Don’t rely on the Bechdel test too much

Scene from the new ghostbusters (okay, the old ghostbusters with four heads stuck on it)
Scene from the new Ghostbusters (honest), yesterday

COMMENT: The Bechdel test is a good guide for female inclusion in stage plays and screen plays. It should not be used as a gold standard for what’s “sexist”.

So, all-female Ghostbusters. That should keep the Twitter trolls on busy on both sides for a while. And since I prefer to keep my opinion posts on this blog combative and controversial, and I’m feeling a bit left out of all this mutual rage, let me begin by saying two things. Number one: I don’t care for the original Ghostbusters. And number two: I don’t care for Bridesmaids or the other films from Paul Feig. Hopefully that’s alienated everybody in the world, and the whole of Twitter can unite in hatred against me. Anyway, given my overwhelming indifference to all of this, I don’t really have an opinion on Ghostbusters Rebooted. I do, however, have views on the under-representation of females parts in screen plays and, to a lesser extent, stage plays. Yes, it is a problem.

Whilst you’re all still riled one way or the other, I’ll drop in my next inflammatory statement. I am strongly of the opinion that is it not the responsibility of writers to provide jobs for actors or balance under-represented demographics. It is their responsibility to write good stories. Sometimes a story will need an all-male cast, sometimes it will need an all-female cast. Most of the time, however, you need to accurately reflect the society we live in, which was about 50:50 male to female the last time I checked. And this is where I think writers are falling short. I suspect a lot of male writers are doing a lazy practice I call “male by default”. That is, every character is created male unless there’s a reason why any need to be female. Maybe some equally lazy female writers are doing “female by default”. But with the script writing profession dominated by men, it’s male by default that’s the problem.

So this is the sort of problem that the “Bechdel Test” is meant to address. Originally mentioned in a comic strip, an unnamed female character says she only watches films that meet three criteria:

  1. It has at least two female characters.
  2. These female characters talk to each other.
  3. When doing so, they talk about something other than men at least once.

Anyway, what start off as an off-the-cuff remark is now all the rage. Bechdel is a household name, even if you don’t know Alison Bechdel who drew the original cartoon. Virtually any play, film, or book will be scrutinised for the Bechdel Test at some point. There’s even a whole website dedicated to dividing all movies into those Bechdel and non-Bechdel compliant. So popular has it become that it’s pretty much treated as the gold standard for gender diversity in films. And that’s where we hit problems. It’s one thing to use it as a rough guide, but another this to use it as a definitive yardstick.

Why the Bechdel test is great

Now, before I piss people off any more, let me say one thing: I like the Bechdel test. The best thing about the Bechdel test is it hits the nail on the head as to what the problem is. Far too often, the sole function of women in films is to be someone’s mother, someone’s sister, someone’s daughter, or – as is most often the case – someone’s love interest. This is sometimes okay – such as the only female character playing the love interest in a two-hander love story – but most of the time it’s just the plain lazy male-by-default mentality I was talking about. If the Bechdel test makes writers think twice before doing this, that is undoubtedly a good thing.

The other great thing about the Bechdel test is it’s not subjective. You can cook up any old piss-poor reason why a film has strong female parts – heck, Robin Thicke claims the women in his Blurred Lines video are powerful women (exercising their choice to go topless, obviously) – but there’s very little wriggle room with Bechdel. Okay, there’s sometimes ambiguity over what qualifies as two women talking to each other, or whether it counts as being about men, but on the whole there’s little grey area: either it passes or it doesn’t. It’s hard to fudge something into a pass or fail.

Why the Bechdel test is not so great

The problem with Bechdel test is, whilst it’s good for an unambigous answer one way or the other, it’s far from a definitive verdict of sexist or not sexist. The big weakness is the test isn’t very stable. It can be very heavily skewed by the genders of the lead characters, especially on television. Plenty of TV series are heavily centred on two or three lead characters, and if you don’t have two or more lead female characters, the opportunities for female-female conversations are far and few between.

To pick an example, let’s switch to the reverse Bechdel test for a moment and consider 2 Broke Girls. (I’m picking this as an example because I don’t want anyone to accuse me of being an apologist for anti-woman casting.) Almost all of the bits I’ve seen involve Max and Caroline talking to each other, or one or both of them talking to a third character. So it’s virtually impossible to have a male-male conversation, let alone one that’s not about women. I’m willing to bet most or all episodes fail the reverse Bechdel test miserably. Does this make 2 Broke Girls sexist again men? Of course not! This is simply a side-effect of a TV series that happens the be heavily centred on two female leads. But the point is it’s sometimes very easy to have no male-male conversations without a sexist intention in sight. In which case, it’s also sometimes very easy to have no female-female conversations without a sexist intention in sight.

Conversely, it’s perfectly possible to pass the Bechdel test and still be horribly horribly misogynistic. I could easily pen a screenplay where the female characters solely exist in the story as conquests for the lads, are invariably depicted as bimbos, and appear naked on screen half the time – but the film still passes the Bechdel test because they have vacuous conversations about make-up and shoes. Okay, that’s an extreme example, but the point is that two women talking to each other about something other than men doesn’t guarantee anything.

