Rambling on the Bechdel Test

People always misunderstand the Bechdel Test. Both its fans and its critics do this. I don’t really know which annoys me more. On the one hand, there is something uniquely aggravating about the anti-feminist vloggers on Youtube, who ooze arrogance and smugness, who think they have something important to say when they have not even grasped the most basic facts about the things they are trying to criticize. On the other hand, how can you be convinced of the importance of a test without knowing what it actually means?

Both types of idiocy probably comes down to the same mistake: thinking that the Bechdel Test is directly related to a film’s quality or to a film itself being overall feminist. That’s not what it says. The only thing the Bechdel Test tells you is if a film has more than two women who talk to each other about something other than a man, at one point over the entire course of the story. What you acually do with this data is up to you. The original comic presents the idea that movies that fail to meet the test’s criteria are not worth the comic character’s time or money. But not because they are automatically bad or offensive. Just because she isn’t interested in films like this, just like other people are not interested in romantic comedies, or in war movies, or in movies with specific plots or character archetypes, settings or themes or actors.

The interesting thing about the Bechdel Test is that it’s a seemingly low hurdle that a lot of movies still fail. That’s worthwhile to think about. Although women make up ca. 50% of humanity, important roles are still predominantly male. There are ensemble casts with ten guys and two women. You will find a lot more movies that pass the reverse Bechdel Test: that have two men who talk to each other about something other than a woman.

While there are many stories where a relative lack of women is justified due to setting or topic, you also get abominations like The Bee Movie, an animated film about honey bees who are mostly guys! although that’s not realistic. It’s bees, goddammit! In real life, male bees are basically sex slaves … and don’t make good protagonists for kids’ movies. The film is proof of how reluctant some people in Hollywood truly are to have female protagonists.

I can understand why the Bechdel Test has become popular with bloggers and vloggers. The online Social Justice community has really been building a culture of quick, definite answers. They are seldomly interested in nuanced discussions that take different view points into account, that go “on the one hand … on the other hand” and reach interesting, unexpected and thought-provoking conclusions. Instead, you find a lot of superficial, brief analyses that dramatically declare a whole story, or genre, or medium to be completely awesome or completely horrible, with no nuances allowed, apparently with nothing more complex to say regarding gender than “yes” or “no”. I don’t quite see the appeal of this, but I do understand that it is a lot easier than actually thinking about a story.

So of course the Bechdel Test is popular with them. It requires only a very superficial analysis. A monkey could do it! But the problem is that it does not mean as much as people think it means. Passing the test does not mean “feminist”. Not passing it does not mean “unfeminist”. There will never be a single, brief checklist to determine that sort of thing. People who put so much stock in the Bechdel Test probably also believe that there are “good tropes” that you put into your story and bam! it’s a feminist/anti-racist masterpiece of great writing, and “bad tropes” that instantly doom a story by merely existing, regardless of the overall context.

On the other hand, the people who say the Bechdel Test says nothing at all are also wrong. The kind of people who say movies are “just movies” and videogames are “just games” whenever someone has a negative opinion they do not agree with, whine whine. The Bechdel Test does say something, but it’s a rather specific thing that’s mostly interesting as a statistic to illustrate a larger point. As a tool to talk about the worth or quality of an individual movie (or book or videogame etc.) it’s really mostly useless, especially all on its lonesome. It does make a decent starting point for a proper in-depth discussion. That’s true for many things the Social Justice community considers to be conclusions.


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