MISUSE AND ABUSE OF THE BECHDEL TEST

NOTE: Full list of films that will be mentioned is located at the bottom of this letter.

Dear ONION,

As you’re very well aware, I am super fond of the Bechdel test, especially since I’ve found that applying it to individual movies in a weirdly meticulous way yields a surprisingly thorough diagnosis of stuff unrelated to topical gender representation.

This is almost certainly not how the Bechdel test was conceived to be used. But I champion this particular misuse and abuse of the test, because the results are so reliable and eye-opening.

So I tire of what I (as ever opinionated) perceive as the wrong way to misuse and abuse of the Bechdel test. I grow sick of watching people essentially trying to hammer nails into walls with a surgical knife and wondering why their pictures won’t stay up, because the question not enough people seem to be asking is:

the fuck does the Bechdel test actually measure?!

It does not measure, obviously, how feminist a movie is.

Nor does it measure how gender-equal a film might be.

It does not even represent whether a movie isn’t one of the most blatantly sexist and exploitative things made in the past twenty years.

After all, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle passes the Bechdel test — multiple times, and with flying colors.

FullThrottle1

So what, really, is the point of the damn thing?

Well, asides from its original purpose of providing a broad context, it can also be used on an individual level to detect agency. And this is maybe its most interesting aspect. It measures things that most filmmakers and screenwriters aren’t even aware they are putting into the movie. It measures subtle, subconscious prejudices and favoritisms and thought patterns, and it does so far more effectively than some easier, shallower test designed to gauge overt politics or blatant sexism.

And for this reason, I give the Bechdel test a resounding kiss on the mouth and take it with me to all the fancy cocktail parties, because it is the sort of test that leaves creators naked under its gaze.

That, as you know, is the sort of thing that I love most of all.

Also, for this reason, it is a test that generally misses the mark, or is rendered inconsequential, if misused and abused without a little forethought.

It is a bit like complaining that the Geiger counter didn’t warn you that it was going to rain; or that a doctor’s thermometer designed for subtle gradients of temperature is having trouble giving you an accurate reading of a volcano.

Of course Reservoir Dogs fails the Bechdel test.

Of course A League of Their Own passes it.

I think we benefit from the existence of occasional movies being on either extremes of gender representation. And on an individual level, passing – or failing – the Bechdel test has absolutely zero to do with a movie’s quality.

What is more fascinating, and far more valuable a lesson, is looking at the movies that are tricky borderline cases of Bechdel test result — this is really important — the movies that you feel ought to fail, but they pass; or the movies that you feel should pass, but for some reason fail; or (my personal favorite) movies that pass or fail but for entirely bizarre reasons that are nothing like what you would assume from first glance.

And then, crucially: you ask why you got the result that you did.

In these situations, the Bechdel test really shines.

The reasons behind the passes or fails for one of those movies, when you ask “why”, shed an awful lot of light on the near-invisible assumptions made by the world of the film, and by its creators, in a way that is hard to get at sometimes, but so, so easy when you have the Bechdel test in hand.

This is what makes the Bechdel test so valuable to me. It is a singularly unbiased method of measurement when misused and abused with precision.

It has the ability to put the unconscious on trial.

* * *

Let me briefly take apart the test, as I am talking about it here.

BechdelComic

Sure, I’ve seen a lot of people misinterpreting the outlined “basic requirements” on the most fundamental level, meaning, they actually just seem to never have read the original comic where it came from, and nor have they thought about its full implications, and so they sally forth with a weird distorted version of it in their pocket. This is annoying, but what can you do when you have a case of “did not read directions on the box before shaking and baking”.

I have had a surprising number of in-person discussions with people along these lines.

But there are also odd interpretations (I’m looking at you, Tumblr-folk) of what, for example, talking is, and whether a single-line quip should count as two women talking, or do we just want to understand talking to equal: a conversation. And there’s also that odd question of, for example, whether you can do a mass-application of a Bechdel test for gay representation[1], and so on and so forth.

And it’s true that most people who are interested in discussing the test on the internet are dearly familiar with its premise — but, I think taking apart the test bit by bit yields some useful points, and helps reach a definitive set of criteria.

