Testy

November 8th, 2013 | Other Projects

bechdel test logo

There has been some hubbub this week about The Bechdel Test because a chain of movie theaters in Sweden just launched a rating system based on it.

I was approached a while ago by a group of four Swedish art house cinemas who wanted to call attention to gender inequality in film by “Bechdel-testing” their repertoire. They would create a seal of approval for movies that pass the three simple criteria of the test: at least two (named) women characters, who talk to each other, about something besides a man.

I said sure, that sounds awesome, go for it.

So they did, and the Guardian ran an article about it on Wednesday. Which prompted a flurry of emails from radio programs who wanted to talk to me. I spoke to Marco Werman at PRI’s The World, and got to join in his conversation with Ellen Tejle, the director of the participating cinema in Stockholm. I also did a background interview with the NPR program Here and Now.

Yesterday I got a lot of other requests from other media outlets but I’m ignoring them. I feel bad about this. There seems to be something fundamentally wrong about not seizing every possible chance for publicity—if not for myself, then at least for the brave Swedish cinema consortium, not to mention the cause of women everywhere.

But inevitably in these interviews I say simplistic things, or find myself defending absurd accusations—like that the formal application of the Test by a movie theater is somehow censorious.

I have always felt ambivalent about how the Test got attached to my name and went viral. (This ancient comic strip I did in 1985 received a second life on the internet when film students started talking about it in the 2000’s.) But in recent years I’ve been trying to embrace the phenomenon. After all, the Test is about something I have dedicated my career to: the representation of women who are subjects and not objects. And I’m glad mainstream culture is starting to catch up to where lesbian-feminism was 30 years ago. But I just can’t seem to rise to the occasion of talking about this fundamental principle over and over again, as if it’s somehow new, or open to debate. Fortunately, a younger generation of women is taking up the tiresome chore. Anita Sarkeesian, in her Feminist Frequencies videos, is a most eloquent spokesperson.

I speak a lot at colleges, and students always ask me about the Test. (Many young people only know my name because of the Test—they don’t know about my comic strip or books.) (I’m not complaining! I’m happy they know my name at all!) But at one school I visited recently, someone pointed out that the Test is really just a boiled down version of Chapter 5 of A Room of One’s Own, the “Chloe liked Olivia” chapter.

I was so relieved to have someone make that connection. I am pretty certain that my friend Liz Wallace, from whom I stole the idea in 1985, stole it herself from Virginia Woolf. Who wrote about it in 1926.

Okay? So in Chapter 5 of A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf is describing a book she has just taken off the shelf. (It’s a fictitious book, Life’s Adventure, by a fictitious woman novelist.) Woolf pretends to be scandalized by the words, “Chloe liked Olivia…”

“Chloe liked Olivia,” I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered had she done so! As it is, I thought, letting my mind, I am afraid, wander a little from Life’s Adventure, the whole thing is simplified, conventionalized, if one dared say it, absurdly. Cleopatra’s only feeling about Octavia is one of jealousy. Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair? The play, perhaps, required no more. But how interesting it would have been if the relationship between the two women had been more complicated. All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. There is an attempt at it in Diana of the Crossways. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men…

Also, I continued, looking down at the page again, it is becoming evident that women, like men, have other interests besides the perennial interests of domesticity. “Chloe liked Olivia. They shared a laboratory together…” I read on and discovered that these two young women were engaged in mincing liver, which is, it seems, a cure for pernicious anaemia: although one of them was married and had—I think I am right in stating—two small children. Now all that, of course, has had to be left out, and thus the splendid portrait of the fictitious woman is much too simple and much too monotonous. Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them: how literature would suffer!”

If you made it all the way through this 5,276 character blog post, you get an A!

37 Responses to “Testy”

  1. Brooklyn Phil says:

    I find myself alleviating my friends’ guilt, whenever they express it. “Don’t worry about it,” I tell them. And to you, I say the same. If you don’t want to participate in more interviews, that focus more on sound-bytes and superficial analyses of culture, I don’t blame you. I do think you’re always articulate, in whatever form you choose. And it’s because you thoughtfully choose the form(s) in which to work, that your message is even more valuable. :)

  2. meg says:

    Hurrah! I get an “A”!

    And I utterly understand the fatigue with having to explain, once more, and once more again, the basic concept of women being fully fledged humans.

