The Bechdel test originated from a comic strip back in 1985, written by Alison Bechdel. One character explains that she will only watch a movie if it meets these criteria:
- There are at least two named women in it.
- Who talk to each other…
- about something other than a man.
Over time, some people have taken the Bechdel test to mean far more than it does. Sweden includes the results of the Bechdel test along with a movie’s rating. Just mentioning the Bechdel test is one of the best ways to start an argument on the internet.
Movies that fail it are labeled misogynistic. Movies that pass it are labeled feminist and empowering.
Neither label is necessarily true.
Saving Private Ryan is generally considered a fantastic movie. And it bombs the Bechdel test. Only one female character and we’re not even completely sure what her name is. Since there’s only one women, she certainly doesn’t talk to another woman about anything.
So, does that make it misogynistic? Not at all. It’s a WWII movie set in Europe. Where would female characters have gone in this movie? They certainly couldn’t have added a sassy redhead in a combat helmet tagging along after Tom Hanks, not if they wanted to maintain even a vestige of realism. I suppose they could have added a couple army nurses, but would that have added to the story? No, not at all.
On the other hand, we have Grease, which does pass the test. The message from Grease: to get her man, Sandy had to completely change who she was in order to please him. She even sings a sad song saying goodbye to herself. Is this an empowering feminist movie? No. It’s entertaining and it does have things to say about the role of women in the world, but, no, not an empowering movie (though one could argue that she throws off the bonds of female-oppressive societal expectations and embraces her womanhood, but I think you’re reaching on that one).
Then there’s Backdraft, an outstanding 1991 Ron Howard film about firefighters. I can’t find an analysis of whether it passes or not, but I’m going to guess “no” because the female characters in the movie consist of some guy’s girlfriend, some guy’s wife, and some guy’s daughter. And, really, they shouldn’t have wasted their time giving these characters names, because that’s all they were. Girlfriend, wife, daughter – they were defined entirely by their relationship to one of the actual characters in the movie – the men. Unlike Saving Private Ryan, Backdraft had plenty of opportunities for better roles for woman. There could have been a woman serving as a firefighter. There were juicy civilian”characters that could have been cast as a woman. So, the Bechdel test reveals that Backdraft could have done better.
Let me create a hypothetical movie about the only female crew member on a long distance space craft. She’s tough, smart, and confident and saves the ship and her crewmates from space pirates. Or she uses her knowledge to fix the ship before it falls into the sun. Or she uses her diplomacy to negotiate with an alien race. Or…
…bottom line, this movie would be about a strong female character. It would be empowering. And it would fail the Bechdel test.
And if I rewrote the movie to make that same character just a girlfriend of the male lead and then decide to add someone’s daughters and the two of them have a conversation about shoes? That would pass the test.
So, what’s the use of the Bechdel test? To me, its main use is to start a conversation. It’s not an analysis of quality or feminist themes or even whether women are empowered in the film, it’s a way to discuss the way women are protrayed in movies.