So:

  •  Two women (and, for most purposes, it is two women who have names given in the film itself – this is added on by most users of the test, but I actually think it is usually not a necessary caveat, though nice sometimes),
  •  talk to each other (and here I am going to firmly put my foot down and demand that this part of the test be understood to mean that they have a conversation, meaning, exchanging dialogue at least twice, since this is the bare minimum of defining a conversation),
  •  and this conversation is not, in any way, about a male character.

.

What are women?

Women are characters that are clearly identified, by gender, as female in the film itself. Women can be disguised as men. Women can be in the bodies of men. Women can be supercomputers with a female voice. Women can be matriarchal alligators.

Women are not men played by women actors; the archangel Gabriel is not a woman, even if he is portrayed by Tilda Swinton.

Women are not characters who sidestep the traditional gender binary, either. The documentary Paris Is Burning would get very tricky for this reason. And a film adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness would flunk the Bechdel test from sheer lack of female representation, regardless of the actors involved.

Women are characters whose gender is presented as unambiguously female within the film. I shouldn’t need to outline this, except—pedants.

So there.

What is a conversation?

This is a conversation:

DARLENE THE WAITRESS: More coffee, hun?

GODZILLETTE: Yes, please. Actually, do you have espressos?

DARLENE THE WAITRESS: Sometimes we do. Tough night, I take it?

GODZILLETTE: You have no idea…

What is not a conversation? This is not a conversation:

DYLAN: Ready to whip them into shape, Alex?

And this is not a conversation:

MOTHER TENNENBAUM: How long have you been smoking?

DAUGHTER TENNENBAUM: Twenty-two years.

MOTHER TENNENBAUM: I wish you wouldn’t.

And this is not a conversation:

LADY DEATHSTRIKE: What are you doing here?

MYSTIQUE: I’m taking out the garbage.

I’ve seen some people trying to close some loopholes and define the talking aspect of the Bechdel test by length of time, or quantity of words, but let’s admit frankly that as tools of measurement, these are arbitrary and pointless criteria which vary wildly from context to context.

Really, what is unequivocal (and also, unequivocally a conversation) is an exchange of dialogue that allows both parties to state their sides (uninterrupted by other characters, mind you), and then allows both parties to react to those statements. To borrow from board game terminology, both players have to make their moves, and both players have to be allowed to respond to the move just made. Action1, action2, reaction1, reaction2.

And only if you have at least two exchanges can you definitely, no-matter-what define it as a conversation and also as a definitely valid pass of the test. Both parties have been allowed to present their moves; both parties have been allowed to respond to the former’s presentation as well.

My apologies for how pedantic this is, but I did want to get it out of the way.

The main point is that quips, witticisms, and snappy one-liner exchanges aren’t conversations, and frankly I don’t see them as actual talking. They are quips, witticisms, and snappy one-liner exchanges. They can be directed at anyone. They can be directed at a robotic teleprompter with a built-in snarky-response-generator. They can be directed at a wall.

When you have people talk entirely in quips, witticisms, and snappy one-liner exchanges, you get accused (and rightly) of being unable to write actual meaningful dialogue, and incapable of humanizing your characters further than an initial skin-deep charm. (Abigail Nussbaum, for example, takes Steven Moffatt to task for this on at least one occasion.)

Because, obviously, conversation isn’t just some vehicle for making the audience laugh, or moving the plot coupons along (or sprinkling charm throughout the script in an effort to hide your other, major writerly failings). Conversation between two people, actual conversation, whether intended or not, becomes a glimpse into the interiority of those characters. What is said; what is not said; how it said, or unsaid; et cetera.

It is the subtler things, in conversations, that speak volumes.

What does it mean that they don’t talk about a male character?

I was surprised, actually, by how many in-person discussions I seem to have where someone goes “oh, wait, you mean it’s not just that they don’t talk about a romantic interest — but that they don’t talk about any man?!”

Well, yes.

This is why Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, and why Charlie’s Angels barely scrapes by.

Because in Charlie’s Angels, almost everyone else running the show is a guy, so when the angels (and Vivian Woods) are discussing the plot, they are talking about Charlie, and Bosley, and Corwin, and Creepy Thin Man, and Knox. (And – you may wince – when they’re not discussing the plot, they’re just discussing each other’s boyfriends and love interests… This movie passed the Bechdel test, not through a conversation that any of the Angels have with each other, but because of a short scene where Alex snubs an office worker named Doris, while dressed up in leather fetish gear. Just… yeah.)

Of course this all falls apart in the second film because the villain in Full Throttle is not a man.

