(Originally published in The California Aggie)
The Bechdel Test goes something like this: In a given movie, 1. Are there at least two female characters? 2. Do they talk to each other? and 3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?
Think back to some of your favorite movies. Chances are, they fail the Bechdel Test miserably.
Inspired by a comic strip by Alison Bechdel called “Dykes to Watch Out For,” the test is a fascinating exercise in gender stereotypes in the media. According to the Bechdel Test’s website, out of 2,101 movies in its database, only 50 percent meet all three criteria. 12 percent meet two criteria, 26 percent meet one and 12 percent pass none of the tests.
To illustrate how the test relates to actual films, let’s take one of the most popular movies of 2010: Inception. Yes, there are two female characters – Ariadne (the architect) and Mal. Do they talk to each other? Yes, in fact, when Ariadne follows Cobb into his dream to visit Mal. Finally, do they talk about something other than a man? Well … no. It’s a brief exchange, but it definitely revolves around Mal and Cobb being lovers and Mal accusing Ariadne of not understanding their need to be together.
You get the idea. A 50 percent success rate doesn’t sound too bad, but the criteria are ridiculously simple. The movie doesn’t need to be about women or deal with female-oriented issues – there just have to be women present, who talk to each other about something, anything, other than men. If Inception, which challenged conventions and dazzled the imagination more than any other film in years, couldn’t pass, chances of more traditional, “regular” narratives succeeding are disappointingly slim.
Try and figure out why the film industry still perpetuates gender stereotypes so blatantly and you’ll probably come up empty-handed. It’s simply a result of deeply entrenched social and cultural traditions thousands of years in the making, and in the grand scheme of all the visual arts, film, which is just approaching its 100th birthday, is still a baby. Complete gender equality is even farther behind. It may take another 100 years for 60 or 70 percent of films to start passing the Bechdel test.
But that’s no reason to shrug our shoulders and accept it as something we can’t change. Most of us will never have the opportunity to write or produce our own gender-equal films, so all we can do is support those who do. Instead of seeing the 500th James Bond flick next summer, check out that indie drama that tells a Bechdel-approved story.
One step in the right direction took place last week right here in Davis at the sixth annual Davis Feminist Film Festival. A sold-out crowd enjoyed dozens of films made by women or featuring strong female characters, ranging from documentaries to animated shorts and even music videos. It was a great night of film, not because the movies were free of men, but because, for once, they weren’t free of women.