The Bechdel Test ≠ Feminism

Bechdel Test

Last week it was announced that a small number of cinemas in Sweden – backed by the SFI (Swedish Film Institute) – were introducing a new certification based on whether or not a film passes the Bechdel Test. The aim of this little project is to demonstrate just how few movies pass the test and to give audiences more of a chance to avoid films that might be riddled with typical Hollywood sexism. Though a film doesn’t need to pass the test in order to be shown in these cinemas (thankfully!), only those that do will be awarded the new “A” rating.

For those who don’t know, the Bechdel Test gets its name from the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, whose 1985 comic-strip “The Rule” forms the basis for what the test hopes to assess. In the strip, a female character states that she will only watch a film if it satisfies three basic rules;

1. It must have two female characters,
2. These two characters must speak to each other at least once and
3. Their conversation mustn’t be about a man.

On paper, it all sounds pretty good. I always support attempts to tackle sexism and misogyny, especially in the media, and I have a real hatred for the treatment of female characters by certain sections of the film industry. Yes, I am looking at you Michael Bay…

Alas, the Bechdel Test is quite deeply flawed and while Sweden is right to attempt to tackle the incessant sexism of Hollywood and beyond, the Bechdel Test isn’t a great indicator of whether or not a film is offensive to women. To me, it seems like the test is little more than a piece of satire that has gotten terribly out of hand (the joke is that the character in the comic states that the last film she saw was Alien, which at the time was already six years old). Despite its great intentions, some of the most vulgar, sexist trash can pass the Bechdel test while films with a progressive agenda can often fail for no good reason.

Allow me to explain, in the spirit of Alison Bechdel, by sticking with the Alien saga; one of the most feminist films of the 1990s is the much under-appreciated Alien 3. Unlike its predecessors, Alien 3 is – at its heart – a character study of Ellen Ripley. It places science-fiction’s most famous heroine into her most perilous environment yet (a prison planet full of men – arguably much more terrifying than some poxy alien…) and allows her flourish as a character far more than the previous entries in the saga. Following her generic “final girl” role in Alien and her motherly turn in Aliens, Ripley becomes all but genderless in Alien 3, surviving by utilising yet simultaneously sacrificing all notions of her femininity. Throughout the course of the film, Ripley becomes more powerful than she’s ever been, facing down not just a vicious alien but also the advances of a dangerous male community in a film rich with gender-based social commentary. In fact it isn’t until Alien 3 that Ripley truly confirms her role as one of cinema’s greatest feminist icons, so no-one can accuse the film of dabbling in sexism or misogyny surely?

Alien 3 - 1991

Yet here’s the problem; Alien 3 fails the Bechdel Test at the first hurdle. Does this make it less of a feminist film? Of course not, yet under this system Alien 3 would be refused an “A” rating. This wouldn’t be too bad if Alien 3 was a rogue exception but this is far from the case. Look, for example, at the critically-acclaimed Gravity, in which a female astronaut must overcome impossible odds in order to survive. The film fails on the basis that it contains just one female character. That might normally be a problem but in a film with a total of two characters it’s a pretty solid ratio… similarly, horror films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th Part II fail the test, even though they are all concerned with the emancipation of a “final girl” character from the grip of a vicious male killer.

Worse still, lots of films that do pass the Bechdel Test are the antithesis of feminism. Lots of action films (for example, Die Hard) pass the test for the simple reason that – at some point – two females talk to each other about work or politics or clothes for a few seconds. Let’s ignore the fact that in most of these films the sole role of the woman is to be kidnapped, beaten and degraded before being recused by the man and slap on an “A” rating anyway. Don’t get me wrong; I love Die Hard but it’s not exactly a feminist allegory.

I think the problem I have with all of this rests not with the Bechdel Test itself but with the people who seem to think that the Bechdel Test will help to solve the problem. It never has been and it never will be a solution for the simple reason that it is so unreliable and so horribly flawed. If you want to tackle sexism and misogyny in cinema you have to tackle the culture of Hollywood, the culture of celebrity and the voyeuristic nature of the entertainment media. I don’t know where to begin with that but I can’t imagine this arbitrary new rating is going to help all that much. Sure, it’s well-meaning but I doubt that a few cinemas in Sweden introducing a new rating will be able to shame an entire industry into changing…

What do you think? Does the Bechdel Test work more than I’ve argued or do you think a whole new approach is needed to tackling sexism in film/television? Let me know your thoughts in the box below!