EVAN: So I came across a little something called the “Bechdel Test” through an article on racebending.com. It’s a test that’s supposed to rate how well a film does in terms of portraying women. That’s a rough description, anyway.
GORDON: I’ve heard of it in film criticism. It essentially asserts that for a film to have “real” female characters, it must have a scene in which (1) two women (2) talk to each other (3) about something other than a man. Sounds simple enough, but you’d be blown away by how many movies fail it…
EVAN: And the thing is, some of these movies happen to have perfectly good “strong female characters.” The site bechdeltest.com lists films that do or don’t make the cut, and in the comments section many a person states “but this female character was such and such…”
Although conversation between the two named women was minimal, the character of the main woman was well developed with no sexual stereotyping or weaknesses. I think it passes the Bechdel test in spirit, if not in actual letter.
GORDON: See man, as much as I’d consider myself a feminist, I really don’t like the Bechdel Test and some of the assumptions it seems to make. A lot of it just really doesn’t pan out- I’m looking at the list they’ve got here, and it’s seriously twisted.
Check it out- Sex and the City 2- easily some of the most misogynistic and racist crap out there gets a free pass, and movies like The Rum Diary or Rise of the Planet of the Apes– which have way better portrayals of women- are failed…
EVAN: I mean, it’s easy to see why their criteria was picked- having the women named is extremely important, as it’s a pretty solid way of ensuring that they’re actual character and not just waitresses or other extras. Also having them talk about something other than a man. That’s pretty important stuff, I think, in maintaining that they’re not just female verbal support for the male lead.
Where it really falls apart is the second part of the test: the need for the female character to have to talk to each other-
GORDON: I don’t think you’re being quite hard enough here, dude- this is a bad test. Look at it this way-
The first criteria is that there be two women, which is dumb because it assumes that a woman’s identity is based on how she relates/matches up with/differs/etc. with other women. Totally disregards her qualities (or failings) as an individual, y’know? The second criteria is, like you say, that they have to interact which each other, which again doesn’t make much sense (see previous point). And the third point, while decent, also kinda falls apart- if two men talk to each other about nothing but women, are they not real male characters? Kinda throws relationship movies out of the window.
…Point is, the test sorta shows you when a movie drops the ball on female characters, but a “passing grade” doesn’t really mean much of anything.
EVAN: I agree with you completely. Part of the reason I’m a little less harsh is thinking about how to construct/write a single test which judges a film on something as deceptively simple as the “active presence of female character,” as Feminist Frequency would put it.
GORDON: Well, what makes a female character a female character?
EVAN: Well, I took Human Sexuality my senior year of college, so I can think of a few key specifics-
GORDON: Touché, sir, touché. But what of transexuals? Do they get a Bechdel Test?
EVAN: I’m sure there’s some kind of LGBTQ equivalent out there somewhere-
GORDON: So in that case, how would you rate the presence of an active female character?
EVAN: That is a fantastic question.
GORDON: I know.
EVAN: I mean, it’s obvious that the female character would have to, y’know, have a fair amount of screen time. And it would help if they had a name. But apart from that, it is tricky…
You could say if she didn’t fall into classic female stereotypes, but being caring and nurturing is one such stereotype, and no one would say that that’s a negative thing. In fact, would a woman who only talked about her children fail the Bechdel Test “in spirit”?
GORDON: I think you’re on to something, only the word you’re looking for isn’t so much “stereotype” as it is “caricature.”
That’s got to be the key separation- a female character is one with relevant and sympathetic dreams, actions, aspirations, and the like. A female caricature is two-dimensional- a prop, if you will. You could probably apply the same logic to race, or any subgroup…
EVAN: So a caricature is exaggerated for the effect of comedy, right? So right off the bat it should seem obvious when this happens. It’s like- are the gay couple on Modern Family, Mitchell and Cameron, caricatures of homosexuals? And what does it take to not be that?
For instance, Cam is extremely into theater and is definitely a dramatic person. At the same time, though, he played football in college and is adept at using tools around the house…
GORDON: I’ve never seen the show, so you’d have to be the judge, but from what you’re saying, it sounds more like a couple jabs at stereotypically gay things, rather than a completely stereotyped character.
I’d disagree with you, though, about it being exaggerated for the purposes of comedy. You’ve got your “blonde girl who will be macheted in her underwear” caricature, but that’s not meant for comedic effect. Same goes for the sweet grandmother, gossipy neighbor, or anything else. What distinguishes these roles from an actual character is that they’re not really “real.” And I’m not saying that they have to be people you could see yourself meeting on the street- I’m talking about verisimilitude here, man.
EVAN: But stereotypes are definitely based in real life, I mean, that’s sort of how they come about. So a sweet grandmother can be [and is] an actual character you, and anyone out there, actually know.
GORDON: Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to assert that every woman who walks on or off screen has to have rich back-story, funky little quirks, dreams or flaws that make us human… but when every woman shown is just a set piece, or when the only woman you show is a stereotype, you know you’ve got a problem
EVAN: If we’re talking a movie like Crank 2 [which is utter filth, by the way] where basically every woman is a sex-driven fiend, then yeah, that is definitely a problem.
GORDON: No doubt-
EVAN: It’s just hard to nail down what’s an improvement from that [i.e. everything else] and what makes anything better actually good.
And with that we are wrapping this up, because we’ve hit our forty-five minute mark. Tune in next time, when we are discussing. . . Gordon, what’re we talking about?
GORDON: Hipster Racism: Is a joke that’s funny because it’s terrible and racist really just terrible and racist?
EVAN: Uh, yes. That. We will be talking about that.