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The Bechdel Test vs. Zot!
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
I alluded to this briefly in my last book review, but wanted to discuss it at a bit more length here. Originally proposed as a humorous criterion for picking what movie to watch (if any), it states (approximately, from memory):
1) It must have at least two women in it.
2) ...who, at some point, talk to each other.
3) ...about something other than a man.

Apply this test to the last several movies you've seen, and you may be surprised at how few pass this test. Even many movies that are lauded for strong female characters or pro-feminist viewpoints often fail the Bechdel Test.

Recently autopope dexided to try applying the Bechdel Test to his own written work, and was distressed at the relatively high failure rate. He then made a mini-manifesto out of it, stating that there was no good excuse for *not* passing the test in this context, and that he would make a point of doing so in future. While movies often have to make compromises to please a large audience of producers and marketers, a solo medium like prose really ought to succeed more often.

He did make the point that short stories, being so short, are exempt. But a novella is roughly the same size as a movie, so anything novella-and-up counts. I think similar length criteria can be extended to other media. A single episode of a TV show, or a single issue of a serialized comic book need feel no shame if they fail. On the other hand, there's no general excuse for *not* succeeding at least once every few episodes.

In the ensuing discussion, a few variations cropped up. Autopope himself suggested that rule 3 be extended so that conversations of marriage and/or babies would also not count. Personally, I think that's a bit over-broad. While some such conversations are patriarchy-reinforcing, others are not. I think that the objectionable ones can easily be identified as failing based solely on the original rule. One simple example, compare "This is how I am raising my child" with "This is how my husband thinks we should raise our child."

Many commenters have suggested that tight single-viewpoint narratives with a male viewpoint character should be exempt. I'm not so sure. If you relax rule 2 slightly, then a conversation between the viewpoint character and two women might qualify. He could observe such a conversation (covertly or not). He could have the contents of such a conversation reported to him as indirect speech. There are plenty of possibilities here.

So, I've had all that sitting in my head recently while reading fiction. Which brings us to the recent reprint of Scott McCloud's _Zot!_ from the late 80s and early 90s. It's an excellent book, full of adventure, humor, and humanism; y'all should go out and buy it if you haven't already. And yet...it *utterly* fails the Bechdel Test.

It doesn't have the excuse (however weak) of a tight viewpoint male protagonist. Jenny is arguably as much of a central viewpoint character as Zot is. Later in the book, we see the viewpoint of several different characters, almost half of whom are female.

It passes rule 1 easily: lots of female characters, even distinct and interesting ones. Rule 2 also passes, though less smoothly. The women do talk to each other sometimes. But they almost never do so when there are males present; multi-person conversations are typically centered on a male. The one clear counter-example, Brandy's outburst at the lunch table, is seen as a disruptive breach of normalcy, perhaps as much for its form (a girl taking center stage) as for its content. And that content -- "I've decided my boyfriend is too jealous, so I'm going to date *all* the boys here!" -- is clearly male-centered, if unconventional.

Rule 3 is a complete washout, though. Jenny and Terry have several conversations, but they are all about boys. There is a brief two-panel exchange about school, but it's just the capper to a multi-page conversation about Zot, so I don't think it counts.

Jenny has some brief conversations with her mother, but again, all male-focused; her mother mostly discusses Jenny's boyfriends or her own marriage. There are some digressions to her childhood, but even these are dominated by her relationship with her own father, her mother is a phantom presence, offstage and unheard.

Curiously, aside from her mother and Terry, we never see Jenny talk to *any* of the other women in her social circle. Nor do we see them interact much with each other. Almost all the relationships are male-mediated: Elizabeth is 'Spike's brother', Brandy is 'Ronnie's girlfriend'. Jenny herself is perceived as 'Woody's girlfriend' by several of the boys.

Terry is the one woman who isn't male-defined. She is 'Jenny's best friend'. And she turns out to be a lesbian, which you'd think would lead to some fulfillment of rule 3. But no. She *imagines* many conversations with her love-object, but these conversations are clearly presented as both factually false and emotionally unsatisfying. When she finally does approach her crush in real life, and there seems the possibility of a conversation -- the story ends there. We rarely hear either of them speak for the rest of the book, and never to each other.

