Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Problems With The Bechdel Test

Over at GMP Allan Mott had a good piece about the so called Bechdel Test, a feminist critique of the film industry when it comes to the portrayal of women in movies. It’s a good piece and I think you should read it, but if anything I thought that he was a little too forgiving (and yes this piece is largely based on the comments I posted over there). 

For people who don’t live in online-debate-world or feminist-theory-world the Bechdel Test is based on a 1985 underground cartoon where one female character points out to another that:

I have this rule…I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. ONE, it has to have at least two women in it, who TWO, talk to each other about THREE, something besides a man.

It’s a valid criticism of how gender roles and such are treated in a lot of movies, but as Mott points out it’s pretty terrible at actually judging an individual film. For example last year’s Gravity fails it, while Ilsa She Wolf Of The SS (uh, you probably shouldn’t play that trailer at work) passes with flying colors. 

I’d take the criticism even further, a lot great movies, like Vertigo, (one of the greatest movies ever made) fails while even worse movies than Ilsa (The Human Centipede, of which the less is said about the better) get through. Which has led me to want to make a new test for tests, the Anderson Test. The Anderson test says, “If Vertigo fails your movie test, your movie test sucks.”

Furthermore it seems to me that a lot of movies that nobody would call sexist or bad fail it as well. Is Fargo sexist or wrong-headed? Well there some gore and violence, but it’s pretty funny and at the end of the day Marge, the main character, solves the crime through smart police work and catches the killer (and fend of the advances Mike Yanagita to boot!)

To add to these problems there’s a lot of pretty good movies out there that if they were re-written to pass the test would lose a lot. How would you make Platoon pass the test? Or The Shining? Or To Live AndDie In LA? All three of which hallmarks of their respective genres. You really can’t, and while it might be better if there were more movies like Concussion or Monster, that doesn’t mean that The Shining is somehow a lesser film because Wendy talks with the pediatrician character about her husband Jack (a man) and son Danny (also a man). Indeed having Wendy talk with the pediatrician about something other than her son (how the Nikkei is doing, Reagan’s new tax plan) would be pretty silly. 

But even worse a lot of movies that obviously fail the Bechdel test make arguments that proponents of the test would presumably agree with. Take Glengarry Glen Ross, now I wouldn’t call David Mamet a feminist or anything but it’s really notable how all the salesmen define themselves through a tough male machismo (“Whoever told you, you could work with men!”, denigrating Jack Lemmon’s character as “Shelly”, Al Pacino manipulating his mark by pitching dodgy real estate as a way to reassert his manhood over his wife who has vetoed the idea). But as A.O. Scott points out in a great review the end result of this quest for man as macho bread winner is a world with, “no love, no family, no joy, no respite from the endless, pointless selling.” And, “despite all the bluster and bravdo of these men, there world is small, static, desperate.” In other words the socially constructed gender role of men as warrior/bread winner who “does what it takes” to Always Be Closing has, in its own way, denigrated these men just like it has denigrated the women who are excluded from it. Which hardly strikes me as the type of movie Bechdel was criticizing.

In the end I think the whole Bechdel Test problem arises because a lot of smart people took a general point from a 30 year old cartoon and decided to apply it literally and universally to the world. That might tell us something about modern feminism as a social movement (also see here) but it doesn’t tell us much about movies. Movies have a lot of problems, how they deal with gender is one of them, but that doesn’t mean Vertigo isn’t a great film. In fact it’s one of the greatest ever made.

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