The Bechdel Test
By Kevin Cook
“All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. … And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. … They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that” – “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf
It is patently obvious, in going through the history of cinema, that men and male roles have dominated the silver screen. Woolf’s quote, particularly “and how small a part,” strikes at the heart of an underlying, misogynistic impulse in fiction, and especially film, that itself reflects certain backward attitudes about women.
Dictionary.com defines misogynistic as “reflecting or exhibiting hatred, dislike, mistrust, or mistreatment of women.” In the case of women in film, the “reflecting” portion speaks to film’s tendency to mirror certain, prevalent cultural attitudes and mores whether right or wrong, and “mistreatment” is really the issue at heart.
In her landmark lesbian-centered comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” Alison Bechdel addresses the mistreatment of women Woolf described, especially in a 1985 strip entitled “The Rule.” In it, one of the female characters outlines three criteria she must have met before she will endorse or watch a film. As they have come to be applied to the analysis of cinema, the three rules basically are:
- the film/show must have two or more named female characters
- who have a conversation
- about something other than a man.
The criteria at first seem strange, but as writer Charlie Stross and film director Jason Reitman pointed out, an astoundingly small proportion of films actually pass all three pieces of the test.
The significance of the test is deceptively simple to grasp: In film, women have for the most part been treated as secondary characters — satellites of the men — whose ambitions, hopes and fears drive the narratives. The effect is twofold.
First, the way that our culture chooses to portray women in media is reflective of the mean perspectives and attitudes of the culture. Second, simply by adhering to the backward women-as-backup-characters, we as a culture endorse that attitude through our media. Neda Ulaby, an NPR reporter in the arts, cultural tends and digital media, said, “It articulates something often missing in popular culture: not the number of women we see on screen, but the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns.”
The sad truth is that the plurality — if not outright majority — of films made in any given year fail to live up to the relatively modest standards of the so-called “Bechdel Test.”
They would suggest, through only portraying women as relevant to narrative and action within their relationship to men, that women in actuality are as they are so often depicted: primarily and almost exclusively concerned with men or a man with little other motivation or drive.
So, in celebration of the Bechdel Test and the rule-of-thumb quality assessment it provides at a glance of a movie or television show’s efforts to craft believable, real, relatable women characters, The Daily Cougar presents a quirky, heartfelt film that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors: Netflix Watch Instantly gem, “Lars and the Real Girl.”