F*ck the Bechdel Test!

Anybody who has known me for more than ten minutes know I’m not a feminist.  I’m not an anti-feminist, either.  Mostly I’m a “can’t-be-bothered-ist.”  Yeah, I like being able to vote, get a paycheck, inherit, etc., all those lovely things that being a 21st century female make possible.  But I have too many other things to do to spend my time and energy being political.

But, for all that Appalachian insularity, it is possible to get my dander up.  And this article I read the other day did just that (original article is here).  In a nutshell, the article says that back in November, Swedish cinemas were introducing a rating system that indicates whether or not a movie passes the Bechdel test. (I can’t find anything saying how successful this rating system has been so far; I’ll report back when I hear something)

I seriously doubt it’s possible to be online nowadays without knowing what the Bechdel test is.  But for those who failed to get the memo, the Bechdel test is allegedly a barometer for how well women are represented in a particular film.  It originated back in 1985, in a webcomic called “Dykes to Watch Out For” by Alison Bechdel. The test, in short asks whether one simple thing happens in a movie:  do two named female characters (no nameless redshirts allowed) talk to each other about anything other than a man.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I think having more female characters in fiction is a good thing, and having them being rounded, fully fleshed characters is even better.  I don’t think I can stand one more Dejah Thoris in the world (no offense, Burroughs fans, but she really is just a Tootsie Roll with boobs; a treat to be fought over, not a person).  But I honestly think the Bechdel test is worse than useless; it actually makes things harder to find good female characters.

I’ve been writing for a long time.  I’ve been a woman for a longer time.  And I’m here to tell you, there’s more to writing a good female character than what the Bechdel Test measures.  “Sex and the City” passes the Bechdel test, times a thousand.   But that TV show and the movies that followed are pure fluff.  Two chicks talking about Jimmy Choo shoes may pass the Bechdel test, but that doesn’t make the characters anything more than vapid life-support apparatus for a set of boobs.

On the other hand, the original Star Wars movie fails the Bechdel test; there are only three women in that movie (Aunt Beru, Princess Leia and Mon Mothma, one of the Rebel Alliance leaders).  None of these women interact in any way, which is an automatic test fail.  But you cannot sit there and tell me that Princess Leia even vaguely resembles Dejah Thoris (yeah, I’m gonna keep harping on her, she annoys me).  Leia is nobody’s victim; she kicks ass, she has depth of character, she has flaws, she has feelings.  She’s a living, breathing, fully fleshed person, and, more importantly, she contributes significantly to the narrative; she’s not window dressing in any way, and without her input, the heroes would not win.  If she fails the Bechdel, that’s proof in my mind that the test itself is flawed.

Some examples that annoy the crap out of me:

  • FAILAliens.  Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley talks to the child about monsters, but beyond that, the flick is a boy’s part.  Ripley isn’t a rounded character?  Give me a break!
  • FAILHarry Potter Series.  Hermione is the only girl who’s more than a recurring part, and she mostly interacts with the guys, not other girls.  Hermione kicks ass before puberty!  She has the most intelligence of the leads, and has more depth than either of the boys, IMHO. 
  • FAILLord of the Rings Trilogy:  There are only three named characters in the series, and none of them interact with one another. Okay, they might have a point with this one, at least as far as Arwen is concerned.  But Galadriel is a strong leader with depth, and Eowyn (my personal favorite of the three) is more than a match for the guys in any category you care to name.
  • FAILThe Avengers:  Only a couple of female named characters, and they don’t interact.  Really?  Do I really have to defend Pepper Potts or Black Widow?  Okay, Black Widow isn’t terrifically developed, but still!

Now wait, Allene!” I can hear my detractors scream.  “You’re not being fair!  That’s not how the test is supposed to be used!”  Don’t flame me, I already know that.  The Swedish cinema decision, and the general position of proponents of the test say they want to broaden awareness of the role of women in fiction.  The Bechdel Test is supposed to do that very thing, by calling attention to the women in a film and pointing out when she’s just window dressing.  From there you can open a dialogue.

