The Bechdel Test for Feminist Films

Tuesday 12th November 2013

I realise I’m in danger of treading somewhere I don’t really belong with this post, especially given the selection of films I’ve recommended so far on the blog. I don’t claim to be an expert in gender politics, or even to be particularly enlightened in the films I enjoy watching. Films like Punisher: Warzone or The Men Who Stare at Goats don’t exactly have a ton of rewarding or boundary-pushing roles for women… however, there are a few points I’d like to explore regarding an article I read on the Telegraph website a few days ago. The article was entitled “Swedish Cinemas introduce ‘feminist rating’ for films,” feel free to follow the link and acquaint yourself with the details. The idea is basically that because there aren’t enough “female stories and perspectives” on cinema screens, some cinemas in Sweden have decided to institute a rating system called the Bechdel Test which will judge films based on certain stipulations. The major requirement appears to be that; “The film must have at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.”

First of all, I’d like to say that I’m all for the advancement of women, I think equality is an important issue that has a long way to go. I don’t think there are very many substantial roles for women in film. A lot of Hollywood’s output seems to shove female characters into only three categories; the love interest, the family member or the kidnap victim. I think it is important to increase the number of roles showing women in a positive and equal light. Having said that, I think the Bechdel Test is a fucking retarded way to go about it.

For starters, whether a film is ‘feminist’ or not is completely subjective. According to the Bechdel Test, a film like Sex and the City is empowering to women because it has a whole bunch of named female characters who, while they do talk about men a lot, also talk about shoes, clothes, restaurants and a bunch of other inconsequential shit. Maybe you happen to think Sex and the City is a progressive and forward-thinking franchise… personally I think it enforces negative stereotypes of women, including one particularly dangerous one: the idea that a woman’s life is not complete without a man. A man with lots of money who is willing to buy her nice shoes. You may well disagree with me on that point, and I have to confess I haven’t watched every episode of the TV show and I got bored less than halfway through the first film. I’ll just say that whatever you think of Sex and the City, you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone that Carrie Bradshaw is the modern-day Joan of Arc… unless of course I missed the part where Carrie and co. throw out all their life-affirming shoes, stop agonizing over why men don’t love them, and decide to begin valuing their success in terms of self-respect, financial independence and emotional maturity instead…

The second example I’d like to draw your attention to is Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. This film would also pass the Bechdel Test. If you saw it, you’ll probably remember that all of the main characters are women, apart from Kurt Russell. All the women have names. Even if one of them is called Jungle Julia. The women talk about all kinds of inane and irrelevant shit, like radio shows, cars, drinking, the movie Vanishing Point and other women. According to the Bechdel Test, this should be every feminist’s wet dream… and yet…

Here is a screenshot of Vanessa
Ferlito’s butthole.

Here is a screenshot of Vanessa Ferlito’s butthole. During a scene in Death Proof in which she gives Kurt Russell an overly long and particularly whorish lapdance. In return for a drink that he bought her. I don’t mean to suggest that the idea of women using their sexuality in exchange for material goods and services is not advancing the cause of feminism… oh wait, yes I do. The problem with Death Proof is that, although it meets the rigorous feminist standards of the Bechdel Test, it is a film made by Quentin Tarantino. Therefore, these women are Tarantino’s idea of what a strong, independent, modern woman should be. She should be able to overcome a perilous situation using physical force. She should be able to seduce anyone she likes and discard them shortly after she’s gained what she wants from the encounter. She should only hold meaningful conversations with members of her own sex, and only talk to members of the opposite sex when she wants to have sex with them. She should constantly talk about cars, sex and crappy B-movies from the seventies that no one else remembers… wait a second, this all sounds familiar. Basically she should behave exactly like one of Tarantino’s male characters in every way… but she should have a hot female body. And buy her shorts from a children’s store. Is this feminism? Somehow I doubt it.

