken out of the context of the comic, the test works well and simply in order to highlight the under-representation of female characters. The massive success of the Bechdel test comes from how simple the test actually is, and how many films spectacularly fail the test. Take the whole of the ‘Star Wars’ original trilogy for example- there are only 3 named female characters in the entire series and none of them speak to each other, at all. I’ve come to the inevitable conclusion that most media think that women aren’t worth portraying unless it’s in relation to men.
However, media texts can pass the Bechdel test and yet be an extremely misogynistic text on the whole. As well as films failing the test which can be considered feminist; with strong female characters, with their own narrative arc, separate from men etc. And so the test itself becomes problematic.
Recently there was a proposed reformed response to the Bechdel test, in the form of the Mako Mori test. Named after the female, asian, character from ‘Pacific Rim’, who fans practically worship, the test is a response to female characters who are for all intents and purposes ‘feminist’, but who don’t pass the Bechdel test, just like Mako herself. The Mako Mori test is;
- at least 1 female character
- who gets her own character arc
- that is not about supporting a mans story
For example, this test supports Black Widow’s character in ‘The Avengers’. Although the film fails the Bechdel test, Black Widow has her own character arc which contributes to the plot and not to the aid of a male character. However, films passing the Mako Mori test are even rarer than those passing Bechdel. Female characters being treated like human characters with lives external to men is practically unheard of. The Bechdel test mostly fails because there is only ever the ‘token woman’; the mother figure, the love interest or the side-kick, and so there are simply no other women to talk to. So even with the Mako Mori test lowering the accepted amount of women to one, mostly, the female characters just aren’t treated as human beings with their own narrative arc.
It is worth noting here just one more principle which is widely used to critique films; the Smurfette Principle. I first heard of this here– an amazing video by Feminist Frequency who highlights a lot of other problems within pop-culture regarding female representation, well worth a watch of her channel. The Smurfette Principle is essentially the ‘token women’, the ensemble cast or group of characters where there is only one woman. This can also be applied to race- a group of white people with one token minority. ‘Inception’, ‘Transformers’, and even female panelists on well known panel shows such as ‘Mock The Week’ come to mind, are just some examples of this. As well as the ‘Smurfs’, who gives their token woman long luscious blonde hair and heels, obviously.
There are a few different takes on these sorts of principles and tests, and the underlying theme is that women are just not getting represented enough. Not in the way that men are. We need to see a film where the characters are women talking about the plot together and driving and contributing to the narrative. Rather than the traditional ‘does this film pass the Bechdel test?’ critique, I think we as a society need to move onto a more general test which encompasses different principles in order to read the text sufficiently. However, the endgame is to ideally have Hollywood employ these simple rules and tests upon their films to make sure that they are representing women as widely across the spectrum as they represent men. And if they are not, then back to the drawing board, boys!