If You Like Art, Don’t Take the Bechdel Test

Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst in director Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (Photo: Ben Rothstein/Focus Features)
Bean counters come up with a meaningless way to measure whether movies pass the feminist litmus test.

Suppose your favorite film critic started sprinkling his reviews with references to the “Cowboy Test” and made it clear that he was factoring into his appraisal of a work of art whether it contained cowboys. La La Land? Manchester by the Sea? Moonlight? All problematic, as these benighted films contain no cowboys. On the other hand, Cowboys and Aliens, Armageddon, and the Village People movie Can’t Stop the Music, each of which contains cowboy characters, would easily pass the Cowboy Test and receive a hearty blessing.

You would think this approach to movies a bit odd. It is. But no odder than the Bechdel Test, a feminist litmus test that is currently being thrown around by movie critics as an important way to assess the quality or at least the political correctness of a film.

Assuming you’re a normal person, and not a film critic, you may never even have heard of the Bechdel Test. Named for the lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, it first appeared in an underground comic called Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985, in which it was called “the rule.” “The rule” is that a movie must have at least two (named) female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. One Bechdel character sniffed that she would go only to movies that pass this test.

Today Bechdel is an over-ground artist, a very big deal. In 2014, she won a MacArthur “genius award.” A show based on her graphic novel Fun Home had a successful run on Broadway and won a Tony for Best Musical. She is regarded as a feminist savant by the left-leaning cultural cognoscenti.

In the past few years, the Bechdel Test has begun popping up casually in reviews like a feminist Good Housekeeping Seal of approval. Take this appreciation last month of the 1992 film A League of Their Own, published by Katie Baker on the site The Ringer: “It is, in my possibly blinded by love but also correct opinion, one of the best sports movies there is. And it is an honest ode to women and sisters and friendships, with a story that breezes through the Bechdel test by the end of the opening scene.”

Hey, and you know what? Tom Selleck’s Matthew Quigley appears almost immediately in Quigley Down Under. Hurrah, this film breezes through the Cowboy Test by the end of the opening scene!

Neither of these two tests gives you any hint as to the worth of a film, and furthermore neither of them tells you anything about a film’s general feminist wokeness. It doesn’t even tell you whether the film is entirely about a woman. Lots of films that have female protagonists fail the Bechdel Test — notably Alien 3; Run, Lola, Run; Breakfast at Tiffany’s (there is actual heated debate on this one, but if it passes it barely does so); and Gravity. The Princess Bride fails the Bechdel Test, as does Finding Nemo, and some argue that The Little Mermaid does, too. (Again, it might barely earn a passing grade.) Lots of blockbusters with beloved female characters fail the Bechdel Test, including the original Star Wars trilogy, Avatar, and all of the Lord of the Rings films. So do many classic Hollywood films, from Citizen Kane to The Godfather, and lots of films directed by women, including Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, not to mention most of the Harry Potter movies adapted from J. K. Rowling’s novels. Showgirls, on the other hand, passes the test. Do feminists look at Showgirls and chalk that one up as a big win?

Lots of blockbusters with beloved female characters fail the Bechdel Test, including the original Star Wars trilogy, Avatar, all of the Lord of the Rings films, and most of the Harry Potter movies.

To give you some inkling of how little the Bechdel Test matters when it comes to filmmaking, consider that Sofia Coppola had never heard of it when asked about it in a recent interview. Coppola is one of today’s most accomplished and acclaimed female directors, and all of her seven films prominently feature women, usually in the main roles. Yet her latest movie, The Beguiled, passes only incidentally. Although seven out of the eight main characters in the film are female — girls and women living at a girls’ school in Virginia in 1864 — they spend almost the entire film discussing a man, a wounded Union soldier they nurse back to health.

Some promoters of the Bechdel Test, stung by the many writers who have pointed out its utter vapidity and uselessness, say it isn’t meant to be a litmus test but rather a strategy for drawing attention to the general way women are sidelined in Hollywood. But movies aren’t intended to be a proper demographic cross-section of America. Movies (at least Hollywood movies) are about people on the extremes of society — cops, criminals, superheroes. These extreme characters tend to be men, and men tend to be the ones who create them. Women enjoy much more prominence in the milieu of low-budget independent movies, where the stories are more focused on ordinary people with real-world problems, but those movies usually attract small audiences.

It might be true that there would be more women prominently featured in movies if more women were writing and directing more movies. But it might also be true that the reason there aren’t as many women making films is that women’s movie ideas aren’t commercial enough for Hollywood studios. To be slightly less reductionist than the Bechdel Test, women tend to write movies about relationships, and men tend to write movies about aliens and shootouts. Have a wander through the sci-fi and fantasy section of your local bookstore: How many of these books’ authors are female? Yet these are where the big movie ideas come from. If a woman wants the next Lord of the Rings–style franchise to pass the Bechdel Test, then a woman should come up with a story with as much earning potential as J. R. R. Tolkien’s.


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