The Bechdel Test and The Knucklehead

I never actually had the chance to discuss the Bechdel Test with my knucklehead as he was growing up, because I only just found out about it this week. My friend Barth alerted me to it just this past Monday (we middle-aged white guys are always the last to hear about everything). But if I’d known about the Bechdel Test as Knucks was growing up, I’d have introduced it to him. I love the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test was introduced by Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For (which explains a lot about why it took 30 years to reach Old Fart consciousness). A character in her strip said she would only watch movies that passed the following three requirements:

1. The film had to have at least 2 named female characters,

2. Said characters had to have a scene where they talked with each other, and

3. They had to talk about something other than a man.

Bechdel’s character went on to say that she hadn’t seen a film since Alien.

Bechdel’s Test is simple and direct. That’s the first thing I noticed about it. As I started to research it more, I also found out how hugely controversial it is. As you can guess, it’s often used as a litmus test for the feminist sensibilities of a film. If a film passes the Bechdel Test, it’s feminist approved. If not, it’s sexist trash. Yes?

No. Not really.

You can’t use the Bechdel Test as an absolute. To be honest, I doubt it was ever intended to be used that way. It was used in a satiric comic, half-jokingly to illustrate the poverty of interesting women characters in film. Movies that have passed the Bechdel Test? Charlie’s Angels. Bikini Spring Break. Sharknado. Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. From Russia With Love. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D. Movies that “failed” the test? Gravity. Tootsie. Run, Lola, Run. If you’re making a movie about WWII submariners, 19th century Texas lawmen, or 18th century doctors, you may well find yourself in violation of the Bechdel Test and still come out with a picture with moral integrity. So why would I be so damned excited about it?

Because it’s a simple place to begin. And it lends at least a small measure of objectivity to an enormously subjective and volatile topic.

If I may make a comparison, the Bechdel Test seems to me a lot like a baseball pitcher’s win/loss record. By itself, it tells you nothing. It’s even worse if you apply it to only one game.It doesn’t take into account the performance of the pitcher’s teammates, both offensively and defensively, so you don’t know if you have a brilliant pitcher on a bad team or a terrible pitcher on a team of all-stars. It doesn’t tell you how long the pitcher was in a game, under what conditions, whether in a cavernous “pitcher’s park” or, say, in Denver where the ball sails out of the park unimpeded by low-altitude atmosphere. It’s a place to start. 20-game winners do tend to be good pitchers. But you need to keep digging if you want to get at the truth under the number.

On any individual film, the Bechdel Test tells you nothing. But it is a fascinating way to begin looking at films. And if you apply it to a genre, or to an individual writer or director’s body of work, that’s when it becomes much more telling. It’s perfectly fine to make a film that “fails” the Bechdel Test. But if you’ve never made a film that passes it, you’re probably not making films about real life. Or real people.

And it’s so easy to use. Some filmmakers don’t care whether they’re being sexist (or racist, etc.) or not. Some do care, but need clear examples to help open their eyes. The Bechdel Test gives you that. It’s a starting point. If I were a filmmaker, I’d put the Test to every film I made. If a film didn’t pass, I’d take another look. If there’s a compelling reason for the film to fail the test, fine, I can live with that. But if there isn’t, maybe I can look at the script again, and see where I might fix that. And if I’ve made a film that didn’t pass, maybe I need to think about what kind of story I’m telling next.

Let’s look at one of my favorite films, the 2001 version of Ocean’s Eleven. I love that film, I’ve probably seen it fifteen times. The script is clean and smart, the direction is sharp and witty; it’s a gem. But it fails the Bechdel Test. OK, fine, it’s alright for a movie to fail. But it gets you thinking. Of all the eleven thieves Danny Ocean assembled, did they all need to be men? For that matter, did Danny? OK, OK, you don’t want to ditch George Clooney, fine. But did Yen have to be a man? Wouldn’t a petite woman gymnast make more sense? Did Basher? How hilarious would it have been if the brothers from Utah had been the sisters from Utah?

When I first saw Fight Club (a “fail” – and splendidly so) I knew I would never be able to watch another film again without noticing the “cigarette burn” on the screen, and if you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.* In the exact same way, I will never be able to see another movie without thinking of the Bechdel Test. Maybe that only goes to prove how backwards I’ve been all my life. If that’s the case, I’m embarrassed, but there’s another reason to be grateful for the thing. Finally, a way to objectively keep track. A quick yes/no on the appearance of female characters.

But what does any of this have to do with The Knucklehead? Why do I wish I had known about it when he was growing up?

Because it’s not always easy teaching feminism to boys, especially young boys. It helps immensely to create that sense of awareness right from the start. And children are nothing if not concrete. The Bechdel Test, for all its “shortcomings,” is concrete. It zaps right to the heart of the matter. Count the girls. Listen to what they are given to say.

Why is that important? To one dude raising another?

Of course, because it’s the right thing to do. When I started this blog, I wrote that in being a pasty Northern European-American man raising a son, I was aware that I was throwing another future middle-aged white guy onto the pile, and as we already have quite a collection of them, I wanted to make sure I was adding a good one. One that would contribute something. But I have another selfish reason for wanting The Knucklehead to respect women.

I want the best for my son. I want him to have a rich, wonderful, fulfilling life. And that life is going to include a lot of women. His mom. My Bride. Teachers, bosses, coaches, co-workers, friends, lovers. He’s had a couple girlfriends. Maybe he’ll have a wife some day. Maybe a daughter. Maybe he won’t, but women will be in his life until the day he dies. Why should he not expect the best from them? Why should he not hold the women in his life to the same standards of loyalty, integrity, strength, justice, honesty, humor, intelligence, and joy that he holds the boys and men in his life to? Why in the world should he waste his wit, beauty, and strength on someone who cannot appreciate it? How can he possibly find women who can keep up with him, and challenge him, if he believes that women are not up to the task? How do I blind him to half the world, when I want him to enjoy all it has to offer?

Movies teach us about gender roles, whether we want them to or not. Movies influence us, as children and adults. From the movies, we learn how to speak to each other, how to dress, what’s cool, what’s not. As a culture, we share our stories and our ideas with each other at the movies. We have to teach our children to be aware of how our stories are being told, and who is being left out. I think I did a pretty good job with Knucks. I had help, thank goodness, and I think he’s more ethically keen-eyed than many.

But, damn, I wish I’d had the Bechdel Test while he was growing up. It would have been one more useful item in the toolbox.


*Though digital filmmaking may spell the demise of this bit of film lore.

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