So when the angels discuss the plot… they are not discussing a man.

And BOOM the movie passes the Bechdel test.

This, by the way, led to a further in-person conversation something like this: “So are you saying you want there to be more women villains? More female characters that are awful and nasty?!”

And I shouted YES, YES, ABSOLUTELY YES because that’s the point, isn’t it, that women can be as nasty as men, and in as much variety as men can be nasty? That there are dozens and dozens of types and tropes of male villains… but maybe a handful of commonly seen tropes for female villains, and isn’t that shitty? Isn’t that a weird distortion of what is relentlessly true in real life, that women and men come in all shapes and sizes and are equally capable of so many things, including mass varieties of atrocity? If some little six-year-old girl is scheming for world domination and she looks (instead of towards history) towards Hollywood for potential role models — well, why should she be afforded such a peculiar paucity of choices?

But, you know, even in a movie where all the movers and shakers and plot coupons are men, you can still pass the Bechdel test with flying colors.

I mean, look at the two Addams Family movies. (The ones with Raul Julia, I mean.)

In both movies, the plot revolves around Fester Addams, and then to a lesser degree, around Gomez Addams. Their familial relationship is a central feature.

The brothers Addams.

AddamsFamily2

There are female villains in both movies, but their schemes are so completely tied to Fester, and to his relationship with Gomez, that there is little discussion of the female villains themselves outside of Fester-induced context — at least, certainly not among the other women of the cast.

And yet… both movies pass the Bechdel test.

For the second movie, this should be no surprise. By then, they’d realized that young Christina Ricci was stealing the show with her portrayal of Wednesday, so they upped their game to match her, and they gave the kids their very own summer camp subplot — essentially, a platform where Ricci could shine.

But in the first movie, where almost all that Morticia and Wednesday and Granny and Dr. Pinder-Schloss talk about is Fester this and Fester that and how Gomez might be affected by it all… well, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the movie doesn’t pass the test, right?

Except of course it does. Because, among other things, Morticia and Margaret Alford discuss the charity auction.

The main action in this time frame, in terms of plot and development, is happening with the husbands (Gomez and Tully). Gomez and Tully are off in the mansion, doing plot-ish things. But the film chooses to spend an almost equal attention on their wives up in the attic, switching between the two groups constantly.

Because the hobbies and passions of the wives, and of Morticia specifically – no matter how much they are mirroring or parodying the tropes of the dutiful wife – are nonetheless given enough value or interest within the world of the movie… and so Morticia and Margaret have a conversation, and that conversation is not about their husbands, and it is not about the bigger plot. Which, in this film (and in many, many, many films), is the same thing as saying the conversation is not about a man.

Instead (in a scene that could have easily been sliced for plot purposes) the conversation is just Morticia and Margaret fussing in an amusing and enjoyable way, deciding on what to donate to a charity auction.

Groundbreaking stuff, isn’t it?!

* * *

By the way.

It’s not that there was one scene in the whole movie which passed the test.

(There were, I think, at least three, though some people might not want to count the third scene that I’m thinking of, because Morticia’s career counselor doesn’t have a name in the film.)

It’s rather that the movie had a very high chance of passing the test anyway, so it’s not surprising that at least one scene passed it by all specifications, because:

There were a number of almost-passes throughout the film. There were a number of times when women were interacting with women and not talking about men (in a film that revolves entirely around men); and also times when they were not just making context-free quips and jokes (in a movie that is composed of almost nothing else but quips and jokes). There were a high number of almost-passes, and so I suppose it became statistically increasingly probable that at least one of those moments of women talking to women would turn into a pass.

What I mean to say is: luck doesn’t have so much to do with it.

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* * *

Speaking of statistical probability (and fascinating failures): I want to talk a little about why X2: X-Men United flunks the Bechdel test so badly.

I think that X2 is one of the most interesting examples I could pull from this brief, time-bound list of mine.

It’s interesting because honestly it ought to have passed. And the choices that the movie makes, over and over, deny it a passing grade in a way that is almost frustrating (at least, if you are watching the movie with the Bechdel test in mind).

I mean, Jean Grey and Storm spend such a huge chunk of the movie near-exclusively in each other’s company. They work as a team, as a duo, for the first third of the film. They go after Nightcrawler together. They retrieve him together and then track down Wolverine and his pack of teenagers together. They pilot the jet together, and defend the jet together — they are co-pilots after all. And they check in with each other before splitting up in Stryker’s base to pursue the various different plot strands.