  3. RAH says:

    The two film people talking about it on the BBC yesterday morning did a fine job without you. Best of all, they agreed that as hard as it is to find movies that pass the test, the test doesn’t go far enough. What’s really needed is for women to be as represented as often — and with as complicated personalities and roles — as men.

    I gave that interview an A, even though only one of the three people involved (including the host of the show) was a woman.

    I skimmed the first paragraph of the Virginia Woolf quote. Do I get an A-?

  4. Yeh. I was delighted by the Guardian story, and blogged about it…and then I read the comments. Ohdeargod.

  5. Suzanonymous says:

    I get an A, too, though I am commenting to compliment your ability to be very succinct with your words (which cartoons require). You conveyed the basic idea in under 140 characters (my twitty twitter reference) what Woolf took much longer to convey (though with more texture and literary exploration).

  6. [...] Bechdel posts on the Bechdel test in Sweden and the news flurry about [...]

  7. Pam I says:

    Good to have that link to the original strip, as I have been saying in my comments on the articles about this, that every time The Test is mentioned, they should use your strip, because then you’d get paid instead of just getting a credit.

    BTW Dont read the comments cos most of them are howls of pain from shredded male souls.

  8. Duncan says:

    I noticed Virginia Woolf (as well as Samuel R. Delany) as a precedent when I wrote about The Rule on my blog, and found some films that pass muster in some unlikely places, like South Korea. It’s a useful notion, all right, though like you I suspect it too often functions as an analysis-stopper, letting sexist people and institutions believe they’re more feminist than they are. But it’s a start, and if people are discussing it, they might explore its implications and that will be a good thing.

  9. Mentor says:

    [[HERE] is a nice article in “Playbill” about AB’s experience with the production of FHtM.

    (The last page contains a gallery of stills from the production.) –Mentor]

  10. [...] the blog section of her Dykes to Watch Out For website, the comics creator and feminist hero addresses the latest hubbub surrounding the infamous Bechdel Test and its position in a new rating system adopted by progressive movie theatres in [...]

  11. Alison, I’ve got a whole cast of movie stars who would love to take the media burden off of you. My name is Cathryn Michon and I’m the Writer/Director of a film “Muffin Top: A Love Story” that has more women in front of AND behind the camera than any film made in the last three years (honestly, that’s as far as I could check, I got tired and I’m in soundpost on the film). It also has the ONLY all female singer songwriter soundtrack score in rom com history. It’s a funny comedy about body image, and the protagonist is a Women’s Studies prof. Plenty of women talk about many things in the film that aren’t a man, including using the dreaded “F Word.”* *Feminism, of course. We’re actually doing a Kickstarter campaign right at this moment to fund a Nationwide PUT CHICKS BACK IN FLICKS tour. I’m doing some media (Stephanie Miller’s syndicated talk show on Monday) but we could use a lot more and would do something very valuable with it. Because we’d be using this very funny movie to prove that the current stats in Hollywood (From the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media, only 6% of Hollywood movies give women an equal voice) can be overcome. We actually did it! It’s a low budget indie but with big stars and we want to put a National spotlight on this issue in a positive way by saying of course it’s ridiculous that women don’t make movies. I hope you’ll get in touch with me on this. I’m a fan because a friend turned me on to your work years ago. Anyway, think about it. It IS a shame to waste media. I’ve got women who are on big shows like Glee, Parks and Rec, Arrested Development, Tony Winner, Emmy Winners, women who can speak eloquently and persuasively on this issue. Here’s the link to the campaign for the film where you can see the theatrical trailer for the film and a pitch video where the actors talk about how we want to Put Chicks Back In Flicks.* *Parody of old Variety Headline “Hicks in Sticks Nix Flicks” If we succeed in taking this film across the country we want the headline to read: “Hicks in Sticks Put Chicks in Flicks.” Here’s the link to the campaign: http://kck.st/1h9IMJ0

  12. Rob Barrett says:

    Someone has applied a BIG DATA approach to the Test and graphed their results:

    http://tenchocolatesundaes.blogspot.com.br/2013/06/visualizing-bechdel-test.html

    It’s actually quite convincing at the level of entire genres and artistic oeuvres.

  13. rmd1023 says:

    I remember reading the strip when it originally ran, and was delighted by it as an illustration of so much that annoyed me about early 80’s action cinema in particular (when we didn’t even have Vasquez (and her spiritual successor, just about every character Michelle Rodriguez has) as the token “badassed woman” character), and have certainly done my part to spread the idea of it as a very simple low bar to draw awareness to female characters’ participation (or lack thereof) in a plot.

