The representation of women in cinema, although it has improved in recent years, still has a long way to go. Women, especially non-white women, are often underrepresented in film and television, and when they do show up, their representation is sometimes less than ideal. This has led many scholars and audiences to use certain metrics to judge the feminist elements of a medium to determine whether it is progressive or not, and where it could be improved if not.
The Bechdel test is one of the most common ways to assess the female portrayal of a movie or TV show. This test, proposed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in a 1985 comic strip, postulates that a medium passes if it meets three basic conditions: that it has at least two named female characters, that they talk to each other, and that at some point they talk to each other about something other than a man. For a long time, this has been used as one of the main metrics to judge how feminine a medium is, but a recent online controversy has people wondering whether or not this should be the ultimate way to judge a piece. media. progressiveness of the film.
The controversy in question arose when writer Hanna Rosin tweeted her criticism of the new Hulu movie. Fire Island it’s basically a weird modern take on Pride and Prejudice centered around two Asian gay men. In Rosin’s tweet, she said, “#FireIslandMovie gets an F- on the Bechdel test in a whole new way. Are we just ignoring dull lesbian stereotypes of cute gay Asian boys? Is this revenge for all those years of best friend gay boy?”.
This was met with fairly immediate backlash online, with many pointing out that the film is still progressive because it’s about the very underrepresented demographic of gay Asian men, and that the Bechdel test doesn’t necessarily need to be tested. apply here. The tweet (which has now been deleted after Rosin apologized for his words) even prompted Alison Bechdel to offer her own response on Twitter: “Okay, I just added a corollary to the Bechdel test: two men talk to each other about the female protagonist of an Alice Munro story in a scenario structured on a Jane Austen novel = pass”.
Many modern feminist views of media will use the Bechdel test, despite the fact that it is not derived from any kind of academic research. It was just an observation Bechdel made in one of his comics and acts as an interesting thought experiment or bit of social commentary more than anything. It’s a way of looking at film and television, as it gives a basic framework for how that medium treats its female characters (if any). It’s easy to say that this should be the bare minimum for a story that includes more than one female character to pass the Test, but this take doesn’t leave much room for nuance.
The Bechdel test cannot be applied to all situations, as this whole Fire Island debacle has shown. It makes no sense to criticize a film for its lack of female representation when it focuses on a different marginalized group and instead gives them some much-needed exposure. Sometimes progressiveness isn’t just about female representation, although that’s usually one of the most talked about aspects. The use of the Bechdel test seems particularly pedantic when used against those movies and shows that are heavy with queer or non-white representation, and don’t necessarily tell a female story.
The reason the test works better as a thought experiment is that it doesn’t take into account certain nuances. Take, for example, the the Lord of the Rings movies. There are less than a handful of female characters in these movies, and they’re very male-oriented overall. The films certainly don’t pass the Bechdel test, but just looking at them that way ignores the feminist elements that are present. The female characters of LOTR are powerful in their own way, and Éowyn’s iconic “I’m not a man” line is one of the most feminist moments in film history. The evaluation of history on the Bechdel test would not be sufficient to account for these elements.
So while the Bechdel test is a good starting point for discussing female representation in movies, it shouldn’t be the only thing that defines a movie, especially because it was born out of a simple thought experiment in a comic book. This only considers female representation, and while this is always a must in the entertainment industry, looking at media only through this lens ignores the need for queer, non-white representation of men. and also those who don’t fall into the gender binary. Feminism isn’t really feminism if it isn’t intersectional and doesn’t consider factors like race, class, or sexuality in conjunction with gender, and the Bechdel test just isn’t not nuanced enough to take all these factors into account.
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