I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that it’s not enough to just have more roles for women, unless they’re genuinely worthwhile roles that don’t objectify or degrade those women. It’s also not helpful to judge films based on some arbitrary parameters dictated by a bunch of Swedish women who didn’t like Die Hard. Anyone who sees the poster for Death Proof should be able to tell that it’s not likely to be the last nail in the coffin of chauvinism. Who needs the Bechdel Test (which actually got it wrong anyway) to tell them Quentin Tarantino is not a feminist?

And let’s not forget that sadly a lot of cinema these days is nothing but the exploitation of certain demographics for monetary gain… “What the fuck does that mean Adam?” I hear you say… well, take Sex and the City, a film that is obviously aimed at a female audience. It was directed by a man, two out of the three writers were men, seven out of the eleven producers were men… do you see where I’m going with this? In the same way that male producers and directors use car chases, explosions, boobies and Dwayne Johnson’s biceps to take money out of men’s pockets, male directors and producers are now also using shoes, restaurants, empty romantic gestures and the promise of monogamy to take money out of women’s pockets. That might be a contentious view… I’m not really sure. But it’s honestly what I think.

And before we look at sexual objectification from a solely feminist viewpoint, let’s not overlook the fact that men are also objectified in film. Obviously not as much. And I’m not trying to get any sympathy here… but look at the careers of actors like Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and the great Arnold; if they refused to go sleeveless how long would their careers last? Filmmakers have used male six-packs and biceps to sell tickets for as long as they’ve used female boobs and arses. However, the strong male body image is used to sell films to men, not to members of the opposite sex, and I think that’s an important distinction. Men don’t rush to see Stallone’s latest Rocky horror show (hehe) because we’re all a bit gay for the Italian Stallion… honest… we go because we want to imagine ourselves as the dominant male who is able to physically overcome any challenge life sets us. In other words, we want to be Rocky Balboa, we don’t want to fuck him. I don’t anyway. I can’t claim to speak for all men. At any rate, objectification is not a one-way street. I won’t dispute the fact that the effect of that objectification is much further reaching and more threatening for women. Societal impressions of what the female body image should be affect women in all walks of life, whereas for men, I think there is less pressure. We can admire an actor like Paul Walker (for the amount of time he spends in the gym… if not for his acting) but men don’t feel pressured to look like him. At least not as much as women may feel pressured to diet or work out in an effort to look like Angelina Jolie or Jessica Alba. Hopefully, more important and influential roles for women will lessen the impression that sexuality is the most powerful tool in a woman’s arsenal.

Also, just because men are generally the driving force behind the narrative of Hollywood films, it doesn’t mean that those films are automatically great celebrations of masculine triumph and superiority. No. A lot of macho films make us look like fucking idiots. Just because they’re about us doesn’t mean they glorify us. And again, I’m not trying to turn the debate around and get sympathy for men here, I’m pointing out that the same thing will inevitably happen to women. Just because Sex and the City is all about women, doesn’t mean it paints women in a positive light or advances their position in society. In my humble opinion it simplifies the entire female gender into handbag-hungry, sex-obsessed, selfish, materialistic mannequins. I doubt many feminists are crying out for more of that… A lot of the time it just seems like a parallel to the Blaxploitation films of the seventies. A lot of white movie producers realised there was a whole demographic of people they were failing to capitalise on; black people who didn’t always relate to the white icons of mainstream cinema. The producers then started making films like Shaft, Koffee, Blacula and Foxy Brown to cash in on the tastes of black movie-goers. These films were not aimed at advancing the position of black people in American society. Just as Sex and the City wasn’t produced to push feminist thinking to new heights, it was produced to lure more women into buying film tickets. When we think about certain films in that way, as vehicles made purely for monetary gain, with very few artistic or social sentiments to express, doesn’t the Bechdel Test become completely irrelevant? Most films released in mainstream cinemas don’t push any kind of significant agenda apart from the producers’ aim of making as much money as possible.