    When we’ve got “everyday crowds” in movies that only contain 17% women (per the Gena Davis Foundation), just drawing attention to the lack of women in cinema can seem a pretty subversive act.

    The funniest-to-me example of how merely meeting this bar doesn’t actually guarantee a feminist movie or a good movie is this Sinfest comic strip

  14. Anonymous says:

    On Thursday, I watched the movie “In A World,” which included two women (sisters) talking to each other about their father’s girlfriend, who was their age. A bit catty, but the girlfriend takes initiative in the end, so that’s was pleasing.

    And then Geena Davis chats with the protagonist about the power of women’s voices, so that’s example #2. But wow, we have so far to go.

    I recently finished watching Breaking Bad, and while I enjoyed some of it, the writers clearly didn’t know sh*t about developing decent female characters.

  15. Kathleen says:

    I can understand that it’s hard to keep talking about. It is a wonderful way to *start* a conversation about the representation of women in media, but the conversation needs to go forward from there.

    Still, I just get tired, sometimes, and I don’t want to waste my time with movies that care so little about the women characters that I feel alienated. It’s an easy way to know, going in, a little about what to expect.

  16. Emmy says:

    @rmd1023

    The simple fact of how easy it is, is why it’s so shocking how many films don’t pass…

  17. [...] The Rules are taken from a cartoon by Alison Bechdel who recently (Nov 8, 2013) commented on the Bechdel Test on her blog. [...]

  18. Andrew B says:

    One of the best details of the original comic was the movie posters Alison drew. So it was pretty amusing to see this poster for the new Thor movie appear just when a fresh conversation about the Bechdel test was starting. (If anybody’s having a difficult time seeing what I mean, imagine the poster without the little pool of light around the hammer.)

  19. Kate L says:

    … Andrew B (#18) a theater in Asia was using this fan-devised poster of the Thor movie as its marquee.

  20. janet says:

    I was listening to a panel at an SF convention this weekend, and one of the speakers looked towards the audience and said, “You’re all familiar with Bechdel?” We nodded. Then he started talking about the Bechtel corporation’s nuclear power plants. We nearly got whiplash.

  21. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    I don’t think anyone would fault you for not hopping on the media carousel. Sheesh! The shorter attention spans get the quicker the turnaround. I’d imagine if you wanted to you could be talking about this every few months until you’re ninety-nine…

  22. Maggie says:

    Yeah, It’s interesting when something you create goes viral and takes on a life of its own which as time goes on has less and less to do with you or what you had in mind when you created it. Kind of what I imagine what happens when you raise teenagers.
    A couple of years ago I did a painting of our (canadian) prime minister, an average oh-so-straight white guy with a middle aged body in the au naturel pose of Manet’s Olympia, with an Emperor’s New Clothes theme layered on top. The merde hit the fan when it was exhibited in a local library. For two weeks it was a gong show, and it was really fun as I was vilified and celebrated all over the country and even internationally. I still get email and repro requests, which I never acted on because that was never my goal I don’t particularly want to make a habit of satirizing politicians, and after a while I got tired of the tee-hee factor.
    It is very gratifying as an artist to be noticed, but that was then, this is now, we have to move on.

  23. Jesse S! says:

    I think your test is awesome. Its interesting to know what inspired it. And I can’t blame you for feeling tired of having to explain something that, in all honesty, is so clearly obvious. That’s the point of this test. To point out something so obvious that we miss and take for granted as we are a passive audience.

    As for it being censorious? That’s ridiculous. Informing your audience about what a book, or film contains only enlightens . . . it is still our choice.

    Its brilliant and I wish more cinemas would pick up this rating system.

  24. Kate L says:

    I don’t think that A.B. should feel uncomfortable with her well-earned celebrity, esp. for such an important contribution to the public discourse. After all, how many other things from popular culture in 1985 have relevance today? Eleanor of Aquitaine, Madame Curie, Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gloria Steinem, Aung San Suu Kyi and Alison Bechdel… it all seems like a natural progression from out here on the High Plains!

  25. Andrew B says:

    Alysia Abbott has a nice, relatively long interview with Alison at the Atlantic’s web site. Worth reading.

  26. Ellen Orleans says:

    Gosh, Anonymous above was me. I’ll repost:

    On Thursday, I watched the movie “In A World,” which included two women (sisters) talking to each other about their father’s girlfriend, who was their age. A bit catty, but the girlfriend takes initiative in the end, so that was pleasing.

