Recently a group of cinemas in Sweden decided to institute a ratings system based on the Bechdel test. As moviegoers enter one of these cinemas, they would see a rating by each advertised movie, telling them whether or not the movie had passed the test. Controversy ensued, with the Telegraph calling the test “damaging to the way we think about film” and the Guardian almost immediately rebutting by saying it was “a provocation that works”. Both sides of the argument have some merit to them, but it’s clear that the Bechdel test now has enough cultural clout to propel a more in-depth discussion on feminism and gender in the film industry. The test has long been held up as a measure of how feminist a movie is, but does it really fulfill this purpose? Or is it time for this test to make way for newer tests like Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Sexy Lamp test or the Mako Mori test?
We’ve mentioned the Bechdel test here a few times in passing, most recently in our post on the proposed Mako Mori test. As a bit of a reminder, the Bechdel test is passed when a movie has 1) two named women who 2) talk to each other about 3) anything other than a man. Those are some pretty low standards, and if I may quote our own Mako Mori article, “just any conversation between two women doesn’t automatically make the whole movie a paradigm of feminist success”. What I mean is, under these rules, a movie could pass Bechdel if two women said “Hi, how’s it going?” to each other in the office. Case in point: looking at our favorite geeky movies, Star Trek (2009) passes, although the conversation between Uhura and Gaila is incredibly brief and happens while Uhura is undressing and Kirk is creeping on her from beneath Gaila’s bed. X-Men: First Class passes by dint of Raven and Angel exchanging a couple lines. Twilight passes, even though Twilight’s thesis seems to be “how can I kick female agency back to where it was when Edward was born?”
On the other hand, some movies do pass Bechdel in both spirit and letter. The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which are led by the lovely lady Katniss Everdeen, pass easily. Thor and Thor 2: The Dark World, which are led by the eponymous Thor, also pass. Katniss has conversations with her mother and her sister, as well as some of the female contestants, and she’s not talking about Peeta while she’s doing it. Jane and Darcy of the Thor franchise are scientist and intern, respectively, and have conversations about their work.
Still, if movies like Twilight can technically pass Bechdel, I don’t think the test is quite the measure of feminism that people would like it to be. What the Bechdel test does do is highlight a problematic trend in media—in a lot of movies, women simply don’t exist. If they do exist, they are only there to talk about the men. In this day and age, that’s beyond unfair, but I hope you don’t need me to tell you that.
Just because a movie has a male protagonist, it doesn’t mean that there have to be no women, or only one woman, in the movie’s universe. Thor and Thor 2: The Dark World, which are led by a man, give agency to its female characters by giving them lives and interests outside of Thor and his problems. The same is true of the reverse: The Hunger Games, which, again, is led by a lady, includes Haymitch and Plutarch and Peeta all having conversations that don’t have anything to do with Katniss. This is because they 1) all have their own motivations and 2) are not all out for a romance, whether with Katniss or otherwise.
What makes a well-drawn female character is the same as what makes a well-drawn male character: motivations, strengths, weaknesses. A female character should have agency—in other words, she needs to have the ability to act of her own free will, not because she’s forced to or because she’s putting someone else’s needs above her own, as in the case of most action movies where the woman is the romantic interest and no more. And a film doesn’t even have to pass Bechdel to give its women agency: neither Pacific Rim nor The Avengers pass the Bechdel test, but they have female characters with real agency in Mako Mori (Pacific Rim), Natasha Romanoff, Pepper Potts, and Maria Hill (Avengers). These movies may have just one female character, or three female characters who don’t speak to each other, yet each woman is incredibly well-written and, most importantly, is allowed to be human. Surely that deserves some praise as well.
It may be difficult to change the film industry from the outside in (it seems like screenwriters are actively taught not to pass Bechdel, for reasons that have less to do with writing women than the fact that some asshole producers don’t think audiences are interested in hearing about women), but it’s at least possible to change our criticism of the film industry to something more productive. The Bechdel test does a good job pointing out the inherent misogyny in the film industry, but its criteria, in and of themselves, are not an accurate measure of how feminist a movie is.
So let’s look at our alternative tests. We’ve already written about the Mako Mori test, which, to recap, was brought up as an alternative to Bechdel when people wanted to applaud Pacific Rim for the character of Mako, even though the movie did not pass Bechdel. To quote Tumblr user chaila, who first proposed it:
The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.
And the beautifully named Sexy Lamp test, as proposed by comics author Kelly Sue DeConnick of Captain Marvel fame:
[I]f you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft. [The women] have to be protagonists, not devices.
The Bechdel test is, very simply, a test that indicates whether women are present in a movie—it is not a test that indicates how feminist or not sexist a movie is. Both the Mako Mori and Sexy Lamp tests, however, are directly measuring how much agency a woman has and how much of an impact she has on the plotline. Mako was integral to closing the Rift, and Natasha led Avengers by recruiting Bruce, manipulating Loki, getting Clint Barton back to himself, oh, and also by defeating a bunch of Russian mobsters. Both women had character arcs which were not about supporting a man’s story, and neither of them could have been replaced by a Sexy Lamp. Meanwhile, Twilight’s Bella could definitely have been replaced by a Sexy Lamp, and she had a character arc, in the loosest of terms, that was all about Edward.
As long as we’re talking agency, we only have to look at TV to see where movies could go. Orphan Black is led by a host of female clones, all of whom have their own motivations, strengths, and weaknesses, and Sleepy Hollow is led by a man and a woman—and surprisingly enough, there are other important female characters in the forms of Abbie’s sister, Ichabod’s wife, and Irving’s daughter. Both shows place women in plot-relevant positions where they are leading, or co-leading, the show. They are not there to support the men.
Compare this to shows like Sherlock, which stars men as the protagonists, antagonists, and most supporting characters, or Supernatural, which showcases the relationship between two brothers and their male-bodied angel friend, and the lesson becomes clearer. There should be at least one female character in a movie who is integral to the plot, and once you’ve done that, there should be another female character who is also integral to the plot. And another. And another.
Whatever new test we come up with, it should measure agency, rather than something which is not inherently indicative of agency (ie, subjects of conversation). But why stop at the Mako Mori test or the Sexy Lamp test, both of which only concern one woman’s story? Why don’t we go full-tilt and say that a new test should demand 1) at least two female characters, each with 2) their own character arcs which 3) don’t revolve around men? If we’re feeling particularly up to it, we could even add 4) female character interacts with a named female colleague or family member.
Of course, if screenwriters and media content creators would just put more care into writing well-rounded female characters instead of making a token attempt at a one-dimensional female character, we wouldn’t need this conversation. But until then, a new test will help us figure out which movies we should be really be celebrating, and which movies should fall by the wayside.
Then let’s stick those grades on all the cinemas.