by Bill Thompson
In a recent episode of their BBC film programme Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo talked at length about films in which a dog is a character, looking for ones that treat these companion animals with due seriousness – so no animations, and no romcom plot devices. There are lots – The Road, High Rise, you’ll have your own list. About half way through their discussion they decided to call it the ‘Barkdel Test’ and I laughed out loud at their riff on the Bechdel Test.
They didn’t bother to explain the joke, quietly acknowledging that for the sort of person who listens to them regularly, as for the sort of person who listens to Film Focus, the Bechdel Test is part of your intellectual furniture up there with an understanding of evils of neoliberalism, the importance of flossing and a love of the Isle of Man.
We all know that a film needs to have two named women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man in order to pass, and we all know that many well-known films fail it badly 2. And we all know that it’s named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who used it as a joke it in her cartoon strip Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985.
Million Dollar Baby (2004) depicts strong female representation and passes the test
Dr. Martha Lauzen’s study It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World, examines women in the top 100 domestic grossing films of 2015. For this report, Lauzen focuses on the percentages of female and male characters, characters’ demographic traits, and the relationship between on-screen female representation and the representation of women involved behind the camera. Dr. Lauzen has found that only 22% of protagonists in the top 100 domestic grossing films were women.
The desire for women to be fully reflected in all forms of literature and creative activity is far from new, and Bechdel herself was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s comment in A Room of One’s Own that
‘all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex’.
This is important on many levels. I was around for the third wave of feminism in the 1970s/80s, and was a member of both a men’s consciousness raising group and a mixed CR group. I read Achilles Heel, joined Cambridge University Women’s Action Group and founded Cambridge Men Against Sexism, where we held screenings of Rosie the Riveter and other films about gender issues. I’m a feminist and a socialist, and I’m well aware that cultural norms play a significant role in maintaining oppression and sustaining male privilege.
Still and reviews of Feminist film Rosie the Riveter
So while the Bechdel test might seem a trivial thing, and a very modest requirement for any film to fulfil, it does something very important: it raises consciousness, just like the evenings I spent sitting in a circle talking about whether we (as men) preferred women who shaved their legs, and what that might say about our ability to support equality more widely.
The political is still personal, and by asking a simple question the test opens up the wider debate about how we interrogate and understand the deep gender divide in film-making at all levels. It doesn’t tell us how to fix it, but we have to start somewhere.
The article was written by Bill Thompson
Bill is an English technology writer best known for his weekly appearances on the tech radio show Click on BBC World Service. He was chair of Cambridge Film Trust for five years.