Monday, January 05, 2015

The Bechdel Test

First, Happy New Year to all. I hope you had a wonderful holiday season and are ready for an exciting, prosperous 2015.

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the Poisoned Pen Press blog at the end of 2013. This week I went to see the third Hobbit movie, The Battle of the Five Armies, which reminded me of this piece. Why I bothered (as a huge LOTR fan) to see the movie, is a matter for another time.

I am sure most of you have heard of the Bechdel test. It is, I believe, of Swedish origin, and applied to movies. To pass the test the movie must fulfill three criteria:
  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man
On the surface it looks amazingly simple. Say they made a movie about me. I am a woman, I have three daughters and a mother; we talk about politics and social issues, whether or not to buy a new car and the weather.

But I guess my life isn’t going to ever make a movie because, when you stop and think about it, an amazing number of movies, particularly the big budget ones DON’T pass the test.

And that, I suspect, is the purpose of the test. To make us think about it.

I personally have another test. Do female actors play people? Or do they only play women?

Case in point, the new Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug. We have an important female character, Tauriel, an elf warrior. Well and good. Tauriel is even a captain of the guard.

But is Tauriel’s role in the movie as an elf or as a female elf? The answer is the latter: she falls in love with the handsome young dwarf. (If you think handsome young dwarf is a contradiction in terms, remember this isn’t Tolkien’s version any more). Noticeably, none of the minor elf characters are female. Not even any of the non-speaking parts.

Tauriel has only been cast as a woman. It didn’t occur to the movie makers to make some of the other elf fighters female. (Never mind a dwarf!) When playing with Tolkien anyway, why not make the ruler of the Woodland elves Legolas’s mother rather than his father?

Because, in far too many movies, women do not play people (or elves). They only play women. Which is a large part of the reason I don’t go to movies much. I read.

Books seem to have a much higher pass percentage for the Bechdel test as well as the new Delany test. In books women are named and have numerous speaking parts. They talk about things other than men. Although sometimes, it’s the female killer telling the female detective why she killed that man (does that count?).

In books women are allowed to play people as well as women. (Could that be because books are not visual?) The cop, the suspect, the villain. (In movies, the woman's only role is sometimes to be killed so the male can go on a revenge spree). Sometimes she is often the sidekick to the male protagonist without being a sexual interest. Think Siobhan Clarke to John Rebus or Annie Cabbot to Alan Banks. (Although unfortunately Peter Robinson first made Cabbot the love interest, and equally unfortunately Lise Delorme has now become John Cardinal’s girlfriend in Giles Blunt’s series).

All of those women, although only the sidekick, have parts to play as police officers.

Robinson, in fact, now has increasing numbers of women as important characters, so much so they are edging out Banks. Imagine TWO female police officers questioning a suspect/victim/witness.

Now, I am sure there are plenty of books out there that fail both the Bechtel test and the Delany test, but they are unlikely to find themselves in my TBR pile. They’re usually easy to spot: Look for the sole women mentioned in the blurb as ‘beautiful’. A display of weaponry or an explosion on the cover are often giveaways also.

I’ll end with a question for you. When choosing books, or movies, do you care if they pass the Bechdal test? Or the Delany test?


dina said...

I find that TV is much more likely to have strong women, something I want.

A particular hate of mine is the love interest of the book. I have never gotten that into the Jack Reacher books because of that.

So I guess I support both tests.

Sybil Johnson said...

Interesting. I hadn't heard of the test. I'll be looking at movies and tv from a different perspective now.

Donis Casey said...

I always think of this test when I see a movie. Hobbit did have two strong female elves (Cate Blanchett's Galadriel kicked ass) But they didn't speak to one another about anything.