The very first time I learned about the Bechdel test was way back in 1998, when I was deeply entrenched in the Labyrinth fanfic community. I was chatting via IM with a beta reader, who told me, with a sigh, that my latest fic did not pass said test. She explained patiently that because my story
- Didn’t have at least two female characters
- who had names
- and interacted with each other
- and who did so without the exchange having anything to do with a male character
it was not feminist and I should start over.
I was perplexed. At the time, I was seventeen, I’d never heard of feminism outside of debates about Hilary Clinton’s scandalous involvement in her husband’s presidency or Connie Chung co-anchoring the CBS news. How could a fanfiction be feminist or not feminist? I had a long way to go.
That was the first time I looked up “Bechdel test” to see what it really was. What I learned shocked me. One woman, writing a comic strip, used a character’s preference in films to point out the egregious oversight of female characters with three-dimensional real-world concerns in pop culture. It was a pithy, but entirely accurate, punch line about how Hollywood represents women on screen. And that was all.
I don’t mean to minimize the contribution of Alison Bechdel to feminism. Because this comic strip, “The Rule” really is a watershed moment in feminism and pop culture. It points out something that is right in front of our faces all of the time, but we usually can’t see it because our cultural conditioning makes us literally blind to it. But the Bechdel test, as it came to be known, somehow became the ultimate test of whether or not fiction was fit for feminist consumption, and there is no gray area. If it doesn’t pass, it’s “not feminist.” If it does, it’s “feminist.”
I got thinking about this last night as I was flipping through my DVDs and I came across The Silence of The Lambs. Now, I’m never going to accuse Thomas Harris of being a feminist visionary. If your only experience of his work is the television show Hannibal, just realize that most of the female characters on that show were dudes in the books. But Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling was one of my very first feminist role models. I remember watching that movie on VHS as a freshman in high school and thinking, “My god, this is a scary movie and the woman isn’t dying? And nobody is rescuing her?” And guess what? It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, despite being one of the very few movies you’re ever going to find that has a female protagonist who isn’t “trying to have it all.” Clarice is just a female protagonist doing her job, without romance or some looming reproductive clock.
Just don’t read Hannibal, because what in the actual fuck, Harris?
Along with The Silence of The Lambs, Labyrinth ultimately fails the test, as well. Although the entire narrative is about a young girl putting aside her dreams of being a damsel in distress in order to be the hero of her own story, it doesn’t pass the test I see my peers using to determine whether or not a piece of media is “feminist.”
Anyway, this got me thinking about what books and movies do pass the Bechdel test and yet are still packed with horrible, anti-female stereotypes and messages. Like Sex and The City. One episode that stands out strongly in my mind is the one in which fashion-obsessed Carrie may lose her apartment because she’s spent all of her money on designer shoes, and her financial troubles cause a rift between herself and her friend Charlotte, who has alimony and a tony penthouse from the rich man she married. If we’re playing by the rules of “if it passes the Bechdel test, it’s feminist,” then there you have it.
You know what else passes the Bechdel test? Every. Single. 50 Shades of Grey book. All of them.
It’s not that the Bechdel test isn’t a useful shorthand for addressing gender inequality in media; it absolutely is. But what the Bechdel test does not do, no matter how one tries to justify it, is determine whether a piece of media is “feminist” or not. Yet that’s how it’s being used, over and over. This is a symptom of a feminist dialogue that routinely projects a very narrow view of what feminism “is,” a dialogue that is leaving all but the whitest, straightest, cisgender women out of the conversation. There is no room for argument or discussion, either something is feminist or it isn’t.
Alison Bechdel made an amazing point, that the role of women in fiction is to be focused on male characters. And that’s absolutely true. But that’s all that comic is, an observation. It’s not a diagnostic tool for how to write your book or screenplay or how we should consume novels and television. If your work doesn’t include female characters talking about something other than dudes, examine why that is. If the answer is, “Because her love interest is the most important thing in her life!” then congratulations, jamming a conversation between her and her mother about how amazing her new car is just ain’t gonna fix the problem. And if the answer is “it legitimately doesn’t fit into the story I’m telling,” and your work doesn’t otherwise contain harmful anti-woman messages, your feminist card doesn’t get revoked.
And keep in mind, the comic strip itself is tongue-in-cheek. The movie the main character cites as playing along by her rule is Alien, and then only because two female characters talk about a monster. The entire point of the comic is that even when the woman gets what she wants, a movie where two female characters talk about something other than a man, it’s still not a representation of real women. It’s totally macho and made to fulfill male fantasy.
If you like a piece of media, and it passes the Bechdel test, there’s nothing wrong with pointing that out. And there’s nothing wrong with pointing out how a piece of fiction could have passed the Bechdel test with some tweaking. But we have to stop using Bechdel’s observation as a benchmark for what constitutes “feminist” fiction. Fiction, like feminism, is not “one size fits all experiences,” and it’s impossible to judge a nuanced medium through a black-and-white test and achieve anything resembling accuracy.