The problem is that NOBODY IS USING IT LIKE THAT!  What you intended to happen, and what actually happens are always not the same thing.  People are using it to dismiss a movie as un-feminist or anti-women or whatever.  They don’t discuss the merits of the movie itself, or the characterization of the women in the movie; they just say, “It fails Bechdel, it’s crap!”

So if Bechdel fails to examine what really makes a female character good, and people are using the test in an unproductive way, what can be done?  Well, how about the Mako Mori Test?  Here‘s a good article on it.  For those of you who don’t want to go look, The Mako Mori Test is named after the character Mako Mori in the movie Pacific Rim.  It is intended as a more sensible alternative to the Bechdel Test.  The requirements to pass the Mako Mori:

  1. Does the work have at least one named female character…
  2. Who gets her own narrative arc….
  3. That isn’t just a supporting strut of the man’s narrative?

This makes sense! When a writer sits down to pen a story, he doesn’t ask himself, “Wow, should I have my female lead talk to her roommate about shoes?”  No.  He asks, “What is this character about, and what is her story?  How does it feed into the main narrative?”  Bechdel doesn’t ask this; it doesn’t care.

Does Aliens pass the Mako Mori?  Hell, yes!  Ripley is a named female, who not only has her own narrative arc, but is the primary arc, and in no way is it merely a secondary support to a larger male narrative.  What about Star Wars?  Leia is female?  yep.  She has her own story?  Yep.  Is it only supporting the man’s story?  Well, sorta kinda; I think it stands on its own, if you hold your mouth right.

(Would Dejah Thoris pass Mako Mori?  Ummm, NO! Yet another reason to despise that character)

Mako Mori isn’t a perfect test either.  (Sex and the City would pass the Mako Mori, but that doesn’t make it any less fluffy and vapid).  But I think it’s a much better barometer of the roles of women in fiction.  It opens a dialogue about women in movies, and it actually points at what needs to be discussed — character and story! — rather than some arbitrary “did two girls talk to each other” measure that tells us nothing substantial about the involved characters.

Final question:  why am I bringing this up on a blog devoted to Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New Pulp?  Well, honestly, because our beloved genres do not have a great track record on its depiction of women in film, books, games.  Again, I must trot out Dejah Thoris, who is my prime example.  Granted, all three of our genres either come out of a more patriarchal past, or purposely re-immerse us in that past.  But that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to our readers.  But we’ll examine this in more depth next week.

Okay, I think I can safely put away the soap box for the week.  I’m pretty sure I’m going to get some comments on this topic and I definitely want to hear from you, even if we disagree.  I only ask that you keep it clean and polite, or else I’ll loose the Swedish Chef on you!  Please do share, tweet, comment. Come find me on Facebook, Twitter or email (you can find those links on my About page).  And if you have any contributions you’d like to share with our Fun Fridays, email me!  I can’t have all the fun, you gotta join in!

Categories: Opinion | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “F*ck the Bechdel Test!

  1. I don’t get the Mako Mori test. Mako Mori herself fails the test. Any character advancement is only at the behest of a man. She’s allowed to try the Drift test because Main White Guy asks then Idris Elba allows it (Which, fine for Idris because he’s the commander, that’s his job, and her father figure so I have no problem with Idris/Mako Mori’s interactions).

    When she pilots for the first time she nearly kills everyone and Main White Guy has to pull her back to reality.

    She’s knocked out in the main fight and Main White Guy sacrifices his (oxygen?) and sends her back to safety without her consent (because she’s knocked out!) and Main Guy saves the day.

    Mako Mori supports Main White Guy’s arc, and Idris Elba’s arc. I don’t get how her ‘test’ seems to be lauded when she, in fact, fails her own test.

    As for the Bechdel Test, I think people need to calm down about it, a little.