There's one scene between minor characters that almost qualifies. A young girl, targeted for assassination, has a conversation with a female professional soldier assigned to guard her -- and who is also the young girl's older cousin. On one level, the conversation is about politics and courage. But on another, it's entirely about men. The girl is targetes for assassination because her father )already killed) was ruler of the planet. Her cousin tries to shame her into being more courageous by saying (approx.) "What would your uncle think!". Even the assassin they are fleeing from is male.

(Come to think of it, *all* the Zot! villains are male. There is the occasional female conspirator, but they are always minor side characters, never rising to the level of the great, focal supervillains.)

Zot! was, for its time, very politically progressive and liberal-minded. McCloud took a lot of chances that other storytellers would not have. Yet while he managed to challenge many of the cultural assumptions about his chosen storytelling form, other aspects of the cultural deep structure retained a firm grip on his story.

This is why I like the Bechdel Test; it shines a light on previously unconscious tendencies.

And though I've spent a lot of time talking about its failings, I don't want to wnd on that note. Zot! has many wonderful successes as well. I do recommend it unreservedly.

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He did make the point that short stories, being so short, are exempt. ...

I think it's a mistake to think of certain categories as "exempt." We should accept that there will always be a certain failure rate, given that in a society with relatively strict gender roles there is value in portraying single-gender relationships, and perhaps short stories should be granted a higher acceptable failure rate than other forms. However, part of what the Bechdel test highlights is female characters don't even exist, never mind get portrayed as fleshed out individuals, at anything resembling the 50/50 ratio in society. Any one work, of any length, passing or not passing the test is no great success or failure in and of itself; it's the patterns revealed over time that are important. Not testing a few categories of narratives conceals parts of the pattern.

Last movie I saw in theater: Hellboy II = fail.
Last movie I saw via Netflix: Drunken Master = fail.
Last movie I saw on DVD: The Devil Wears Prada = pass.

Part of it has to do with what we, as fanboy geeks, choose to watch/read. That doesn't excuse genre-writers from failing to include and use female characters, but there's lots of other stuff out there that we in the geek crowd don't look at. Becoming a parent has forced me to open some of those horizons (for good or ill). For example...

Last movie I saw in theater: Kit Kittridge, An American Girl = big pass.

Now, I'm not saying that this was a great film that you all should rush out to, but it was surprisingly well written and had numerous scenes with Kit and her mostly female friends trying to come to terms with how the depression was affecting their lives and the attitudes between the well-off and the hobos.

Other films seen recently: Dark Knight, Iron Man, Hulk = not so much, no

OTOH, Juno = yes (good film, well written and very unexpected for a film about teen pregnancy to just tell a story and not preach)

OTOOH, Golden Compass did pass the test so, yeah, it may just be the quality of writing, regardless of genre.

BTW, I'm not intending to say anything negative about your reading/viewing habits in particular Alexx as I know you are more broadly read than the average geek, I'm just talking about generalities.

No offense taken! I value your perspective.

I saw Kit Kittridge also, but I don't think it exactly passes because of Kit, because Kit is not a woman. She's 11? Something like that.

It does have all the neighbor women, who meet for tea and gossip, and most of that isn't about men, but about "hobos" in general, and the woman down the street who was foreclosed upon. So it passes the Bechdel test based on the tea parties.

Enh, the movie is about kids, so I think kids should count. I've often seen "women" adapted to "named female characters," which I think is better.

The reason I think that pre-pubescent girls shouldn't count as women for this is that there is a huge change of attitudes which happens to girls as they cross that line, which makes them much more interested in boys, not just biologically, but much more likely to internalize the (often really stupid) behaviors that will attract boys, from dressing sexy to pretending to be bad at math. Mostly girls that haven't gone through puberty don't do that, and it takes quite a while for that social conditioning to wear off or be cast aside as a sham. I think women and girls are quite different in that regard, and as the test addresses men-fixation, it should be considered.

You have a point, but I think kids' movies get a waiver on the minimum age requirement. If two little girls or a woman and a girl in a movie for and about adults had a conversation that otherwise qualified, I think I'd agree that that alone isn't enough. However, in a movie for and about kids, where no one is talking about or interested in dating yet, I don't think it's strictly necessary to find adult women not talking about men.

Besides, the fact that most prepubescent girls aren't really all that interested in boys has never stopped Hollywood from giving them saccharine, chaste, and mildly off-putting love stories. How often does some little boy or girl have a crush on the kid next door?

