If you’re unfamiliar with the Bechdel Test, let’s start with this incredible video by Anita Sarkeesian via FeministFrequency. She has a shorter video explanation of the Bechdel Test here, but I like the longer one because she also discusses recent films to which the theory is applied, as well as extrapolating the theory to other relationships in movies, including between People of Color about someone other than a white person.
It’s always important to know the origin of things. In this circumstance, Alison Bechdel. Deep breath in, send lots of thankful and mad respect her way, and deep breath out. Esteemed writer of Dykes to Watch Out For, and more recently publishing literature including Fun Home and Are you My Mother? Two books that are on my ‘read immediately now that you’re not studying all the time’ list, which seems endless, but Bechdel’s words and art are at the very top. Definitely check out her website.
As Anita points out, the Bechdel Test is a thermometer of gendered relationships in culture, as read through media. When I first learned of the Bechdel Test, I had one of those moments of pure learning, my surroundings illuminated in realization, and I started noticing its application everywhere. In my conversations with friends, applying it to whether we only spoke of their partner. In books, both fiction and non-fiction. In TV commercials, taken to the level of recognizing women’s conversations, not just their widespread visual representation as objects (note the abhorrent Fiat commercial in this post). In my own conversations with family and my partner, I’d make a mental note of my own go-to topics of conversation about myself and about others.
I’m working through what the three components of the Bechdel Test are really trying uncover. Why are each of these three factors in their additive form so important to take note of?
1. Two named women characters / People of Color.
In this case, sex & gender or ethnicity are critical components of the characters, as the distinctions speak to the main levels of inequality between men, women, and ethnic groups. So the true distinction here is that a presumed group on the lower end of respect in a society is speaking to another in the same group. Importantly, none of these differentiations include white men, and Anita points out that the test is irrelevant for men because it’s meant to point out a problem, and men have very few of these in their representation in the media. Secondly is the naming of people. NAMES. This is a real shocking point when you start to pay attention to how many women characters and People of Color are nameless in movies. And this includes characters with significant roles to the plot. Without naming, they are there for effect, picked from prop floor, dressed in a costume, and puppet-ed around for show. Women as objects is a tag a little more tangible to this conversation when they are repeatedly nameless in media.
For #1 I’d also like to reflect on my surprise during Anita’s video when movies like Hugo, Up, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close were featured. I started to have an aversion to the repeated sensation of little boys / young men as strong main characters. Where are our strong young women as lead roles? Let’s hope for some nominations in this year’s Oscars, because I’m remembering some awesome girl leads in movies the past few months.
2. The characters speak with each other. In Anita’s adaptation, which I totally support, the conversation must last longer than sixty seconds.
Enforcing that the characters must speak with each other, for even a minute in a two hour movie, validates their importance as individuals separate from the man or white character, involves them in the story, and actually makes them memorable. But what if one named woman or Person of Color spoke with a man or a white person? That criteria would say something about needing a sympathetic or humbled main character to pave the way for the minority role to play a part, as Anita references in relation to the movie The Help. But I think #2 and #3 really tie into each other, so let’s go to #3 and remember #2.
3. The characters speak about something other than a man / a white person.
This category rightly assumes that minority characters like women and People of Color will only speak about what an audience would perceive as the more important character in the movie. That their dialogue and contribution to the plot is only there to underscore and provide language to the main character. Their character-based lives outside of that main person is irrelevant. That the writer in creating the script needed another way to give background or setting to the main character, whether white or male. Sub-plot about those characters and their conversations with each other could include something other than the main storyline around a man or white person. Similarly, the conversation around the Bechdel test nods to the dominance of many movies around heterosexual relationships, where a female character is often only represented as a partner to the main male character, and really is only speaking about or to that man. In many movies with strong female leads, the man tends to be the main problem, and conversations that female has is about that man.
But let’s take gender out of it, and say that, in a way, the Bechdel test is analyzing an individual’s role in speaking about and contributing to the role of a dominant relationship in their life. This could be the person’s partner, their children, their parents. In that person’s life, what is removing their own personal experience from the conversation? What factor is eliminating our ability to realize that they have need in recognizing themselves in conversation and action, creating relationships outside of the dominant, and making space for that in their lives and in relationships with others?
Lately I find myself considering women’s conversations about things other than men and children in my time with them as provider and client. My recent Centering experience also emphasized this point: the women were talking about themselves, their experiences, were speaking with each other, and though partners and children were in the room, they were not discussed outside of what your birth partner can do to help you, the woman, in labor. When it’s just woman and provider in the room, how often are we asking them about themselves as individuals? Sure, you’re having sex and maybe you’re here for an STI check, but here’s an awesome opportunity to talk about you. What else is going on with you? How is your life plan going, in terms of school and work? Are you feeling safe at home and in your community? (Keep in mind this question may bring up their role in relation to men’s, but it’s always an important one to ask.) What is weighing on you, and do you want to speak with me or someone else about it?
Encouraging women to speak about things other than the dominant relationship in their life does a few things. In a clinic scenario, it reminds them that a provider can be there to talk about things other than their health or sex life. And that topics outside of those two are also important to someone in their life who is providing a safe space for conversation. For many women, importantly young women, there may be few opportunities for that safe space, and reminding clients that this can be a time to talk about whatever you’d like, and I’m here for you, is an important few seconds or full visit for that person. The time is allotted in the provider schedule: if really a quick birth control prescription is what it feels like the visit was for, take a second to try for any additional conversation.
In pregnancy, when a woman’s body is taken over by another, she may forget that she is still an individual, that the body inside her but still separate from her own does not dominate her identity. Centering allows time to speak about pregnancy, but also about other things, like managing work and friendships and life as a woman. These are important topics to speak about with a group of individuals who are considered a minority by society, by their families, and perhaps by themselves, when the male or white role takes over all conversation and interaction (note here about the importance of women and non-white providers!). Additionally, I have been with women post-termination who are struggling with re-identifying themselves as an individual, and not as a woman who is still relating to products of conception that are no longer a part of herself (and, of course, this is entangled in their own feelings about the procedure itself, who in their life knows about their decision, and coping/grieving process). Women as individuals are so important to be supported, and through recognitions in media, such as the Bechdel test, but also in how we converse with each other, it’s important to emphasize those roles. As providers, notably people with power in client-provider situations, to name the safe space that exists in the room is so, so important.
There is a website with a full listing of movies that pass the Bechdel Test. And, something important for all of us fully grown adults just pondering this theory to consider, are the growing minds reading books and watching television shows and commercials and movies, and internalizing what it means to be a person in relation to other people. You may have your own test for what books and media pass the mustard in your personal stack and in your home, and I’d encourage adding the Bechdel test to that list. Oh, and reading Alison Bechdel’s work along with me.