Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Feminist Frequency and the Bechdel Test

I recently discovered Feminist Frequency, a series of YouTube videos on women and pop culture. They were brought to my attention through a Kickstarter campaign funding another group of videos that will be added to the collection examining women and video games. I am incredibly excited to see how these turn out, as this subject is continually of interest, both academic and personal, to me. However, while I wait in great anticipation for those additions, I want to talk about this video about the Bechdel Test.

In short, the Bechdel Test is an indicator of the presence of women in movies. To satisfy the criteria of the Bechdel Test a movie must have two named female characters, who talk with each other, about a topic other than a male. I think my favorite thing about this video is that it highlights that the Bechdel Test should not be used as something that a given movie passes or fails. Wonderful movies such as Wall-E and UP may not satisfy the Bechdel Test, while a movie that exploits or reinforces stereotypes about women may just happen to have two female characters chat with each other. Rather, the Bechdel Test is meant to be an indicator of the presence of women in the industry overall.

However, the one major point of disagreement I have with the video is where the creator says that there is no need for a Reverse Bechdel Test, or a Bechdel Test for male presence, because there isn't a problem with male presence in the media. Specifically she says, "the test is meant to indicate a problem, and there isn't a problem with a lack of men interacting with each other... and since there's no problem with men and men's stories being underrepresented in films the reverse test is useless and irrelevant." If the test is indeed meant to indicate a problem we ought not assume that there isn't a problem with men's representation in films and instead apply the test to determine if there truly isn't a problem; I imagine that there is not. However, I think the point that she is making is that if one applies the Reverse Bechdel Test to specific films there may be those that fail, such as Wall-E. However, the existence of some films that do not meet Reverse Bechdel standards does not imply that men are being "left out" or "oppressed."

The thing one would wish to do is gather a large selection of popular movies and then apply both Bechdel and Reverse Bechdel standards to all the movies. To get results look at the proportion that do not stand up under the Bechdel Test, then compare that to those that don't satisfy the Reverse Bechdel Test. The comparison of these percentages should provide insight into the relative presence of men and women in movies.

Another good point the video makes is that there are other situations in which Bechdel-like Tests can be useful. The creator suggests using the test for racial minorities. I would be interested to see how books fare under the Bechdel Test, although I would imagine they will do better, as their plots are not so condensed  I conclude with a quick look at the Star Wars movie series under the Bechdel Test.

A New Hope: I can't think of any named female characters other than Aunt Bereu and Princess Leia, and since one dies before the other enters the action (except for as a flickering blue hologram), not much chance of passing the Bechdel Test. Since Luke and Uncle Owen discuss evaporators and droids it certainly passes the Reverse Bechdel, and does so easily.

The Empire Strikes Back: Are there any female characters other than Princess Leia? ... ... ... The iconic confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader at the end certainly qualifies it to pass the Reverse Bechdel.

Return of the Jedi: No, Jabba does not count as a named female character. So, just Princess Leia again? I'm willing to disallow Jabba as a male character, but Luke's conversation with Obi-Wan about truth and perspective should satisfy the Reverse Bechdel.

Ok, the original trilogy was filmed quite a while ago, before women became widely established in the public sphere. Perhaps the prequel trilogy will do better, although if they do it will be the first time I think.

The Phantom Menace: Queen Amadala and Shmi Skywalker, at least we have two named female characters. Do they speak with each other... I don't know. The movie opens with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon bantering, a clear Reverse Bechdel pass.

Attack of the Clones: I think someone may have mentioned the name of the shape-changing assassin that goes after Senator Amadala, but that might just have been in the book. Either way, although she tries to kill Senator Amaala, they do not talk. I guess Shmi is back in this movie as well, but she only has a brief conversation with Anakin before dying to further his plot development, and path to the dark side. Plenty of Obi-Wan and Anakin banter in the assassin chase to satisfy the Reverse Bechdel.

Revenge of the Sith: I believe we are back to one named female character, how sad. Obi-Wan, Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine, and Count Dooku chat it up on General Grevious' flagship, but we actually pass the Reverse Bechdel even sooner, as Obi-Wan and Anakin banter their way through the rescue flight.

Please do not misunderstand me, I absolutely love the Star Wars movies, and the franchise as a whole played a large role in my childhood. But women did not play a huge role in the movies... or in my childhood for that matter ;-)