Monday, 12 November 2012

In which I think about women in film

A bit like one of Pa Blonde’s infamous “short cuts” on drives through the English countryside, the internet’s a marvellous tool for sending you in the direction of things you had no idea existed.

Recently, one such thing whose existence I had been – really rather embarrassingly – unaware of was the Bechdel Test, and in subsequent conversations about it with friends and colleagues, a lot of people I would expect to have heard about it also hadn’t.

For those who fall into the same category, the Bechdel Test is a quick assessment that can be applied to films to examine the extent to which women are represented, and how well-rounded the roles of those women are.

To pass the test, a film has to:

1. Have at least two named women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something other than a man (and yes, that’s anything, no matter how girly: shopping, shoes, eyeliner. Just not a bloke).

Because, you know, that sort of fits with life as we know it, what with women being allowed to be friends with each other, and vote and have opinions and stuff. Simple enough, no? And, possibly because of its simplicity, it’s one of those things that’s stuck with me, and I now silently apply it to whatever film I happen to be watching – which is an interesting exercise to perform.

Going back over the list of films I’ve seen recently or thinking about my favourite films, most of them completely fail to pass the test. Looper? Nope. 50/50? Nope. The Graduate? Nope. (Interestingly, Closer, possibly one of my favourite films ever, which I assumed on first thought to flunk the test spectacularly, does actually pass, as does Skyfall.)

It’s an interesting test because it focuses less on the number of women in any given film, instead looking at how fleshed out the woman are as real characters, rather than as adjuncts to men and their lives (which we all know, really floats my boat).

Of course, filmmakers are under absolutely no obligation to represent women in their work, and in some cases, shoehorning women into a story for the sake of it would be more of a distraction than anything else. Some historical, or war films, for example, probably wouldn’t benefit from having a couple of token female characters inserted. And, of course, the test isn’t perfect – it has plenty of limitations: passing the test doesn’t mean that a film is necessarily pro-women – or even any good (case in point: Charlie’s Angels).

But those aside, it’s still an interesting benchmark, a starting point to get the brain ticking over about how a multi-billion dollar industry handles women – and sexism.

Because I can’t for the life of me remember the last film I saw in which there were no significant male characters, let alone any which would fail the Bechdel test if it were the other way around.


Rebecca said...

Huh. I hadn't heard of the test either. And right off the top of my head, I don't think either of the two films I've seen in the last few weeks would pass: Seven Psychopaths and Flight.

I enjoyed both of them, but I'm pretty sure neither of them met that standard. And though I didn't spend a whole lot of time thinking about it, the first movie to come to mind which would pass easily is The Help. A big bunch of women talking about all kinds of important stuff besides men.

Blonde said...

Rebecca: It's a really interesting test, isn't it? One of those which I'm sure is widely known about in some circles, but deserves much wider acclaim. Bridesmaids is another good example of one that passes with flying colours.

Amy said...

I became slightly obsessed with this idea when I first found out about it, to the point I almost failed a module at Uni in my second year. It's an interesting one — and like you said, failing the test isn't necessarily an indication that it's a sexist film (For example, The King's Speech fails it).

There are a few films that fail the Bechadel Test for men (it's known as the Reverse Bechadel — seriously, I spent WAY TOO LONG reading the comments on that website) but they are few and far between. I think Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging was one of them. Possibly Sex and the City.

Foodycat said...

I love the Bechdel test - I apply it to a lot of TV as well. It's remarkable how often a show with several female characters never actually lets them speak to each other.

Redbookish said...

I've used it when teaching film with my undergrads. It stops us all in our tracks, and depresses me. But it does shut up the 19 year olds who now tell me that "feminism's gone too far" and that when they graduate they don't want to work, but get married and look after their husbands, and have their husbands earn the money.

Yes, really.

So we still need things like Alison Bechdel's work. But it's depressing when you realise that even one's favourite films are depressingly male-oriented. Hey, that's patriarchy for you!

rennbird said...

When you mentioned films that have no significant male characters, I immediately thought of The Women, though having said that, whether it would pass I don't know, as I'm pretty sure all they talk about is Meg Ryan's husband's affair, making him quite a significant, albeit 'invisible' character.

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