And all of this doesn’t only apply to cinema. If you want another example, look no further than Beyoncé’s song Run the World (Girls). On the surface, the song is an anthem calling out to women everywhere and telling them to take pride in their achievements as world beaters… or something like that. Mainly it just says “Who run the world? Girls!” over and over again. Believe it or not, this song had six writers. Yes, SIX. Hmmm… I can see how that was necessary… But it may surprise you (or not, if you’re as cynical as me) that five out of those six writers were men. Five out of six. Beyoncé was the only woman involved in the writing of this lyrical masterpiece. So is it a song championing women, seeking to unite girls around the world to take control and show the men who’s boss? Or is it a piece of exploitative nonsense written by a bunch of men who thought “Hell yeah, women are gonna buy the hell out of this shit and make us rich!” For the answer to that question I only need direct you to the video, in which Beyoncé leads a large group of women in stockings in a sexy dance in front of a group of fully-clothed men… This was apparently down to that same group of male producers sitting round the table going “Hey, if we put half naked women in the video, men will buy the hell out of this shit too and we’ll get double rich!”

So yeah, don’t blame all men for the work of a small minority of men in the film industry and other areas of popular culture. Those men are exploiting women’s bodies so that they can then exploit other men’s wallets. That is the sad truth of it. If you give me a hundred million dollars and a movie studio I will very happily make a film that glorifies the fuck out of women. And if you show me a film that already exists that does that, I’ll watch it. And I’ll probably enjoy it. If it’s good. Because let’s be honest, standards still apply. No one wants to watch a boring film about women doing mundane stuff, in just the same way we don’t want to watch Michael Clayton, or other boring films about men doing mundane stuff. Not that I’m trying to exonerate men from blame here, men have been the gatekeepers in the film industry since it began, and therefore films have been made mostly by men, about men and for men. I do believe that is changing. But, as with all deep-seated cultural paradigms the change will take a very long time.

I don’t know if I’ve really said anything all that enlightening… but hopefully I’ve expounded my views on the subject without offending too many people. Although to be honest, if you’re a woman who’s offended by what I’ve said here but who wasn’t offended by the Sex and the City movies, or most of Beyoncé’s music videos, you’re a hypocrite…

In closing, I’d like to pose a question; does art imitate life or is it the other way around? I really think it goes both ways. Having more positive and empowering roles for women in film and TV will hopefully go some way towards advancing the march of equality elsewhere in life. But I really think it’s only a small part of the equation, and that there are many other areas of life in which women need to become more prominent. The trouble with popular cinema is that it often centers around subjects and occupations that still tend to be male-dominated in reality. For example, most criminals tend to be male and to objectify women to the extreme and this is often reflected in crime films. Police forces around the world also still tend to be dominated by men and this is represented in police dramas and thrillers. Politics is another arena in which there’s a heavy male bias which is reflected in political films, and even in something as politically forward-thinking as The West Wing most of the major players are men. Now, maybe, if we churn out a metric shit-ton of films with strong female politicians, police officers and pimps, it will inspire future generations of women to enter into those professions. But how many of us really worked our arses off to get into our chosen profession because we saw it in a movie? If we did that, ninety-percent of men would be Special Forces Commandos, and the rest would be Ferris Bueller… don’t get me wrong, popular culture definitely has some influence on our choices, but every woman who admires Beyoncé doesn’t spend her days in stockings saluting the sky with her arsehole.

It’s obvious that feminists can’t really rely on the Bechdel Test to come to their rescue, so maybe the more productive route would be for women to continue working hard towards changing established societal gender roles and attitudes by doing whatever the hell they want. If women want to see more films with positive female characters, maybe they need to become writers, producers and actors, and make those films. And I don’t want to come across as blaming women for their situation here, so I will say that men also have a huge part to play… men need to stop resisting change. We need to appreciate that women are equally as brilliant and capable as us. And some of us need to accept the fact that women were not only put on this earth to make our sandwiches...

Seriously, girls (and boys) if you think a film is sexist and objectifies women, by all means vote with your feet and go to see something else. But I think we’re all capable of doing this without needing some arbitrary series of specifications to show us the way. So if cinemas in this country start adopting the Bechdel Test to rate films, I will personally completely ignore it and use my own judgment. Because Death Proof isn’t very feminist. But neither is Sex and the City.

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