    And then Geena Davis chats with the protagonist about the power of women’s voices, so that’s example #2. But wow, we have so far to go.

    I recently finished watching Breaking Bad, and while I enjoyed some of it, the writers clearly didn’t know sh*t about developing decent female characters.

  27. Nicolai von Neudeck says:

    Hello,

    I just wanted to tell you that I knew the test and I knew your comics (which I admire very much) for quite a while.
    But until the swedish cinema discussion, it never came to my mind, that the comic-Bechdel and the test-Bechdel are the same Bechdel. So maybe some students know your name because of comics but do not draw the connection to the test. Similar to me.
    Anyway, thanks for your comics and the test.

  28. [...] the end of it. But it’s not – this story is still going. The story is that some movie theatres in Sweden have adopted a new movie rating system, based on the test popularized by Alison [...]

  29. [...] A few movie theaters in Sweden have adopted a rating system based on the Bechdel Test. Keep it up, Sweden! Alison Bechdel herself has even given her thoughts on the rating system and of the test itself over on her blog. [...]

  30. [...]  (Alison Bechdel, “Testy”, dykestowatchoutfor 11/8/2013). [...]

  31. [...] With a chain of movie theaters in Sweden introducing an official Bechdel Test for films, Alison Bechdel herself reflects on how the Test has defined her career and where it came from: [...]

  32. [...] Alison Bechdel on the Bechdel Test [...]

  33. [...] not clear to me whether this is part of some overall rating, or a specific qualification.) Bechdel comments. Police ham-handedly try to recruit an informer at Cambridge University —(Yes, it’s [...]

  34. [...] you aren’t up to speed, the Bechdel Test (spun off from this comic strip by Alison Bechdel) asks three questions of [...]

  35. [...] is an old desire, as Bechdel notes in her blog, where she points to Virginia Woolf’s work A Room of One’s Own as inspiration. Woolf mocked gender hierarchies in literature by imagining a novel by a female writer in which two [...]

  36. [...] is an old desire, as Bechdel notes in her blog, where she points to Virginia Woolf’s work A Room of One’s Own as inspiration. Woolf mocked gender hierarchies in literature by imagining a novel by a female writer in which two [...]

  37. VanShaver says:

    From a comment I just wrote about this on FB: “I
    approve of Sweden’s use of the test. I also vaguely approve of
    Bechdel’s ambiguity about starting this whole thing… although she
    is smart and funny, and so I do wish she would take this
    opportunity to talk about it and her work while the cameras are on
    her, much in the way women in films have opinions about things
    other than a man. ;)”
    Alison, I am speaking to you
    directly. Hi! Please find the blog post I commented on, and my full
    comment below. You started something important, girl. Food for
    thought. Bechdel Test is Damaging to the way we think
    about Film

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10450463/Bechdel-test-is-damaging-to-the-way-we-think-about-film.html
    “I think the blogger does have a point. However, I don’t think that
    it’s “damaging,” except to acknowledge that statement in this
    context is some ninja-level troll-and-clickbait. “The fact of the
    matter is that if you took the Bechdel test and made it contain two
    men, I would challenge you to find a film that it did NOT pass. His
    valid point that shitty, exploitative films like Sucker Punch (or
    whatnot) PASS the test is totally overshadowed by the fact that
    most films don’t. The Test is not a promise that a movie is going
    to be good – rather, it is a promise that the film contains two
    named female characters who have a conversation about something
    other than a man, much like an R rating is a promise of some sex
    and violence. Damaging to how we think about cinema? Hell no.
    Opposite. Something very important to consider. “Unless your film
    takes place in a male-only prison or on a historical battlefield,
    it’s not hard to write a scene that contains two named female
    characters who have a conversation about something other than a
    man, and people who get whiny about this in any way make me HEAVE a
    motherfucking SIGH. Films usually contain 50-100 scenes. Women are
    52% of the population. If not one of those scenes pass the test, it
    says something about the film and the worldview of the filmmaker,
    or rather the lack thereof. “I approve of Sweden’s use of the test.
    I also vaguely approve of Bechdel’s ambiguity about starting this
    whole thing… although she is smart and funny, and so I do wish
    she would take this opportunity to talk about it and her work while
    the cameras are on her, much in the way women in films have
    opinions about things other than a man.”