Alison Bechdel just won a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant. She’s already changed the way we talk about film.
By Soraya Nadia McDonald September 17
Alison Bechdel in her studio at the castle of Civitella Ranieri, in central Italy, where she’s doing an artist’s residency. (Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
With one test, cartoonist Alison Bechdel changed the way we think about and discuss film.
In her comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which ran from 1983 to 2008, she offered a basic metric used to illustrate just how male-dominated the film industry actually is.
The test, which Bechdel coined in 1985 in a strip titled “The Rule,” consists of three questions which set a baseline not for gender parity, but for the simple inclusion of women in a film in any meaningful way:
1) Does it have two female characters?
2) Who talk to each other?
3) About something other than a man?
If the answer to all three questions is yes, the film passes the Bechdel test. The concept has made the jump from mostly feminist circles to the mainstream as a bare-bones indicator of women’s roles in film. In April, Walt Hickey of FiveThirtyEight asserted films that pass the Bechdel testmake significantly more money. Last year, just 15 percent of top filmsfeatured women in lead roles and 30 percent of speaking roles. This comes at a time where we like to think the conditions for women in film are evolving — New York Times critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis sayrepresentation is improving, albeit at a glacial pace. “Maleficent” for example, was the only non-super-hero film of the summer to cross the $600 million mark in worldwide revenue. It’s now up to $754 million according to Box Office Mojo. Young stars such as Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley aren’t being pigeon-holed in the romantic comedy trap, but are leading successful franchises. Even “Lucy,” with its premise based in a myth that seems truthy, gives reason for hope when it comes to strong female leads.
When we discuss women in film, it’s almost impossible not to invoke the Bechdel test. Now, Bechdel is one of 21 people awarded a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, colloquially known as a “genius grant.”
Here’s what you may not know about Bechdel:
- This summer, she published a sketchbook about an old fling for a love-themed issue of the New Yorker. It begins: “I once had a lovely affair with someone who was kind, beautiful, smart, interesting, sane, and available. I broke it off after a few weeks.”
- She’s the author of a graphic memoir called “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” which was adapted into a musical, and “Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama.” “Fun Home” was staged at the Public Theater in New York last year. It explores Bechdel’s experience coming out to her father — she learned that her father had had gay relationships of his own — and her father’s suicide a few months later.Slate called it “the first mainstream musical about a young lesbian.”
- She’s doing an artist residency in Umbria, Italy, at a castle called Civitella Ranieri, where she’s been experimenting with a giant roll of white paper — 5 feet by 30 feet, she said. She used it for large, life-size drawings in charcoal.
Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.