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Back in 1985, Alison Bechdel had the characters of her cartoon strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, jokingly make a gender equality ‘test’ for films. 33 years later, the Bechdel (or Bechdel-Wallace, to give credit to her friend Liz Wallace for the idea) test is still used to determine whether a film has any claim to equality of representation within films (as well as books, comics, etc).
The test is a very simple one: two women have to have a conversation about something other than a man. This is not a high bar. And yet… many pieces of fiction continue to fail. Not only that, the test itself fails to pick up a lot of other issues in narratives. For instance, are the two women who speak the only two women in the film? What about women of colour? Non-binary actors or characters?
The Bechdel-Wallace test should be applauded for getting the conversation started, but we believe it is time to move on. We should be demanding that a higher bar is set and that our media passes more often than not. But what would such a test look like?
Further reading (in other words, all the articles we reference during the episode):
- The origins of the test
- We’re still talking about the Bechdel test because our major film releases continue to fail it.
- Even stories that pass the Bechdel-Wallace test can massively let women down
- What about the screen time and amount of dialogue spoken? https://pudding.cool/2017/03/
film-dialogue/ and http://www.indiewire.com/2017/ 08/men-speak-women-films- study-1201863729/
- Other gender parity tests for fiction works
- Mako Mori test
- What would the ideal gender balance test look like? What is missing from the Bechdel test?
Texts mentioned in this episode:
- Zootropolis (Zootopia)
- Legally Blond
- Never Been Kissed
- Ever After
- Age of Assassins and Blood of Assassins by RJ Barker
- Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
- The Whitby Witches and The Wyrd Museum by Robin Jarvis
- Blade Runner 2049
- The Walking Dead
- Game of Thrones
- Star Trek
- Rogue One
Something I look for in any movie, book, or game with a female protagonist is whether a male supporting character “steals” moments that should belong to the lead character. For example, in Snow White, the main character is unconscious after eating a poisoned apple, then is uninvolved in the entire climax of the film. This even happens in movies with otherwise great female leads, as you pointed out with Rogue One when Cassian kills the antagonist, rather than Jyn getting the opportunity to defeat him.
A couple of movies that do well in this area are Wonder Woman and Moana. In each of those, there is a male sidekick that gets his own awesome moments, but he doesn’t steal moments that should belong to the protagonist. Wonder Woman and Moana each get the opportunity to face their antagonist on their terms, without relying on a male character to get the job done for them.