The daftest thing of all is the very Bechdel-friendly film cited in the original comic strip,  Aliens – surely there’s no finer example of a film with a strong brave selfless female hero? – is under debate. In the gaps between Ellen Ripley being kick-ass heroic, there’s not that many opportunities for female-female conversations. Had the dialogue been pruned a little more harshly in the edit suite, this could have failed. But why should we care? Aliens should be judged for its ground-breaking female lead, not whether she happened to squeeze in a few words with another woman whilst zapping the baddies.

But that’s not the problem …

So, the Bechdel test has weaknesses. None of that ought to matter. Remember, this test was a quote in a comic strip intended to make people think about gender balance in films, not lay down the law. Provided you only use this as a guide, everything will be fine. And some people, to their credit, acknowledge the limitations when talking about which films do and don’t pass. Sadly, they’re the minority. Most people don’t. The issue of gender balance in films has got so politicised that the Bechdel test has turned into some sort of gold standard. Whenever you see a list of Bechdel-failing films now, it will typically be accompanied by a tirade of how terrible and uninclusive Hollywood is, without any caveats as to the limitations. Pass = empowerment, fail = sexist.

One example of how this has gone too far was this analysis of Doctor Who episodes. This was written whilst there was a row going on over whether Stephen Moffat had made Doctor Who sexist. I must point out I have no problems with the study itself. No test is perfect, a good author will acknowledge the limitations, allow other people to draw their own conclusions, and that’s exactly what author Rebecca Moore did. For what it’s worth, whilst it’s an interesting and informative study, I think there’s too many variables to draw reliable conclusions. As I’ve already mentioned, occurrences of female-female and male-male conversations can be heavily skewed by who the lead characters are. In Russell T Davis’s tenure, there was frequently The Doctor and two female companions in an episode. But as Whovians know, during most of Amy Pond’s tenure, there was also Rory Williams in the Tardis.

Whether this can actually account for the discrepancy in Bechdel figures would require a lot of extra laborious analysis. And most people don’t like laborious analysis. They like to pick out someone else’s research that backs up their own opinions. A-ha! Proof at last! You misogynist bastard Moffat! Why don’t you just time travel to 1912 and stop women getting the vote? I tried entering the debate by suggesting an example of when it’s appropriate to fail the Bechdel test: Journey’s End, set in the trenches in World War One where all the soldiers were men. In response, R C Sherriff and I were accused of erasing the role of women in World War One. There’s really no reasoning with that. It’s as if anyone who questions the sanctity of the Bechdel test is questioning equality itself.

Meanwhile, we’ve got four Swedish cinemas and a cable channel certifying films as to whether they’re Bechdel compliant, to rapturous applause. Go feminism! Take that patriarchy! So enthusiastic is the response, barely anyone’s stopped to think whether this is the right way to do it. Certainly it’s completely out of line with how you’d assess a film for sex, violence or swearing. In those cases, it’s normal to consider the film as a whole. You never classify an entire film on based on what happens in one minute regardless of what happens in the other 119. And yet the question of whether there’s a better way of assessing an individual film doesn’t even get a mention.

My concern is that if we go any further treating the Bechdel Test as a gold standard, it will cease to have any meaning. Once you treat this as the sacred rule when writing a film, it’s open to far too much abuse. Anyone can shoehorn in a female-female non-man conversation into a film, but you’re still free to treat the women as window-dressing the rest of the time. I suppose this has made a bit of a difference to action and superhero films, where one-dimensional ludicrously hard kick-ass men have been supplemented with equally one-dimensional equally ludicrously hard kick-ass women, but please tell me we’re setting our sights higher than that.

Ultimately, the key enemy, especially in Hollywood, is commercial bullshit. Films are there to make money, and film producers will usually stick with what they know. Treat the Bechdel test as the definitive standard, and it’s too easy to find a way to pass the test, claim you’re all-inclusive, and nothing actually changes. The real solution, developing proper female characters from scratch, requires a lot more hard work. And unfortunately, we know Hollywood’s not that interested in hard work to write better films because of all the formulaic dross they churn out. Let producers off the hook with a quick fix and they’ll take it.

If not Bechdel, what instead?

