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Bechdel—When Tests Fail


Most of the different forms of media published online serve the primary purpose of entertaining the audience. However, the critical analysis of every movie, book, or even an advertisement discloses one glaring truth—there has been an apparent ideological shift in society. Every publication, digital and physical, is thoroughly dissected and gauged by different parameters. One such parameter that has been gaining attention is the portrayal of women in fictional works. One of the most well-known tests to analyse this is the Bechdel test. First featured in a comic strip curated by Alison Bechdel in 1985 as part of a discussion between two women, the test has been gaining traction over the last few decades. To clear the test, the work of fiction must satisfy the following conditions:

  1. It should have at least two named female characters.
  2. These characters should have a conversation with each other.
  3. The conversation should be about something besides a man (male subject).

Alison Bechdel’s “The Rule”

One might feel that the bar has been set too low and yet, many movies originating from film industries, both in India and elsewhere, fail to check all the boxes. It is, however, extremely disconcerting to realise that the Bechdel Test is the primary, and often only, authority to analyse female representation in these sources of media. Although the test aims for a healthy women participation in various forms of media, it paints a different picture altogether. The need for such a test is to depict women characters who are not in the shadow of their male counterparts or their subsidiaries.

Notwithstanding the right motive of the test, it lacks planning. In fact, Alison Bechdel, the creator of the test herself, has gone on record in an interview with the Vulture Magazine saying “It’s (the test) not conclusive or definitive. It’s not meant as a serious metric. You can certainly have a feminist movie where there’s only one woman — or no women”. “I’m not a stickler about the Test — if I were, I wouldn’t see many movies,” she said in another interview.

Firstly, the Bechdel test makes a quantitative assessment instead of a qualitative one. Instead of assigning importance to numbers, the test should be shedding light on the nature of casting female characters. Female or male representation in a work of fiction should be decided on the basis of the person’s significance to the plot. Producing a movie with a large female cast without making them an integral part of the plot might cause the film to pass the Bechdel test, but with very little importance being given to the qualitative aspect of female representation. The Bechdel test lacks the power to make a substantial analysis here.

Another problematic area of the test lies in the third rule, that covers a strikingly broad horizon of male subjects. Since there are no clear boundaries for a male subject, the rule’s application is not very clearly defined. While the intention of this condition might have been to put an end to reducing women to only love interests (or talking solely about their love interests) on screen, it fails to do so. The rule needs more specificty in order for it be better applied.

Data-driven analysis by a team at Duke University

On another note, the test could also be seen as borderline sexist when it requires only other women around a female character to portray women participation. One should encourage women to share scenes with any character irrespective of their gender. Female empowerment would be better represented by giving women commanding roles in movies and not just adding them to the work of fiction for the numbers. For example, the movie Alien 3 features a strong female lead who proves her mettle against formidable odds, yet fails the test due to it having one female character. Movies that portray women less favourably, however, manage to pass the test, like in the case of The Twilight Saga and The Notebook, which feature women longing for a man in their life.

Having said all that, the Bechdel test has another fairly obvious problem. It casually ignores backstage participation of women in media. Only on-screen representation is touted and considered. An equal or, at times, an even greater amount of workforce is involved off-screen in producing a work of fiction. Only if the industry houses a better number of women writers and directors will a significant chunk of the problem associated with healthy female participation be resolved. The creators of the work have a huge platform at their hands to address the right issues. Besides, they have the sole authority and power of judgment about how a piece of media will be depicted on screen. If such power and responsibility are at stake, it is necessary that female voice should have an equal footing.

It is an incontestable fact that women empowerment is currently amongst one of the most discussed issues across numerous industries. While recent times have witnessed a big window of equal opportunities for both genders in many fields, media and other forms of recreation can be credited for this development. This is because the content one consumes largely impacts one’s mentality and social culture. These forms are not only commercial, entertaining entities but even become great tools to model one’s opinions and thoughts. It is hence necessary that one updates this powerful tool. Analyses like the Bechdel Test should be scrutinised to the core. Female participation, as a whole, needs to be seen through a more realistic and progressive lens.

The present form of the Bechdel Test needs alteration in a more logical manner. Men and women from various industries must hold forums of discussion to question the present version of it. Ratings of a more coherent and sensitive testing format should be made publicly available to spread awareness and encourage critical thinking. Works of fiction which depict women on an equal pedestal with their male counterparts should be acknowledged and appreciated. Such acclaims would put the pieces in the desired limelight of the audience. If changes like these are orchestrated well in the creative industry, it will not only curb the existing gender bias but also develop more aware viewership in the audience. A new sense of judgement will prevail for different forms of media across the globe with the improvements in the Bechdel Test.

Featured image: FEM

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