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New ways of gauging films' feminist cred

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The Bechdel test — which deems that in a film or TV show, there must be two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than men — has become popular shorthand for gauging gender imbalance in films. But it isn't always a good litmus for how 'feminist' a film is. 

Lavern Cox (right) in DoubtIf you take the rules literally, Suicide Squad, which is almost aggressively misogynistic, can pass on a technicality. Similarly, if you don't take into account the content or length of the conversation, one of the movies in the Transformers franchise, which has been criticised for its objectification of female characters, can pass with a two-line conversation about how pretty Megan Fox is.

Meanwhile, there are films with feminist themes and a fleshed-out female lead that don't pass. The fact that we don't see women interacting with each other about something other than men in Mulan and Run Lola Run doesn't detract from these films' importance as feminist texts.

The Bechdel test also doesn't account for an increasing push for intersectionality. Films that both pass the Bechdel and engage with feminist themes can still run into representation issues. Atomic Blonde passes the Bechdel and then proceeds to (spoiler alert) kill its one lesbian character off in accordance with the dreaded Bury Your Gays trope. Ghost in the Shell was called out for whitewashing when Scarlett Johansson was cast for an originally Japanese character.

Trans women are often cast in the media as undesirable and trans women of colour in particular are killed by intimate partners at disproportionate rates. So on the TV show Doubt, it was a big deal that one of Lavern Cox's character's (pictured, right) main storylines was a romance with a man who had never dated a trans person before. On the fourth episode, there is a one minute scene where Cox's character talks to two trans friends about dating as a trans woman. That scene wouldn't technically pass the Bechdel test, but it was historic for trans representation.

It's clear that blanket rules about what is 'feminist' won't work for every facet of identity. To try to fill the gaps left by the Bechdel test, there have been variations that account for race, sexual orientation and a more nuanced version of gender roles. There is the Mako Mori test in which one female character needs to have her own arc not related to a man's story. There's also the 'racial' Bechdel test, which focuses on people of colour — the dire need for which is shown by the Every Single Word project, a series of stark videos edited to include every line spoken by a person of colour in a film.

For creators, these rules are a check on the impulse to unconsciously centre white men in our narratives. The scriptwriter of the most recent Ghostbusters, Katie Dippold, said that 'I still have to push and ask myself, Why did I automatically make that character male? Could that girlfriend character be more than just annoyed at the guy characters?'


"The Bechdel test is a well-known and effective shorthand ... a good conversation-starter, rather than the entirety of the conversation."


In my own viewing and writing, I try to question myself. Do the women have arcs and meaningful relationships with other women? Do characters of colour talk to each other or are they only there to advance a white character's arc? Are LGBT+ characters alive at the end?

The Bechdel test is useful terms of deconstructing gender representation and is a well-known and effective shorthand. But it's clear that it is a good conversation-starter, rather than the entirety of the conversation.

While I don't necessarily want to critically engage with every film and TV show I watch, these media tests give us a shared framework to talk about how films and TV portray their minority characters. Intersecting layers of identity can be complex, but that only makes for richer characters.

The underlying point, however, of all of these tests is to challenge us not to accept tokenistic or lazy representation. True representation isn't about including diverse characters in terms of ticking a checklist of minorities, but giving those characters the quality screen time they deserve.



Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue. Main image: James McAvoy in Split

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, Bechdel test, LGBT, feminism, gender equality



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Existing comments

I will admit to ignorance about the Bechdel test, even though I do know shorthand but of a different type to which you refer. Bravo for this innovation. Readers may be interested in some words I've been digesting today about Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell: "Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because - without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' - we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice: we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise." Written in 1850.

Pam | 22 March 2018  

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