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?