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Testing Bechdel

Our writer Lina Samoili looks at the modern relevance and the shortcomings of the Bechdel test, and asks whether still it's an accurate gauge of female representation in cinema three decades after its creation

Female representation in cinema and the arts has preoccupied feminists and art critics for many decades now. Film academics and feminists, such as Laura Mulvey and Jackie Stacey, have made a significant contribution to feminist theory in film, exposing the dominance of the male. The Bechdel Test, applied in 1985 for the first time, is an easy way of measuring female representation in cinema. Named after the cartoonist Alison Bechdel (pictured above), it first appeared in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Its origins go back to the writings of Virginia Woolf.

The Bechdel Test encompasses three basic and simple criteria. For a film to pass the test, it has to: 1) have at least two named female characters in it, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something besides a man. Although this rule appears to be very fundamental and straightforward, only about half of films pass the test.

Film festivals, institutions and cinemas still use the Bechdel test today. In 2013, four Swedish cinemas introduced the Bechdel Test as a rating system for their films, thus opening the discussion and forcing the audiences to think about equality and female representation on screen. Similarly, in 2014, the European Cinema Support Fund, Eurimages, launched the Bechdel Test as a gauge of gender equality. The Bechdel Test Fest, founded in 2015, is an ongoing project showcasing and discussing films that pass the test, portray a diverse range of female narratives or have a female director.

The Fest Founder and Director Corrina Antrobus explains: “We are now an ongoing celebration of positive representation of women in film and female-led movies…The test is an easy way to look at how few films portray women as something other than backdrops and extras”.

Just how did I fail it?

The Bechdel test if not without faults. The highly prescriptive methodology sometimes excludes films with strong female presence or movies critic of male hegemony. Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari), which won the BFI Film Festival in 2015, is a fine example of the shortcomings of the test. This black comedy about six middle age men on a luxury fishing-trip in a yacht, is a ludicrous show-off of exaggerated masculinity, and a powerful comment on Greece’s macho society, all from the gaze of a female director. But the film fails the Bechdel test simply because there are no female characters.

Another example is Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961). Although the film fails the Bechdel test, it has been received positively by the audience for its strong female representation of Holly (Audrey Hepburn). Holly is an unconventional character that rejects to obey to the traditional norms of the 1960s and lives a single, unconventional life. Other films that surprisingly fail the test include the German Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998) and Disney’s The Little Mermaid (John Musker/ Ron Clements, 1990).

Despite running as fast as she could, Lola was certainly very disappointed to fail the Bechdel test

The black sheep

Now let’s turn things around: what about about films that pass the Bechdel test but offer a very poor representation of the female?

Do the films that pass the test necessarily have a strong female identity? Is the female character represented as an independent, dynamic and active personality? Or is it just another female portrayal flooded with cliches and stereotypes? A quick look at the Bechdel Test Movie List – just click here reveals that there is a bunch of mainstream Hollywood films that pass the test, such as American Pie (Paul and Chris Weitz, 1999) and Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015) and yet lack a dynamic female character, or underestimate and objectify the women.

Other film perpetuate gender stereotypes. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) also passes the test, but the male is dominant and voyeristic. The protagonist, Jefferies (James Stuart) is a sophisticated, mindful and deep character with an interesting and complex personality. With his telephoto lens, he takes the active role of the voyeur ogling his neighbors – among them, a beautiful, good-shaped, glamorous female dancer.

Despite the overpowering masculine gaze, Hitchcock’s Rear Window still passes the Bechdel test

Several critics have pointed out the limitations and inefficacy of Bechdel Test. The Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin understandably described the test as “prizing box-ticking and stat-hoarding over analysis and appreciation”. The Bechdel Test remains a strong indicator of the female absence in the cinema, but it cannot provide an in-depth investigation and analysis of gender in cinema.

Just click here in order to find out more about the upcoming screening of the Bechdel Test Fest, an ongoing event taking place all year long. And follow us on Twitter for the latest updates.

By Lina Samoili - 23-01-2017

Lina Samoili is a Greek writer, researcher and film selector based in London. She moved to the UK in 2012 in order to study film and pursue a career in cinema. After completing a Masters degree in Fil...

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