Weekend Open Thread: Passing (Along) the Bechdel Test

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I had meant to make this the Weekend Open Thread for the weekend of the Academy Awards, but better a little late than waiting almost another entire year and probably forgetting again.  This is about a famous test that some readers may know well but my guess is that others have never heard about: the Bechdel Test.

Unfortunately, because of where the alt-cartoonist Alison Bechdel broke the panels, including the “test” without chopping up and reassembling the original strip (which I think was from 1990 or so) means including half of the original; you’ll find the other half at the link.

At that link, you’ll also find some interesting discussion.  Is a movie only worth watching if it contains at least two women who talk to each other about something besides a man?  Don’t get hung up on that question of political aesthetics; it’s not the real point.  The real point is “consciousness raising” — leading readers to think about how many movies do not pass the Bechdel Test because they either (1) have fewer than two female speaking characters or (2) those characters never talk to each other or (3) those characters talk to each other only about a man.

My sense is that more popular movies pass the Bechdel Test today than did so in 1990 — in fact, applying the Bechdel Test over time is a pretty fair “ballpark estimate” way of assessing change in our popular culture — but it’s still amazing how many don’t.

Should this be surprising?  Well, try applying the Reverse Bechdel Test to movies: how many movies have at least two men talking to each other about something other than a woman?  (It might be much easier to identify those that involve adults at all that don’t!) And, of course, both the Bechdel Test and the Reverse Bechdel Test don’t have to be binary; one could count up the number of “Bechdel-Passing” scenes in a movie and the number of “Reverse Bechdel-Passing” scenes in a movie and tote them up.

Many people like to say that our society is now equal in terms of race, gender, etc.  Well, here’s an easy way to check.  If, as I suspect, the number of movies that pass the Bechdel Test is far, far, far smaller than the number passing the Reverse Bechdel Test — and if, as I further suspect, it becomes worse when you actually tote up the numbers in each scene — than that suggests that there’s some amount of residual inequality in our culture.  That “residual” amount is probably huge — go ahead and explain it away.

My daughters love watching movies.  Inevitably, this is part of acculturating them.  What are they — and your own daughters and granddaughters (and nieces, etc.) — learning from watching movies that don’t pass the Bechdel test?  Here’s a final thought: nothing prevented anyone from making one of the thirteen dwarves in “The Hobbit” female; greater liberties were taken elsewhere in the Tolkein adaptations.  But if only one were female, what would that do to the interactions we’d expect in the script?  What if it were two?  What if it were three — or six, or seven of the thirteen?

This your Weekend Open Thread.  Discuss this, or anything else you’d like, within reasonable bounds of decorum.  And this is also the place where you can drop interesting tidbits that don’t fit in elsewhere over the course of the week.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

About Greg Diamond

Prolix worker's rights and government accountability attorney. General Counsel of CATER, the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility, a non-partisan group of people sick of local corruption. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Runs for office sometimes, so far to offer a challenge to someone nasty who would otherwise have run unopposed. Someday he might pick a fight intending to win it rather than just to dent someone. You'll know it when you see it. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level. A family member works part-time as a campaign treasurer. He doesn't directly profit from that relatively small compensation and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he hated. He does advise some local campaigns informally and generally without compensation. If that changes, he will declare the interest. He also runs a less frequently published blog called "The Brean," for his chosen hometown, where he is now fighting with its wealthiest and most avaricious citizen-donors. This just seems to be his way.