Women talking to Women in the Media: The Bechdel Test

August 7, 2016 Written By Rohini Banerjee

Representation of women in the media is a key feminist issue. The erasure of women from the media and pop culture, the complete silencing of the female voice and perspective, has had long standing and drastic implications for women globally.Simply put, representation refers to the act of seeing yourself and your identity reflected back at you. It includes the need to identify with a character, fictional or real, to idolize them, to follow their example or mold one’s life choices around the perceived qualities of one’s favorite characters. Representation can refer to something as small as seeing someone who looks and behaves like you while having larger implications such as having your gender, race or your belief system validated.

The Bechdel test, named after noted American graphic artist, Allison Bechdel, is a short test that is used to expose gender inequality in cinema and to assert that women are poorly represented in films due to rampant sexism.The test is a simplified way of measuring the active presence of female characters in films and to gauge how fully developed those roles are. It was introduced in Allison Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, where an unnamed female character says that she only goes to a movie if it satisfies the following requirements :

1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,

2. who talk to each other,

3. about something besides a man.

bechdel-test-rohini-banerjee

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While the original comic strip only includes these rules, other adjustments are sometimes made to the test to make it more a more rigorous test of female portrayal in a narrative, such as specifying that more than two named female characters talk about something other than a man for more than 60 seconds.The idea behind the test was to demand a more detail-oriented development of female characters that are present in the piece for more than their token representation. Women are too often reduced to being narrative tools to develop the storyline of the male lead(s) and are commonly cast in supporting roles, having a minimal impact or relevance to the story beyond their love lives. The Bechdel Test was made to exemplify how movies cannot even include two women talking to one another, let alone two women talking, sleeping, loving, and so on, together. It is supposed to exemplify how everything revolves around men and their urges, desires, and actions and fails to see women as complex, independent, rounded individuals.  It exposes, how, the majority of mainstream media created today, for whatever reason, seems to think women aren't worth portraying except in relation to men.

Allison Bechdel traces the inspiration for the idea back to Virginia Woolf in her popular work, A Room of One’s Own. "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"

bechdel-test-rohini-banerjee

Image Source

The test is, as many tests are, not foolproof, and has faced a lot of criticism. The requirements often don’t take it into account when the male characters and the women talk about are their fathers, sons, brothers, platonic friends, mortal enemies, patients they're trying to save or murderers they're trying to catch, rather than romantic partners. Conversely, if a work seems to pass, it doesn't matter if male characters are present when the female characters talk, nor does it matter if the women are still represented on stereotypical lines as long as they aren’t actually discussing men. This is because the Bechdel Test is not meant to give a scorecard of a work's overall level of feminism. It is entirely possible for a film to pass without having overt feminist themes.In fact, the original example of a movie that passes is Alien, which, while it has feminist subtexts, is mostly just a sci-fi/action/horror flick. A movie can easily pass the Bechdel Test and still be incredibly misogynistic.Conversely, it's also possible for a story to fail the test and still be strongly feminist in other ways (Mulan; Pacific Rim). There's nothing necessarily wrong with a feminist film failing the Bechdel Test. What's a problem is that it becomes a pattern when so many movies fail the test, while very few portray male characters in relation to women, that it says uncomfortable things about the way cinema handles gender. The Bechdel Test does not make or break a film alone. There are plenty of fantastic movies that fail it and plenty awful ones that pass. But when you’re looking at a film that already has problems with female characters, only has them as under-developed cliches or stereotypical tropes, and on top of that- the film can’t even manage to pass, then it’s worth noting. The whole point of the Bechdel Test is that it sets the bar absurdly low. And in the absence of other redeeming qualities (Like in Mako Mori), it signifies a severe lack of female presence in the film in a measurable way.

bechdel-test-rohini-banerjee

Image Source

Clearing the test does not speak to the merits of a narrative. Having predominantly white or straight or able characters does not demonstrate real representation. Therefore, the test should serve as a good starting point for movie makers to focus on, but they cannot stop there. Portraying women of varying ages, races, body sizes, cultures, and economic classes adds to the depth of fiction. Representing their fears and concerns as being vastly different or painfully similar, but most certainly defined beyond the context of the men in their lives, is unfortunately a revolutionary act in cinema at the present moment, and one that I would like to see more of from directors and script writers.   