Reasonable point. On the other hand, if some of this is about modeling social behavior, then possibly a movie aimed at kids should be under more scrutiny to show women talking to women about non-man things.

Thinking about kid-aimed movies: Barbie's Prince and the Pauper had a mean shop owner who talked down to her female staff, so it technically passes. Disney's recent Heidi remake had some good inter-female communication. The Curious George PBS series fails the test, although it does have strong female secondary characters. In Clifford, the girls do talk with each other and not about males. On Fetch, the girls often talk to each other.

On the other hand, if some of this is about modeling social behavior, then possibly a movie aimed at kids should be under more scrutiny to show women talking to women about non-man things.

Abso-freakin'-lutely!

You have a point that certain genres are more prone to failing the test than others, but I am in no way a fanboy geek and the fail percentage in what I watch and read is still amazingly high.

Also, this is not specifically directed at you but the movies on your list reminded me: Think about the target audience for most of the movies mentioned here as passing--Juno, The Devil Wears Prada, Kit Kittredge. They're all marketed primarily or exclusively to women and girls. Any movie that passes the Bechdel test is almost automatically dismissively labeled a "chick flick" because, although women are asked to identify with male protagonists nearly every time they seek out entertainment, men must never be asked to identify with female protagonists. So even when movies pass the test, our society finds a way to make them send the message that women are somehow lesser.

3: not about hair, either

Rule 3 should probably also exclude conversations about hair, cosmetics, etc.: the sort of conversation that, at least implicitly, presents the women as concerned with how men think they look. (I thought of this one because the first two-women scene I thought of from Babylon 5 was the one when Delenn asks Ivanova for help with her hair.)

The only movie I can think of that definitely passes is The Truth About Cats and Dogs. The story is mainly about two women, and they talk a lot—a man is the most common topic, but certainly not the only one.

Re: 3: not about hair, either

So women only want to look presentable to men, not for their own satisfaction?

There were several conversations between Ivanova and Talia Winters, which were quite meaningful, and not about men.

Edited at 2008-08-05 07:57 pm (UTC)

Re: 3: not about hair, either

"the sort of conversation that, at least implicitly, presents the women as concerned with how men think they look"

I'm not sure about that. It is an inference men often make (and which I used to), but it doesn't seem to be supported by actual evidence. A lot of female fashion appears (as far as my imperfect understanding goes) to be about social status *among other females*. In your specific example, Delenn may be at least equally concerned with how her appearance reflects on her as an Ambassador.

I like rules to stay as general as possible. If they are talking in a way that makes it clear that they really are concerned primarily with male reactions, then it would already fail rule 3, without further modification.

(I'm not sure how well it does over all, but the very first episode of B5 definitely passes. Ivanova and Talia Winters talk about their professional relationship, and about I's past issues with the Psi Corps and her mother.)

Re: 3: not about hair, either

Unfortunately, hair, clothes and cosmetics are real concerns for women because our society places such a high value on looks. Often when women discuss these things, it's not necessarily about looking good for a man, it's about meeting the minimum requirements for being treated as human in our society.

I think you might be trying to turn this into a test of whether a movie is sexist or not. The Bechdel test only determines whether a movie (a) portrays women (b) as anything other than passive love interests. If all they talk about it makeup and how hard math is, the movie's still sexist even though it passes.

And here- I will reveal embarrassing things about my viewing habits.

I was mentally running through the show I watch and realized that one of the shows that passes, and with flying colors, is the gung-ho military show- "The Unit" about special forces military men, and their families. Now the women are usually the B-plot, (but not always) and they do talk about their husbands, and their children, and money, work and politics. It seems an, odd exception, almost as if someone were making a point about a show that from the ads, you would assume is all about guns and explosions and seekrit spy things, is also about family, community and (sometimes) social class.

but then again. that

At the risk of getting buried under flames... so what?

There are two genders, so three possible combinations -- M/M conversation, M/F conversation, and F/F conversation. If everything is distributed roughly evenly, you only get a F/F conversation 1/3 of the time. Eliminate conversations between groups of mixed genders (i.e., 3 women and 1 man) and you drop the percentage even lower. Eliminate female characters of below a certain age as being "girls not women" and you artificially drive the percentage even lower.