So, as this is a theatre blog with an emphasis on writing, let’s get back to the beginning. What should writers do about this? It’s not your job to provide jobs for actors in an under-represented demographic, but – with a possible exception of some science fiction and fantasy – it is your job to depict the world accurately. Inserting a conversation between two women in an otherwise male-dominated screen play or stage play might pass the definitive test everyone swears by, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

So whilst the Bechdel test is a guide, these questions, I think, are the ones you really need to ask yourself about your script:

  1. Does it contain female characters with significant roles in the story (other than love interests)? Exactly how many female characters you should have is open to debate, but I’m more interested in what their roles are. Is a female legal secretary an equal partner solving the crime in a courtroom drama, or does she only exist for a male solicitor to tell her about the case? Do any of the female doctors in a hospital drama share the story-lines with the male doctors, or are they just there to meet a quota? I’m not too bothered about whether female characters actually talk to each other, or what they talk about – their significance as individual characters is more important.
  2. If the answer to that question is no, do you have a damned good reason for that? I’ll leave it up to others to decide exactly what qualifies as a good reason, but I suggest it would be fair to exempt a film set in, say, a monastery, the inner sanctum of the Freemasons, or Omaha Beach on D-day. I think I’d also excuse a rom-com provided that the female lead’s sole function of love interest is matched with the same for the male lead. However, I’d say that writing a all-male Police drama because “everyone expects cops to be men” doesn’t cut it. You can decide where to draw the line.

If the answer to either question is yes (be honest, don’t fudge your answer), great. If the answer to both is no, it’s time to stop and think. You can sometimes justify an all-male story as a one-off (no-one expects a non-love interest woman in The Odd Couple any more than someone expects a man in Steel Magnolias), but if you have a track record of doing this you have some serious questions to answer.

Under these criteria, some Bechdel passes will now fail, and some Bechdel fails will now pass. Does this make the Bechdel test obsolete? Certainly not. Whilst what female characters say to each other isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, it’s still a good guide to consider if characters are well-developed as you think they are. And, of course, the Bechdel test’s biggest strength is its objectivity. Yes, using it against a single film is iffy, and even multiple episodes of the same series isn’t foolproof, but it’s a pretty good objective analysis of multiple films. If one studio is producing films with a 70% pass rate and another studio is getting 30%, the latter studio has a lot of explaining to do.

But if you’re serious about gender balance in a film, passing Bechdel isn’t enough. Yes, the questions such as the ones I asked are highly subjective and open to massive disagreements, but that’s what creative writing is like. It’s hard work developing believable characters of either gender, and tweaking who talks to who isn’t enough. Nor – I suspect – is it going to be enough to substitute men for women in a remake of one film. You want strong female characters to be taken seriously, you’ve got to start from scratch.

In short, it’s fine to use the Bechdel test. But please use some common sense as well.

UPDATE 10/03/15: Didn’t want to get sucked into the Ghostbusters debate too much, but I may as well give my thoughts on today’s development. There’s going to be an all-male Ghostbusters too. Cue chorus of cheers and howls of outrage, in pretty much an exact swap of the reaction to January’s news. Given my complete disinterest in Ghostbusters, Paul Feig films and remakes in general, I’m really struggling to decide which one I’m more indifferent to. It is. however, sending my cynicism into complete overdrive.

Here’s what I think happened. The reaction to all-female Ghostbusters thing was politicised from the very start. Very few people showed any intention of judging this film on its own merits. I predict the audience will be dominated by people intent on proving a point, and will decide it’s great no matter what. No idea whether Paul Feig will do a good job or not, but the bottom line is he can, if he wishes, churn out any old shit and still Sony still cashes in handsomely.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before some wily Sony executive figured they can cash in twice as handsomely if they also churn out any old shit in the form of a new all-male Ghostbusters, where the opposite crowd turn up to prove the opposite point and likewise decide it’s great no matter what. Meanwhile, in the rest of Hollywood, nothing changes. The only winner will be Sony, where it’ll be treble whiskies all round.

Maybe, just maybe, we’d achieve a lot more if we stopped obsessing over genders of lead characters in remake after uninspired remake, and saw some original stuff at the cinema instead. You can even choose films with all-male or all-female leads if that’s such a big deal to you. You never know, if enough people do the same, maybe a new film with some new characters will be propelled to the legendary status of Ghostbusters. Just a thought.

2 thoughts on “Don’t rely on the Bechdel test too much

  1. rescatooor February 9, 2015 / 9:08 pm

    This text reminds me of a question I’ve been pondering for a while: when talking about a strong female/male character is it possible for the character not to be feminine/masculine enough? It seems that people nowadays appreciate a character that differs from the gender stereotype but surely there must be a limit to that as well? Is it possible to distance a character from his/her gender to the point in which s/he can no longer be identified as a representative of that gender?

  2. chrisontheatre February 9, 2015 / 9:29 pm

    That’s a good question. It’s a controversial and complicated matter and I won’t even attempt to answer that. What I do believe, however, is that it’s important to make the character plausible. No character trait should ever be excluded based on gender, but some traits are more plausible in men, some traits are more plausible in women. Sometimes it’s a worthwhile challenge to defy stereotypes and write a believable character that doesn’t conform to gender expectations, but it can be hard work.

    For what it’s worth, I think you can usually change the gender of a lead character and find a way to make it work, but the earlier you decide your characters’ genders, the better. If you took Predator and substituted Arnold Shwarznegger for an otherwise identical machine-gun firing muscle rippling heroine, you’d be hard pressed to do that without it looking silly. If, however, you chose to have a female lead from the outset and developed the character from scratch, I see no reason why it couldn’t work as well as Ellen Ripley did in Aliens.

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s