It has become common these days to Bechdel Test a movie. “Bechdel Test” is a rule which originated out of this comic strip in 1985, that mentions 3 simple things a movie must have to pass the test.
Two female characters (preferably named),
Who talk to each other,
About something other than a man.
The first time I got to know about this rule, it was a revelation. Most movies I watched did not pass the test. I would run it in my head every time I was reminded of a film, and it would not pass the test.
While the Bechdel Test is a very important observation, it does not serve as an indication for gender equality in cinema. Here’s why.
Not all cinema requires more than one female character, to be feminist
The Silence of the Lambs, made in 1991, had a strong female lead in a profession which is filled with men. In this thriller, the main lead was strong, committed and very brave – most of these characteristics are popularly (especially in cinema) not associated with women. However, the movie did not pass the Bechdel Test.
Sometimes, films are made in a way that they represent the reality on ground. Sometimes films are made with a strict script in mind. For instance, I watched a movie called Tape recently, which had just 3 characters – two men and a woman. The movie embarked of a long discussion around consent and rape. However, this movie also does not pass the Bechdel Test. Similarly Gravity, which has just one character (a woman) for a large part of the movie does not pass the test!
Sometimes, films are made with an extrapolated reality in mind. The 2003 Indian film, Matrubhoomi comes to my mind. This film is set in a bleak Indian future where the number of women have further dwindled due infanticide & foeticide. The lead character (a woman), is married off (sold off) to five men in a family. Since there are no other women, many men of the village seek her for sexual release. This movie has one female character and does not pass the Bechdel Test. However, it is a very important film and deals with potential societal consequences of female infanticide and foeticide. It is a powerful film on women’s issues.
So, several movies which are watchable from the feminist lens do not necessarily pass the Bechdel Test. This could be because society in itself does not necessarily see equal participation of women owing to our patriarchal systems. So, when a movie wants to reflect on this reality, it will fail the Bechdel scanner.
Any sexist movie could pass the Bechdel Test
All it takes for a movie to pass the Bechdel Test is two women talking about shopping. This is the exact reason Legally Blonde passed the test – where two women are talking about manicure. Similarly, as mentioned in this article, Frozen passed the test, but still sticks to its stereotypical representation of girls being slim and doe-eyed. Several other Disney films, (which have done their bit to endorse racial and gender stereotypes) also pass the Bechdel Test.
You can hypersexualise female characters and still pass the test. In fact I recently learned from Quora, that Piranha 3DD, with the poster of the side passed the Bechdel Test!
The reality is that we need more films where women drive the plot. They are not necessarily side characters who are around for visual appeal. They need to be protagonists, antagonists and do more than just add to stereotypes. Their roles and actions need to matter more. However, this is not required by the Bechdel Test.
The Bechdel Test does not include other genders
While women themselves are not represented enough in cinema, there are those with other gender identities who do not see a mention in the Bechdel Test. They are underrepresented and face stereotyping in popular media. Also, in general, we need to see more diversity and inclusivity in cinema. We need people of all races, classes and skin colour represented equally in cinema. We also need LGBTQIA characters. And we also need more disabled people represented in media. However, the Bechdel Test does not dwell on these aspects.
Finally, the point of the Bechdel Test is not passing, but to be taken as an important observation. The comic brought attention to the fact that representation of female characters were significantly low in cinema and if anything they just added to the actions of the male characters that were driving the plot. It spoke about how women in film, themselves had nothing to say apart from talk about the men in their lives. It brought about a series of discussions on gender representation in cinema. However, it was not intended to be a diagnostic tool.
It just focuses on the number of female characters, but does not dwell on the their personalities or the quality of their conversations. Sometime in future, we want filmmakers to see the diversity of the world they live in and show that on-screen. At that point, all films will pass the Bechdel Test.