Feminist-Minded Critical Memes Like “The Bechdel Test” and “Manic Pixie Dream Girls” Are Losing Their Power


There is something of a thrill the first time that somebody accurately points out just what it is that’s a noxious, recurring theme in pop culture. Certainly there was a frisson of yes, that’s it! when Nathan Rabin, formerly of The A.V. Club and currently of The Dissolve, wrote in 2007 about the cinema’s penchant for manic pixie dream girls, stemming from Kirsten Dunst’s beautifully annoying performance in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown: half-drawn girlfriend characters from indie-minded cinema in the 2000s, where the girl is quirky and only the lead character can see her beauty and she will heal him with her lust for life. Similarly, the Bechdel test — a test named for Alison Bechdel, which examines whether a work of fiction has two female characters who conduct a conversation about something apart from a male character — has become ubiquitous. But ultimately, are these reductive measurements of feminist cred helpful?

The manic pixie dream girl, at least, was a genuine observation of what was a trend, and because Rabin was correct, to a degree, usage of his term began to pick up speed: it was mentioned on sites like Jezebel, parodied online, and talked about in college criticism courses, while films like 500 Days of Summer (and Zooey Deschanel’s whole brand and string of girlfriend roles) came under attack for fitting into the meme.

Perhaps the apex came when Zoe Kazan did a round of interviews for Ruby Sparks, the film that she wrote and starred in. It was a provocative movie, but 99 percent of her press involved discussing manic pixie dream girls and whether her film was deconstructing that idea. It was as much as anything an example of the way that we fantasize and place our own expectations on a relationship with someone, because in an interview with Vulture, Kazan admitted to being frustrated with hearing “manic pixie dream girl”:

That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.

She’s absolutely correct, and the use of “manic pixie dream girl” went from empowering to diminishing very rapidly indeed. As Alison Herman pointed out in her piece on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the trope, “It’s easy to forget that there was a time when we didn’t interpret indie rom-coms through the lens of the [manic pixie dream girl], just as there was a time when the Bechdel test was a revolutionary way of thinking about representation and not a bare-minimum standard for it.”

The thing is, in a similar way to how a “manic pixie dream girl” is a limiting criticism of a film’s characterization, I’m not sure if “the Bedchel test” should necessarily be a “bare-minimum standard,” and what real change comes from criticizing that representation, in movies and TV. At its heart, it’s a joke, and a pretty good one, as seen in the original panel from Alison Bedchel’s Dykes to Watch Out For (above). But when critics mention it as a metric of whether something’s good or bad, judging art by whether it reflects your experience or not, I wonder if we’re losing something.

There are diminishing, and arguably shallow, returns to saying, hey, does this work of art have x and y? If it does, then OK, fine, it works. That’s not to say that stuff that passes might not indeed be worth looking at — only that that this shouldn’t be the only metric of excellence or interest. Any mention of “the Bechdel test” will invariably number the movies and TV that don’t pass. But then, what about last year’s Sandy-in-Space movie Gravity, an exception, or the roundly reviled piece of sexist crap, The Other Woman, a film with a core of three actresses and Kate Upton, which probably would pass.

Do I need the Bechdel test to tell me that summer tentpole films feature female characters who are one-dimensional and mostly screaming wives? I know this. Articles still need to be written about what’s wrong with “strong female characters,” particularly in kids’ movies like The Lego Movie. We need more of an explanation than just “the Bechdel test.”

It’s super-adorable of Sweden to decide to put a “Bechdel test” rating on films, but will drawing attention to the lack of meaningful dialogue for women change the boys’ club that is most cinema? Why not give women access and the ability to actually make films? Or use that money to fund not just a debut, but the next several films of Sweden’s female directors. (Granted, Sweden is light years beyond where America is regarding funding and supporting female artists, but “Bechdel testing” their film releases feels like a Band-Aid solution, little more than an attempt at lip service to feminist ideals.)

Sure, it’s important to raise awareness of how little female characters in mainstream pop culture have anything approaching agency or interests that don’t revolve around love. The work that the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is important and admirable, for one.

But the way to really call forth the sirens of change in art — the way to make art that lingers, that tells true stories — is to start at the bottom, with one ink-stained wretch and a pen. We don’t need the Bechdel test to tell us whether a work of art is good or not — we can figure it out. The lack of female character representation just seems to augur a larger problem: the fact that women and other minorities are outnumbered in Hollywood, and thus don’t have the power to make art that reflects their own experience.

What we need is a test for the work behind the scenes: are two women, a producer, maybe, and a screenwriter, having a conversation regarding making a movie? Call it the (Nicole) Holofcener Holler, perhaps. If so, that film might just end up having interesting, nuanced female characters. Characters that maybe even reflect the audience. Beyond that, they may even be works of art. Who knows?