The Bechdel-Wallace Test
I’ve been tagging my reviews with my judgement of their performance on the Bechdel test. A friend of mine suggested I should add an explanation of what it is for those who don’t know. There’s also a video if that helps.
The Bechdel test is, on its face, a simple three-point rule. To pass, a movie must
- have at least two women in it
- who talk to each other
- about something besides a man.
In practice, there’s some flexibility in how these judgements are made. Personally, I discount minor characters. Even Jacob Moore’s female colleagues are just barely in the range of where I’d count them as “women in the movie”; if I can’t remember their names after their scenes, they probably weren’t important enough to count. And “woman” can be given some latitude in interpretation; EVE in WALL-E is not technically a woman, but she is clearly a female character. Talking to each other has to be an actual conversation; if the two women bump into each other coincidentally and one asks the other the time, that doesn’t count. And the conversation has to not be about a man in subtext either; if romantic rivals for the leading man fight over a cab as a outward expression of their competition over the guy, it’s still about him.
I should also say some things about what the Bechdel test is not. It isn’t intended to judge the quality of a movie; Sex and the City passes despite being abysmal, while Twelve Angry Men fails on the first point despite being excellent. It also isn’t intended to judge whether a movie “is sexist” or “isn’t sexist”. You Again passes the test, but it doesn’t really paint any of its female characters in a very flattering light. Besides, discussing whether or not a given movie “is sexist” is as misguided as discussing whether or not a given person is. The systemic patterns are far more important than any given movie’s particulars, though this is not to deny that movies can be prima facie objectionable on grounds of sexism.
What the Bechdel test tries to indicate is the active presence of well-rounded female characters. While Twelve Angry Men is an excellent movie, it doesn’t have any female characters at all, let alone active, well-rounded ones. In and of itself, this does not make or break the movie — some stories can be told without their presence — but looking broadly across all movies a much bleaker picture emerges. And if including this tag in my reviews can help people pay attention to this picture, so much the better.
Update:[2015-08-25] In a recent interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Bechdel herself gives credit to her friend Liz Wallace, and says she’d be happy if it were referred to as the “Bechdel-Wallace” test. So, okay. I may not get to editing the hundreds of posts I’ve made so far, but going forward that’s how it’ll be.