Every now and again, a popular, successful and widely considered feminist movie will fail the Bechdel test, causing ripples of backlash and panic throughout the feminist internet sphere. "This movie is a triumph," people cry. "It's what we've been wanting in a movie, and yet it's called un-feminist because of some arbitrary test?" The conclusion is often simple: the Bechdel is inadequate and needs to be replaced.
First it was Pacific Rim, whose fantastic female protagonist led to the invention of the Mako Mori test. Then Gravity, which has a great female protagonist but only really has two characters throughout the entire movie, and so is a pretty automatic fail. And then there's 12 Years a Slave, another lauded movie that can't meet the test's requirements. When movies with terrible stereotyped female characters pass and movies that seem to challenge those stereotypes fail, it's natural to assume that the test isn't telling us anything useful.
But that is decidedly not the case. The idea that the Bechdel test could be the be-all and end-all of feminist movie critique is ludicrous, when we consider how simple it is. It only has three checkpoints:
- Does the film have two or more named female characters?
- Do two named female characters talk to one another?
- Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?
The requirements are so simple that the Bechdel should tell us nothing. Passing it should be so easy that it's not even worth commenting on. The power of the Bechdel test, therefore, is in considering movies en masse, such as in this really short Feminist Frequency video. Considering how easy it should be to pass the test, it's shocking to see the endless march of movies (successful movies, enjoyable movies, otherwise good movies) that fail. The fact that these good, enjoyable, often celebrated movies fail can make people uncomfortable, but the test is not intended to decry any particular movie, but to highlight the extreme lack of women seen in movies in general.
Yet I wouldn't say that movies like Pacific Rim have slipped through the cracks of the test, criticized for something that would be unremarkable if other, non-feminist movies weren't so darn terrible. The invention of the Mako Mori test as an alternative to the Bechdel test made me uneasy when it was first proclaimed last year, but it's taken me a while to puzzle out why. The Mako Mori test is a great way of considering a different question about women in movies -- whether they are significant, fully developed characters or only there to support a man's plot arc. But a movie only needs one female character to pass. Used alongside the Bechdel test, it's a useful tool. But sometimes it has been used to hand movies like Pacific Rim a "get out of jail free" card for failing to have a larger cast of women in their ranks.
It's actually a good thing that films that otherwise seem strongly feminist, with wonderful female protagonists, fail the Bechdel test. And it's good that these failures make people uncomfortable. These supposedly errant Bechdel fails demonstrate even more effectively the problems that the test attempts to address. These movies have brilliantly female characters -- but they only have one. All the named secondary characters they interact with are men. There may be compelling female characters in this movie world, but it's still a man's world overall. It's possible for a creative team to have made a special effort to include great female characters and still fail. And that's because the movie industry, and our expectations for media, are inherently, subconsciously sexist. Sure, protagonists can be female (although that is rare too). But when populating the crowd around them, film makers almost always use men.
Studies have found that, even in crowd scenes populated by extras, only 17% of the people on screen are women. And that has a ripple effect. 17 percent of cardiac surgeons are women. 17% of tenured professors are women. The lack of women in film is helping to normalize the idea that "less than 20%" is the right and equal presence for women. And so if a film has five or less named characters, how can we expect more than one of them to be a woman? We are so used to the ratio that we don't even see it as a problem, and so when movies like Pacific Rim follow them, our outrage is directed not at the movie and its industry, but at the test that dares to point out this problem.
The Bechdel Test isn't the problem. And the outrage, the movies that fail that we think should pass? Those are exactly why the test needs to be applied in the first place.