X2

But at no point in time is this capitalized on for character development.

Are they close friends? Well, everything in the way that they are paired by the script would indicate this to be obvious.

But the director and the screenwriter don’t seem to have noticed.

When Jean Grey dies, we get barely a glance at Storm.

Instead we are focused completely on how Cyclops and Wolverine are breaking down and sobbing. The grief of the romantic interests is held as more valuable and more worthy of the audience’s attention. It is considered, somehow, more relatable and accessible than the grief that you might have over the death of a valued mission partner and a friend.

Or actually, that’s not quite it. It’s more like they forget that the grief of losing a valued partner and a friend is also a valid grief — also a distinct and painful variety of grief — there is more than one way to lose someone.

So there is a curious and dead absence, actually, when it comes to how women connect to other women in this movie, and it’s maybe not something I’d have noticed without the Bechdel test — because, like I said, this movie should have passed. And the failure is making me ask: why did it fail?

Because Rogue’s characterization is directed entirely towards Wolverine and Bobby and Pryo. She gets almost no real conversation with anyone else. Because Jean Grey’s characterization is directed towards Wolverine and Cyclops, nearly exclusively — their attention is what matters. Because Storm’s characterization is directed almost entirely towards Nightcrawler and not anyone else.

Spotting the pattern here?

There is this curious absence where the female characters don’t seem to acknowledge each other’s presence in the film. They sort of… walk around each other.

This isn’t the case with the male characters, mind you.

Iceman and Wolverine have their miniature machismo show-down, when Rogue first introduces the two, and then they do some male-bonding over soda ‘n yogurt, which of course rapidly escalates into fighting for their lives because, well, this is an X-Men movie — but still! None of that dialogue and characterization in the male-bonding scene needed to happen for plot reasons alone. All that needed to happen was for Logan to be awake and wandering the mansion. You could have cut the five minutes or so of dialogue between him and Iceman and not really distorted the plot by one bit — we get a tiny bit of foreshadowing about Bobby’s family, sure, but it is totally unnecessary for the purpose of the film, since this information would have come out anyway in the next half hour (though I appreciate the vague foreshadowing nonetheless).

But why would you want to cut that dialogue? It’s fun. It’s humanizing. It’s charming and endearing. It shows the interiority of both characters in a way that we’d never have seen otherwise. And also, it’s believable, because this is how people behave. This is how people interact. They reach out and make small-talk, which surprises them by turning into real-talk, and they get to know each other, and learn things about each other that they’d never have suspected otherwise.[2]

It’s a memorable scene.

Who else in the movie has moments like this?

Nightcrawler and Storm. That lovely conversation about anger, and faith, with its lovely callback near the film’s climax.

Nightcrawler and Mystique. As with Wolverine and Iceman, this exchange happens for no real apparent reason, other than giving us a brief but valuable and worthwhile look into the interior mind of the two characters.

Nightcrawler and Rogue (just barely, but still there).

Magneto and Pryo (also just barely, but still there).

And, of course, Cyclops and Jean Grey have lots of these moments, as do Jean Grey and Wolverine.

Am I missing a few? Possibly. (Oh yeah, Stryker and Wolverine, that’s another duo.) But you see a pattern, right?

Men talk to men, for the purpose of talking, for the purpose of characterization. Men talk to women, for the same reasons.

Women don’t talk to women.

At all.

And that’s why this movie fails the Bechdel test so resoundingly. Because when Jean Grey isn’t able to use her powers to destroy the second missile pursuing the plane, she glances anxiously over her shoulder at Wolverine, not at Storm, her fucking co-pilot, of all people. The cameras are paying attention to the glances exchanged between Jean Grey and Wolverine. WOLVERINE. The plane has just blown the fuck up and she is glancing nervously behind her shoulder at Wolverine instead of, you know, trying to fucking save the fucking plane, or work with Storm (in their mutual capacities of co-pilots!!) to prevent a horrible crash.

And afterward, Storm doesn’t approach her or talk to her about this queasy situation at all – and nor do they work together to fix the plane, which would also make more sense to me than just Jean doing the work – and it’s just so weird over how consistent this is because they’re fucking partners, they’re fucking co-pilots and they are sitting inches apart in the plane when it happens, but Storm’s concern over Jean Grey, or their working relationship, is a curious dead spot in the film’s attention. By which I mean, the friendship/relationship is something that we know is there, by every signal provided by the movie except for actual dialogue and actual scenes. It is something that is so very conspicuous by its absence.

