The Bechdel Test

My friend and writing partner, Angela, knows lots of stuff in general, but especially about writing. In our writing partnership, I consider her the brains of the operation, while I am just the barfer. I can cough up pages, but she’s the one who cleans the barf, so to speak. Her ability is the result of studying filmmaking and screenplays and keeping her eye on “the industry” and writing trends. Someday I’ll have to learn to do that myself. For now, I rely on her expertise.

This weekend, she told me about the “Bechdel Test” used in evaluating creative writing.  The test is named for Alison Bechdel (who attributes the idea to her friend Liz Wallace). Back in 1985, Bechdel wrote a comic strip where a character stated that she only watched movies where the following requirements were met:

(1) It has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something besides a man.

Later versions of the test revise the two women requirement to two “named women.” Sounds simple, right? Well, go ahead. Think of a movie that meets the requirements. I’ll wait . . .

*Jeopardy tune plays*

You back? Not as easy as it seems. There are movies out there which pass muster, but it definitely takes some thought to name them. A user-generated website called Bechdel Test Movie List lists movies and applies the test to determine whether the movies pass or fail. For movies that fail, an explanation is provided.

For example, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone fails, according to the website, because while there are two or more women in the movie, they don’t talk to each other. Likewise, Oblivion was dinged because although there are two or more women in the movie, they only talk to each other about a man. Again, since the website is user-generated, you may disagree with the results (and leave a comment on the site as to why). I can’t confirm or deny the accuracy.

What does it all mean? According to Neda Ulaby in a 2008 interview for NPR called, “The ‘Bechdel Rule,’ Defining Pop-Culture Character,” (click here to go to the transcript), Ms. Ulaby states that Ms. Bechdel’s cartoon:

…still resonates because it articulates something often missing in popular culture. Not the number of women we see on screen, but the depths of their stories and the range of their concerns.

Depth of women’s stories… range of their concerns… hmm…

I checked the movie list and also noticed that most of the recent kid movies (the exception being Brave, although even Brave is contested) didn’t pass:  Jack and the Giant Slayer and Frankenweenie (fewer than two women); Hotel TransylvaniaParaNorman, The Pirate! Band of Misfits, Rise of the Guardians, and The Lorax (two or more women but they don’t talk to each other); Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (two or more women but they only talk to each other about a man).

I can’t verify these results, as I haven’t seen all of these movies. I am going purely by the website. Still, what does this say about filmmaking and society? Anyone? Anyone?

To me, it kind of bums me out as a woman, a parent, and a writer.

Back to Brave for a bit. I am a huge Pixar fan. I love all the Pixar movies. When I heard that Pixar was doing a female-centered movie, I hoped it would be different. What I craved from Pixar was a story equivalent to Toy Story, with the Woody and/or Buzz characters being female. Finding Nemo with Marlin being Nemo’s mom and Dory being “Donny.” Keep the action! Keep the premise! Keep the dialogue too! Just make the star a girl.

But Brave wasn’t that. Pixar punted and what we got instead was a girl rebelling against marriage and her parents. Meh. Such high hopes for naught.

Now please understand– Brave won an Oscar. It made millions. It received critical acclaim. It was a wonderful movie. But it wasn’t Wall-E or Up. To me, it was a take on a traditional fairy tale about … guess what, surprise surprise … a Princess.

Where does this leave me? Well, how about here: Challenge Accepted. I want to write for Pixar a female-centered film and I want it to win an Oscar, make millions, not mention anything about Princesses, and pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors! Hopefully Angela’s up for the challenge too. We can do it.

Despite the history of filmmaking and Pixar’s track record, I know it’s not impossible. It can be done.

Have a nice evening.

14 Comments

  1. I have been in introduction to sociology classes where we have discussed the Bechdel Test. It is one of the more popular subjects for students to talk about.

    I think it will be great when you write a story that passes the Bechdel Test in flying colors🙂

    Like

  2. Pingback: Fortune Cookies and a Universal Freak Out | Waiting on a Word

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