A few days ago, after I contended that a feminist litmus test commonly called the Bechdel Test was utterly useless, feminists politely took exception on social media. The piece was picked up by Entertainment Weekly, Salon, the HuffPost, and other sites. After considering the many thoughtful rebuttals, I’d like to humbly apologize to one and all. I hereby retract my piece.
Just kidding. I hereby double down. Not only am I right, but I’m even more convinced I’m right than I was a week ago. I have only just identified the structural flaw that underlies what the feminists are saying.
To review, the Bechdel Test asks whether a movie contains a scene in which two named female characters talk to each other about something other than a man. In a comic book she wrote more than 30 years ago, Alison Bechdel first mentioned the test as part of an extended joke about how persnickety lesbians can be about movie-going choices. But it’s only in the past five years that film critics have begun obsessively mentioning it. Citing the Bechdel Test is a way for left-wing critics — virtually all of them are very left-wing — to flaunt their political bona fides, often amid a digression about whether or not a film is “problematic,” meaning potentially injurious to the progressive propaganda war, mainly in the area of identity politics.
(When you’re a liberal film critic, you tend to expend an exhausting amount of space signaling this to readers, and yet I’m pretty much the only film critic who is routinely tagged with a political label: “Staunch conservative voice” is how Entertainment Weekly described me last week. EW rarely if ever describes any left-wing film critic as a “staunch liberal.”)
The argument my detractors are making boils down to this:
THEY: Women are unfairly underrepresented in film.
I: Are they? Prove it.
THEY: We have this thing called the Bechdel Test.
I: The Bechdel Test is rubbish. Lots of films written or directed by women don’t pass it, like Hurt Locker. Lots of films beloved by tens of millions of women, like Star Wars, don’t pass it. Lots of films with complicated female characters at the very heart of the film, like Alien 3 and Gravity, don’t pass it. Lots of films with multiple interesting, dynamic and complex female characters, such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, don’t pass it. Films that have been blasted as sexist and retrograde, like Showgirls, do pass it.
THEY: Yeah, okay, you’re right about that. The Bechdel Test is not very useful. Actually, we’ve been saying that for years. It’s kind of funny how late to the party you are. But you’re missing the point.
I: What’s the point?
THEY: Women are unfairly underrepresented in film.
I trust I will not again be accused of being a “mansplainer” (Salon) if I point out that this is called begging the question — taking as a given what remains to be proven. Salon’s Alessandro Maldonado, after some boring name-calling (“ignorant,” “misogynist”; I was very much kidding above when I said feminists were polite about my piece), said: “Smith might be a little late on his idea of the Bechdel Test. It’s no secret the test is flawed, even feminist films can flunk it. But, by denouncing its importance, he fails to recognize the systemic sexism within the male-dominated industry of Hollywood.” Sean McElwee, a left-wing policy analyst, tweeted, “The Bechdel test isn’t meant to be like [sic], the sole method for judging movies, it forces us to think more deliberately about sexism in art.”
I don’t dispute that, compared with real life, women are underrepresented both in front of and behind the camera. Most dialogue in movies is spoken by men; most Hollywood screenwriters and especially directors are men. But movies, especially Hollywood movies as opposed to more-realistic independent movies, aren’t trying to mirror life. Life, for most people, means a third of your time asleep, a third at a boring office job, and another third watching TV, cleaning up after your kids, shopping, and remembering you forgot your mom’s birthday until the day before.
Studios hire the best talent they can find or afford. They don’t care whether the director is a woman.
Almost none of this stuff ever gets depicted in movies. The top ten movies so far this year are about a woman who falls in love with a water buffalo who is really an enchanted prince; a gang of wisecracking space cowboys fighting aliens; a goddess trying to save humanity with her magic lasso; a mutant man-wolverine; illegal high-speed car chases; superheroes made out of plastic blocks; a community of white suburban liberals who murder black guys for sport; a baby who is actually a ruthless businessman; ghost pirates; and an island of prehistoric monsters.
How much of that output sounds like the filmmakers’ intention was “We want this to remind people of their real lives?” Life is boring. Movies are escape.
If women don’t like movies the way they are, they could correct it on either the supply or the demand side using their market power. They could refuse to buy tickets to films that don’t pass the Bechdel Test. They don’t, because that would be stupid. More women could also write more movie scripts that pass the test and sell them. I was mocked for saying that if a woman thinks the test is important in blockbusters, she should write a fantasy series like Lord of the Rings that passes the test — a Bechdel Blockbuster. Aha! They wrote. You forgot about J. K. Rowling! You know how you can tell I didn’t forget about her? I mentioned her in my piece.
Yet Rowling, like the audience, evidently doesn’t care about the Bechdel Test, either. If she did, she could have insisted that all the Harry Potter films pass it. (Not all of them do.) I thought it obviously implied that whatever hypothetical writer wrote a hypothetical Bechdel Blockbuster series would have to make sure the resulting movies adhered to the test. Few or no women filmmakers would insist on that, because it’s hard enough to get a movie made without attaching feminist baggage to it. The Bechdel Test is so irrelevant that you can be one of the leading female filmmakers for two decades, making movies about women the whole time, as Sofia Coppola has done, and never even have heard of the test, as she hadn’t until a few weeks ago.
Because of the success of Wonder Woman, which was directed by Patty Jenkins, feminist culture writers are in a kind of ecstatic trance at the moment, by which I mean only 90 percent of what they say is grumbling instead of the usual 100 percent. Summer’s big blockbuster proves that female directors can make big money, too, they say. Sure. But the audience doesn’t care whether the film was directed by Patty Jenkins or Patrick Jenkins. How does it follow that if Jenkins did a great job on this film, some other woman will do a great job on the next blockbuster? Studios hire the best talent they can find or afford. They don’t care whether the director is a woman. They don’t care whether the director is gay. They don’t care whether the director is from Russia, Japan, or Beverly Hills. They just want someone they think will succeed. How they go about deciding that, I don’t really care.
— Kyle Smith is NRO’s critic-at-large.