And my goodness, this really is the pattern throughout the film; when Xavier and the team are delivering their address to the president at the end, there is mention of “losses on both sides” and it causes the camera to pan to Wolverine’s sadface and Cyclops’s sadface, but do you know what Storm’s face is doing the whole time? NOTHING! She’s just standing there with glowing white eyes and a creepy grin on her face as she manipulates the weather to freak out the president and disrupt the electricity! Because fuck if we care what the hell Storm thinks about the death of Jean Grey.

It’s not like they were close friends or co-pilots or partners or anything.

I mean, if Nightcrawler had died, then maybe we’d see some of Storm’s sadface, because there’d be romantic tension, ooooh, that’s worth crying over, right.

And if Wolverine had died you’d totally see Cyclops make sadface and getting a line or two about what a dick he’d been to Wolverine but Wolverine was a good guy and didn’t deserve to go like this. Because male friendship and camaraderie is validated by the film and it exists within the world of the film — and in fact, the core mutant dynamic of the film (and of the entire X-Men canon) is driven by the turned-bitter friendship between Xavier and Magneto, really.

But women, as an entire gender, simply don’t have friends or role models or trusted partners who are other women.

At least — not according to screenwriters and director of X2.

* * *

I think that the Bechdel test carries within it the sharpest slap of criticism not when a movie has barely any female characters at all — but when it has plenty of interesting and well-developed female characters who spend scenes and scenes in each other’s company, and the movie still manages to flunk nonetheless.

Because, how can you?

How can so many movies manage to do it?

You’d almost think there was a pervasive culture of valuing men’s interiority over women’s in a way that is subconsciously present in the majority of the media we create and ingest, in a way that affects the way we behave and believe and value without most of us even realizing it — but nah, that’s just a conspiracy theory or something, right, right, am I right?

* * *

As a fun side note:

There are two blue-skinned characters in X2: X-Men United.

Nightcrawler and Mystique.

They don’t know each other, and they come from different parts of the plot, but they do have a brief conversation, a scene of their own, in which there are two exchanges of dialogue.

The conversation is not about someone who isn’t blue-skinned.

And thus X2: X-Men United passes the blue-skin Bechdel test.

Not the normal, much-easier-to-pass, female-characters test, but the blue-skin one.

Think about that for a second.

Just let it sink in.

X2-2

* * *

So, based on what I’ve just written, I have to conclude that there are three ways you can flunk the Bechdel test, and they progress from most excusable to least.

You can flunk by simply not having enough female characters in the movie — so of course there’s never an opportunity for them to talk.

Paprika fails the Bechdel test because its only real female character of note is Paprika.

Super Troopers fails the Bechdel test because its only real female character of note is Ursula.

Blazing Saddles fails the Bechdel test because its only real female character of note is Lili Von Schtupp.

And the list could go on, and on, and on.

So this isn’t surprising, but neither is it disappointing. As I said earlier, I think it’s good to have some films on either end of the gender-representation extreme — it is good to have variety and range in the types of stories we tell each other.

It is disappointing if all the films on a ballot – or, say, a majority of the films on a ballot – fail the Bechdel test for this reason.

And, see, when you have that sort of problem, it is actually easy to observe and should also be relatively easy to fix.

At least it is not insidious.

But: you can also flunk the test by having a movie with a decent number of female characters who never have a conversation. This is a bit puzzling. Why do they never talk to each other?

Well frankly it’s probably because you’ve made them all fairly minor players in the world of the movie so they are rarely given the opportunity to interact meaningfully. Or, more interestingly/peculiarly, they’re on completely opposite strands of the plot (hello there, Lord of the Rings) so they are not even face-to-face for the whole film. And this is slightly more insidious but it can also be clearly pinpointed, and if you can clearly pinpoint something, then it can be made conscious, and if it can be made conscious, then you can think about it.

When thinking about it, you can see your own decision-making process as you craft your story and your characters. And then you might see the gnarled root of the problem, which is not an easy one to admit to, or to fix.

Because you have to admit, for maybe the first time, how all the movers and shakers in your storytelling toolbox are male.