    • The fact that Mako Mori’s narrative arc is at least partially predicated by the actions of a man do not invalidate her performance on the test. The fact that she failed her first time piloting is certainly not an invalidation. The fact that Main White Guy acts to help her does not invalidate her performance on the test.

      What you’re describing are not failings. They are the natural progression of any narrative arc. There are going to be setbacks, missteps,and false choices. There are going to be people who help your heroine along the way; the fact that it was Main White Guy does not mean her own narrative does not stand up; if it had been another woman helping her instead of Main White Guy, would it have made a difference? (BTW: Main White Guy’s name is Beckett; I’m going with that from here out)

      The Mako Mori test asks three questions:
      Does the work have at least one named female character…
      Who gets her own narrative arc….
      That isn’t just a supporting strut of the man’s narrative?

      Does Pacific Rim have at least one female character? Yes, Mako Mori
      Does she get her own narrative arc? Yes, she is trying to break free of her current role as fosterling, assistant, non-entity in the Kaiju program. Destroying the invading kaiju is a secondary arc to her primary one, which is internal character growth.

      That isn’t just a supporting strut of the man’s narrative? No, it’s not. Her desire to break free of her current role is not predicated by Beckett, has no reference to Beckett, and is resolved independent of Beckett’s narrative. The two overlap, because they’re pursuing the same secondary goals (to destroy the invading kaiju and protect the Earth) as a team, but that is only marginally related to the primary goal. Her narrative is completed with the help of Beckett, but is not sublimated to his own arc (which is overcoming his guilt associated with his brother Yance’s death). Supporting each other’s arcs does not automatically mean that one arc is sublimated to the other.

      It’s very early in the morning, and my brain isn’t firing on all its cylinders, so the only movie example I can think of that fails the Mako Mori is the original Tobey Maguire Spiderman movie. Mary Jane is a named character, she has a narrative arc: she wants to become an actress; she gets started by moving to NYC and looking for work. Then she gets caught up in Spiderman/Peter Parker’s world and drama, and the whole actress thing just kind of fizzles. Is she pursuing it or is she just waiting to be the victim/bystander, the toy that Parker and The Goblin play Tug of War over? So Mary Jane fails the test.

  2. While I’m not going to go as far as saying fuck the Bechdel test, I love the Mako Mori test, and I don’t think putting the Bechdel test as part of a ratings system is useful, and it could even be negative. The test was a discussion point, not a commentary on the quality of an individual story, and to use it in any other way is very poor thinking and does no service to either the test, feminism, or the more general issue of the portrayal of women in the media.

  3. Lissibith

    Personally, I think we should use both tests in conjunction. I hate that so many interesting women in media are surrounded by other named, active characters and yet not a single one of them is another woman. Why do we have so often have to accept the premise “this one singular lady is extraordinary and just as interesting as the dudes!” to get our fantastic female characters, rather than expecting the premise that “women are just as interesting as men?”

  4. No flaming here. I agree with you. At the very least, the Bechdel test is not enough. It was a decent start back in 1985, making people aware of the problem of female representation. I much prefer the Mako Mori test because it does get into character depth, but then you can get away with a cast of a hundred men and one single woman. So why not use both? The two together would be a great step to moving away from the “token badass woman” trope and into stronger, more realistic women of import in general in media.

    • I agree with you and Lissibith one hundred percent. As an early flag, the Bechdel test may have gotten the party started. But that was 30 years ago, and we’re past the first hurdles. Females are turning up more prominently in stories (particularly speculative fiction, my own preferred bailiwick). The two tests together would be better, because it starts getting a little deeper into what those women are doing in the stories. Are they Ripley, or are they Dejah Thoris?

      A better solution would be to start talking about ALL characters in terms of depth and purpose and full-bodied-ness, regardless of gender. But as that last flap with the SFWA illustrated, we’re still in the “baby steps” stage for spec fic. Getting there! But not there yet.

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