The Bechdel Test
Does a film contain
- two named females
- who talk to each other
- about something other than a man?
This seemingly low bar for female inclusion fails for a surprisingly high fraction of media. Even some excellent films, like The Godfather, fail it.
(You could argue that female exclusion is a theme of The Godfather, but still wouldn’t it have been interesting to view some of the wives’ and daughters’ thoughts to each other about the boys’ mobster behaviour? This isn’t asking for the movie to be about women, just to feature their speech.)
The Bechdel test is interesting mathematically because it is a global non-local test. Not every movie needs to pass for “things to be good” but if too many movies fail then things are not good.
You could also view the Bechdel test as a vague or smudged boundary condition. Like in sensitivity analysis (in linear programming) where you nudge the boundary planes with a slack vector to see how the system responds. We could perturb the definition of the test, and as we change the criteria or interpretation more or fewer movies will pass. But the test makes its point whether we interpret it loosely or stringently, so we could consider it a suite of boundaries rather than a single, crisp boundary.
Pretend making a shape impossible is a crime. http://t.co/SdvzLyQLOb Which corner is guilty?
— isomorphismes (@isomorphisms)
July 22, 2013
Individual playwrights can write whatever they want. Blue Lagoon with two boys? Be my guest. An all-white cast in a story set in rural Sweden circa 1320? Makes sense. Nju Bao (in 炮打双灯) isolated without female counsel in a man’s world? Appropriate. But when the Bechdel test fails en masse something insidious is going on. Which focus group told film investors that audiences hate seeing women talk to each other? Who went through all the scripts and changed all the female names to male ones? I’m guessing no-one.
Sexism, racism, and so on are often discussed on a case-by-case basis. Was this or that action sexist|racist|etc on its own? But not every property can be observed at a zoomed-in level. Some properties are only visible at a systemic or macro level.
As a side note, the frequent failure of the Bechdel test also argues, via modus tollens, against a certain kind of “markets will fix things” logic. I would think that economic forces would incent film producers away from being so exclusionary. Aren’t Hollywood executives leaving massive amounts of money on the table by working so assiduously to make sure women are only faces, bodies, and tropes? But yet, count the number of movies that fail this basic inclusivity test. Even though movies are a $X billion industry (therefore locking in a few percent of audience is worth a lot in absolute terms and ∴ worth the time to look at), they still frequently exclude minority perspectives.
Here are some stories that fail the Bechdel test:
- Red Firecracker Green Firecracker (炮打双灯)
- The Graduate
- King of California
- The Last Emperor
- The Godfather
- The Quiet American [fails for women and for Vietnamese]
- The Wrestler
- Dr Strangelove
and here are some that pass the Bechdel test:
- Star Wars: Clone Wars (both)
- A Streetcar Named Desire
- Kill Bill