You have to admit, for example, how it is always Dumbledore and Voldemort and Snape and Grindewald and Harry Potter. How it is always Dark Wizards, not Dark Witches. How six out of seven of the DADA professors were male. How it is James’ group of friends that becomes important in Harry’s life — not Lily’s group of friends. She had no friends, as far as we can make out. (Besides maybe Snape? Does he even count?! Jesus Christ, J.K. Rowling!)

Like I said, luck doesn’t have so much to do with it.

But: you can also flunk the test if you have plenty of female characters and they’re talking to each other all the time, if everything they ever talk about is somehow about a man.

And that’s the real kicker, yes it is. The third degree of failure is the most insidious because what can you say about a movie when the women are in constant conversation but all they say and do hinges utterly and completely on men?

Because for this strange narrative distortion to happen: the male characters, and male relationships, and male friendships, must be understood to somehow have more weight and value.

And that’s really insidious because that’s subconscious, that’s just ingrained into our way of thinking, and I promise that you’re totally not going to notice how you’re replicating that approach to writing people, 100% of the population not 50%, just people, until someone comes along with an accurately applied Bechdel test and bursts your sorry little balloon.

By the way, regarding Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle — it is a sexist movie, and an exploitative movie, and also just a bad movie. When I saw it as a teenager, I remember it being the first movie that I watched in a theater where I felt like I was being actively vomited on by the filmmakers. And I have never watched it since.

But.

But it passes the Bechdel test and not just because the villain is a “fallen” angel, not just because whenever the angels discuss the plot, they are (like in Alien, like in the original comic strip by Alison Bechdel) talking about something (the plot!) that is not male — no, it actually passes the Bechdel test a number of times, and in other scenes, where the angels are just… talking. They’re just talking about… each other. They talk about each other’s lives. A notion of friendship and camaraderie is present to a much stronger degree than in the first movie — even though the second movie is also essentially 50% bizarre fanservice, right down to the evil sexy villain lady making out with the angels for no apparent reason other than…. well, for no apparent reason.

So.

FullThrottle2

Even though Full Throttle is sexist and exploitative and frankly a piece-of-shit film, it fucking passes the Bechdel test because it is interested in, and values, its female characters’ interiority — and again, unlike the first film, the movers and shakers of Full Throttle are not exclusively men.

Isn’t that interesting, though?! Isn’t it?! I never thought I’d ever say a good word about Full Throttle but a careful application of the Bechdel test leaves even me a little breathless.

* * *

One last thing, before I wrap this up.

I want to talk about Millennium Actress.

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Yes, the movie that passes the Bechdel test despite all the odds being stacked against it.

It’s such a good example, though. It’s such a fly-in-the-ointment of the popular idea of what sort of movie you need to make if you want to pass the Bechdel test.

Because it is, blatantly, a movie where the single female character of note spends the entire movie yearning over and pursuing and organizing her life around a single male romantic interest, a man she met once when she was young, and whom she never actually sees ever again (though not for lack of trying, obviously). It ought to have failed by the first degree, just like Paprika did, and no one would have been surprised, or expected anything otherwise.

But perhaps there are several scenes – just one or two, really – between the actress and her elderly old-fashioned mother, who wants her to quit the movie business and marry and settle down, and perhaps one of those conversations is less about men, and more about traditional values, at least for two exchanges — it is, essentially, the mother subtextually defending her own choices and way of life.

Perhaps there is a wraith-like spirit who haunts the edges of the film – haunts the edges of the actress – and she and the actress have a conversation early on, in one of the semi-surreal scenes of the movie that have half a foot in the films-within-the-film.

Perhaps there is a character named Eiko, bitter jealous sarcastic Eiko, who is the only other female character of note in the film, by which I mean, she has a small supporting role and appears more than twice. And perhaps Eiko and the actress have a handful of fragmentary scenes together, and perhaps most of those scenes are conversations about men (mostly about The Man that the actress is pursuing), or quip-like exchanges of dialogue. But – probability and statistics being what they are –  inevitably one of those scenes (and in this case the final scene between the two) turns into a conversation. A conversation about the darker motives and desires of Eiko, about why she has made the choices she has made.

(There is even a man present during this memorable scene. And when he tries to intervene in the conversation, the Millennium actress just shoots him this look, this expression, and he just sort of chokes under that glance and shuts up despite himself. Because the conversation is not about him, and he is blind to what is actually going on in that room at that moment. Neither of the women’s lives are about him, regardless of whatever worldview he might subscribe to.)

