Searching for a New Bechdel Test at Barnard College


“The Bechdel Test is actually just a lever,” says Michelle Dean, a pop culture writer currently at Flavorwire. “It isn’t actually a critical test. It’s a way of pointing out to people in a really short and pithy fashion exactly what’s wrong with the output that’s going on.”

Dean was one of four female film critics — including Katey Rich (Vanity Fair), Linda Holmes (NPR’s Monkey See blog), and Inkoo Kang (Village Voice, LA Times) — who were panelists at this past Sunday’s Bechdel 2.0 discussion at Barnard College. The conversation and Q&A was held in conjunction with the Athena Film festival and was moderated by Carrie Rickey, who has reviewed film at the Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 25 years.

Each panelist was asked to propose a Bechdel Test redux, one that could weather the increasingly frenzied, profiteering logic of today’s Hollywood studio complex.

In 1985 Alison Bechdel, today most famous for her long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and the graphic novel Fun Home, devised the test. She first presented it in a now-famous strip called “The Rule,” in which one woman lays out to another her standards for whether a movie can be considered feminist cinema. The rule is threefold, as Bechdel herself explained on NPR’s All Things Considered back in 2008: “One, [the movie must] have at least two women in it. Two, they had to speak to each other — about, three, something besides a man.” The rule has since been applied broadly to all forms of fiction, including classic literature and, especially, television.

Now, with nearly 30 years having passed since the publication of the subversive strip, Hollywood remains mired in the same old sexism and under-representation of women — only now many critics believe it has gotten worse. This is in large part due to a paucity of female directors, screenwriters, producers, and actors with speaking roles, as demonstrated in a recent study published by the New York Film Academy. No less important are the scant voices of women, online and print, discussing film, criticizing it, and being compensated for their work. A study conducted by Martha M. Lauzen of San Diego State University found that as of the spring 2013, 78 percent of top film critics were male.

The panel didn’t reach a consensus on how to improve upon the Bechdel Test, but many critiques categorized the rule as being too broad in or too narrow, explaining it is inadequate when applied to particular films (what about Castaway? What about Gravity?). “The difficulty with the test for me,” said Holmes, “is that it’s both over-inclusive and under-inclusive.” But more important, the panelists used the test as a lever, just as Dean suggested, not to unimaginatively flunk and extol movies on the basis of a single criterion, but to pry open the many elaborate doors that have been locked against women in Hollywood throughout its history, and to question the motives and profit margins of the industry’s (mostly male, mostly white) gatekeepers.

Questions covered included how to make a film for everyone, and whether the goal of feminists should be to encourage and promote such films. The conversation often touched on intersectionality (Rich suggested a second rule to test whether films feature actors of color in roles that don’t need to be played by actors of color) and other lesser-known barometers of gender equity on screen, such as the Mako Mori Test and Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Sexy Lamp Test. One audience member was particularly adamant about the benefits of instituting some officially sanctioned Bechdel Test rating, following in the footsteps of Sweden, a country that has predictably been charged with dipping a toe in the deep end of reductio ad absurdum feminism.

There cannot be any discussion about gender equity in Hollywood without picking away at the patriarchal “biz,” the boardrooms of brotherly executives and number crunchers. Holmes commented on the myth of the unmarketable chick flick, saying, “Even with the big commercial successes, there tends to be more female DNA in them when they hit a nerve with mainstream audiences,” adding that everyone is always so shocked when a film featuring women as plot-drivers actually does well. People always say, “Bridesmaids, who knew? Frozen, who knew?” said Holmes. “EVERYONE. Everyone knew.”

Kang pointed to the increasing internationalization of the box office as a reason “strong female characters” are disappearing from Hollywood film projects: “That’s a conversation I wish we were having more of, but it’s also kind of an insider-y confrontation…. I don’t know if it’s going to take place on a general, New York Times level.”

According to Dean, the numbers that the studios insist show whether movies featuring fully formed character arcs for women are profitable are often misleading or unavailable. She acknowledged the futility of “demanding that executives release the financial reports that they have. I think that they look at those reports and take what evidence they want from them to prove their already existing attitudes.” Instead, Dean, a former corporate lawyer herself, suggested challenging them rhetorically, in the court of public opinion.