 

Women talking to Women in the Media: The Bechdel Test

August 7, 2016 Written By Rohini Banerjee

Representation of women in the media is a key feminist issue. The erasure of women from the media and pop culture, the complete silencing of the female voice and perspective, has had long standing and drastic implications for women globally.Simply put, representation refers to the act of seeing yourself and your identity reflected back at you. It includes the need to identify with a character, fictional or real, to idolize them, to follow their example or mold one’s life choices around the perceived qualities of one’s favorite characters. Representation can refer to something as small as seeing someone who looks and behaves like you while having larger implications such as having your gender, race or your belief system validated.

The Bechdel test, named after noted American graphic artist, Allison Bechdel, is a short test that is used to expose gender inequality in cinema and to assert that women are poorly represented in films due to rampant sexism.The test is a simplified way of measuring the active presence of female characters in films and to gauge how fully developed those roles are. It was introduced in Allison Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, where an unnamed female character says that she only goes to a movie if it satisfies the following requirements :

1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,

2. who talk to each other,

3. about something besides a man.

bechdel-test-rohini-banerjee

Image Source

While the original comic strip only includes these rules, other adjustments are sometimes made to the test to make it more a more rigorous test of female portrayal in a narrative, such as specifying that more than two named female characters talk about something other than a man for more than 60 seconds.The idea behind the test was to demand a more detail-oriented development of female characters that are present in the piece for more than their token representation. Women are too often reduced to being narrative tools to develop the storyline of the male lead(s) and are commonly cast in supporting roles, having a minimal impact or relevance to the story beyond their love lives. The Bechdel Test was made to exemplify how movies cannot even include two women talking to one another, let alone two women talking, sleeping, loving, and so on, together. It is supposed to exemplify how everything revolves around men and their urges, desires, and actions and fails to see women as complex, independent, rounded individuals.  It exposes, how, the majority of mainstream media created today, for whatever reason, seems to think women aren't worth portraying except in relation to men.

Allison Bechdel traces the inspiration for the idea back to Virginia Woolf in her popular work, A Room of One’s Own. "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"

bechdel-test-rohini-banerjee

Image Source

The test is, as many tests are, not foolproof, and has faced a lot of criticism. The requirements often don’t take it into account when the male characters and the women talk about are their fathers, sons, brothers, platonic friends, mortal enemies, patients they're trying to save or murderers they're trying to catch, rather than romantic partners. Conversely, if a work seems to pass, it doesn't matter if male characters are present when the female characters talk, nor does it matter if the women are still represented on stereotypical lines as long as they aren’t actually discussing men. This is because the Bechdel Test is not meant to give a scorecard of a work's overall level of feminism. It is entirely possible for a film to pass without having overt feminist themes.In fact, the original example of a movie that passes is Alien, which, while it has feminist subtexts, is mostly just a sci-fi/action/horror flick. A movie can easily pass the Bechdel Test and still be incredibly misogynistic.Conversely, it's also possible for a story to fail the test and still be strongly feminist in other ways (Mulan; Pacific Rim). There's nothing necessarily wrong with a feminist film failing the Bechdel Test. What's a problem is that it becomes a pattern when so many movies fail the test, while very few portray male characters in relation to women, that it says uncomfortable things about the way cinema handles gender. The Bechdel Test does not make or break a film alone. There are plenty of fantastic movies that fail it and plenty awful ones that pass. But when you’re looking at a film that already has problems with female characters, only has them as under-developed cliches or stereotypical tropes, and on top of that- the film can’t even manage to pass, then it’s worth noting. The whole point of the Bechdel Test is that it sets the bar absurdly low. And in the absence of other redeeming qualities (Like in Mako Mori), it signifies a severe lack of female presence in the film in a measurable way.

bechdel-test-rohini-banerjee

Image Source

Clearing the test does not speak to the merits of a narrative. Having predominantly white or straight or able characters does not demonstrate real representation. Therefore, the test should serve as a good starting point for movie makers to focus on, but they cannot stop there. Portraying women of varying ages, races, body sizes, cultures, and economic classes adds to the depth of fiction. Representing their fears and concerns as being vastly different or painfully similar, but most certainly defined beyond the context of the men in their lives, is unfortunately a revolutionary act in cinema at the present moment, and one that I would like to see more of from directors and script writers.   

 

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