It is a conversation that paints deeply the interiority of these two characters, because it is a film deeply interested in the interiority of people. Not men — people. Just… people.

And so a movie where all the major players are men – except for one woman, the Millennium actress herself, who spends her life pining for a man she only saw once – passes the Bechdel test.

This is such a lesson.

What a precise little test this is.

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Sincerely yours,

ARTICHOKE

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FOOTNOTES

[1] To answer the implied question, no, I don’t think you can really do a widespread/statistical Bechdel test for gay representation and treat it with the same weight as a widespread Bechdel test for female representation. The main point of operation surrounding the Bechdel test, as applied to movies en masse, is that roughly 50% of the population presents as men and roughly 50% presents as women, and this remains approximately true across time and across cultures. (There may be a more precise way to phrase this — but you know what I mean?) While it can be fun to apply an adapted version of the Bechdel test to individual movies (“Does this movie have two gay characters that have a conversation and it’s not about a straight person?”), it’s not nearly as devastating a blanket statement when the majority of films made flunk it. (Fifty percent of the population across time and cultures does not, after all, present as gay.) I think this is also true for a Bechdel test adapted towards ethnicity — because, for example, a film set in the court of Queen Elizabeth I or in the heart of Kentucky would be a striking film indeed if it passed a Filipino-adapted Bechdel test. Now, it is somewhat damning and disappointing when the vast majority of movies made and released do not match up with the actual representation of their viewers, in ethnicity or culture – why is the world of culture A considered more storyable than culture B, I want to demand? – but this is not most effectively measured/argued through an adapted Bechdel test, which becomes increasingly floppy and soggy the more you remove it from the original premise. For discussing ethnic and cultural choices in mass-movie storytelling, there are better and far more diamond-sharp ways to make this excellent point, and I’m not sure it’s fair to the discussion to try to filter it through a distorted lens.

[2] I also suspect that one reason this bit of dialogue was considered worth the director’s time is how closely it hews to the coming-out narrative. (The director is gay, in case someone reading this wasn’t aware.) I am very glad they kept this scene, because I like it, and I think it makes the movie stronger and the characters more interesting. But also — just saying.

————-

ENDNOTES

[1] For this letter, I talked about the following movies. My entire criteria for assembling this hodgepodge list of films was “well, I watched these all while in high school”.

I was thinking about my high school viewing history and mindset when formulating this letter, and this might seem like a fairly arbitrary list by any other standard. But I think an arbitrary list of mainstream films is actually a good idea for this sort of thing, since it gives you movies across a semi-randomized spectrum. And it turned out to be a pretty great list, in terms of the points I was hoping to demonstrate.

Anyway, the main movies discussed were:

Charlie’s Angels * Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle * Addams Family * Addams Family Values * X2: X-Men United * Millennium Actress

and then, tangentially, I also mentioned these movies:

the Harry Potter series * the Lord of the Rings trilogy * Reservoir Dogs * A League of Their Own * The Royal Tennenbaums * Paprika * Super Troopers * Blazing Saddles * Alien

.

[2] An additional note: this letter was written essentially (and mentally) side by side with its fraternal twin, the HOMME FATAL letter. Either that letter is an appendix to this one, or vice versa. Anyway, I don’t feel I can fairly present one without calling out the other. Fun times!

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About onionandartichoke

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a pair of vegetables in possession of a good quantity of opinions must be in want of a blog. Onion and Artichoke: Purveyors of Fine Literary Reviews, Discussions of Modern Life, and Only Infrequent Eviscerations. (With occasional contributions from Messrs. Aubergine, Leek, and Zucchini.) ------------- We are two college friends in our twenties, who live in the same city and (as of April 2014) have the good luck of working in the same office too. Onion runs the Tumblr, and Artichoke runs the WordPress. Onion is media-savvy; Artichoke mispronounces words on the regular. Onion is full of grace; Artichoke listens to Ace of Base. Onion is a bulb; Artichoke is a thistle. We hope this has been a very informative reading experience. Sincerely, ONION and ARTICHOKE
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One Response to MISUSE AND ABUSE OF THE BECHDEL TEST

  1. Pingback: HOMME FATAL | Onion & Artichoke

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