If you start to strip out conversations by content, you lose even more conversations (especially if you're broad about what counts as "about men", i.e. "On one level, the conversation is about politics and courage. But on another, it's entirely about men"). I don't think you've necessarily got to make some distinction between conversations of the "Oo! He's so dreamy" type and the "Person X [who happens to be male] is doing this thing which effects the plot" type... although there's an argument for it.

Sure, there's some cultural bias, but I also think there's a lot of unexplored math.

I also think Charley's comment about audience has some truth in it. I took a look at the list of movies released this week, according to www.Boston.com as a random sampling. They list 10, which is convenient, because that means there should be about 3 in which we can find a F/F conversation. I haven't seen any of these, so I'm going off of previews, reviews, and cast lists.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 Yes
American Teen Likely, unless the females are disqualified for being underage
Bottle Shock Probably not, certainly not a conversation of any substance
Girls Rock! Yes, again unless the characters are eliminated for being underage
Baghead Seems likely (and now I really want to see this)
Pineapple Express Unlikely, but possible. There seem to be at least two strong female characters.
Tell No One Yes.
Water Lilies Yes.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor Unlikely but possible
Swing Vote Unlikely but possible.

So, that's about 1/2 the movies -- which is more than the 1/3 I was expecting (allowing for the whole age thing which I think is weird).

I guess do with this information what you will...

You may want to check out this now-infamous XKCD blog post, which is equally unscientific but at least uses a larger list than yours. Or, try looking at what's atop the box office this week, rather than a list on which someone probably went out of their way to include some movies whose target audience is women. I think the only one there that passes the Bechdel test is Mama Mia.

Part of the point of the test is women-to-women conversations happen nothing like a third of the time in most popular culture. When women do appear in movies, it is almost always just to be the protagonist's love interest. As such, they are not fully realized characters, they're just plot points or accessories. They only talk to men or about men. They have no inner lives or opinions. Men have conversations about everything under the sun, drive the plot forward, make decisions, take action. Women are set dressing.

You can also invert the test.
1. two male characters
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something other than a woman

When was the last time you saw something that DIDN'T pass that test. Not that I want to see men marginalized, but one of the arguments that gets made is that our entertainment is increasingly "gendered", marketed and designed for one gender. Even so, if women can watch things with men in them- the reverse should be true.

You're totally right, but just because it's been in the news so much lately: Sex and the City. (I assume. I haven't seen it.)

But this actually proves your point, because so many men invested so much energy in completely trashing the mere idea of the movie without even seeing it. Frivolous, stupid, materialistic, they said. Iron Man didn't even come close to passing the Bechdel test and was pretty much entirely about fast cars and blowing shit up, which I would argue is, y'know, frivolous, stupid, materialistic (and, in this case, racist). But you didn't see women saying the entire gender should boycott the movie, even though no one was asking them to see it. That's because one of these things is normal, and one of them is so unbelievably rare that some people completely lose their shit over it.

You can also invert the test.
1. two male characters
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something other than a woman


That's not quite the inverse, I don't think. I'm quibbling over #3. I'd see the inverse as

1. two male characters
2. Who talk to each other
3. About a woman

Still plenty of movies that fall into this realm, although far fewer than your inversion.

I like seeing this "inverse test" not because it's truly an inversion (as freerange snark points out), but because it is *equivalent* but gender reversed. My three movies again:
Hellboy 2 = pass
Drunken Master = pass
The Devil Wears Prada = fail

"So what?"

Me, I like very well-rounded social situations. Missing one of the three means it's less well-rounded, and thus less believable.

I think my point was, I'm not sure we miss one in three -- and that their seems to be an expectation that there be a meaningful F/F interaction in every form of popular culture, rather than the 1/3 that I'm guessing at.

"I'm not sure we miss one in three"

I don't understand what this means. Rephrase?

I think there is a significant statistical difference between "1/3 of conversations (statistically) ought to be between two women" and "1/3 of movies should have a single conversation between two women", even adjusting for the content of those conversations, but I do understand- you can only tell so much from movie blurbs.



Edited at 2008-08-05 08:53 pm (UTC)

Re: About that math

That's a fair point, although the original rules say to 'pass' the story/movie/etc. must meet the following criteria:

1) It must have at least two women in it.
2) ...who, at some point, talk to each other.
3) ...about something other than a man.

So that's what I was judging them on.

That's totally fair! And I think you have the movies well, (if optimistically) pegged. Your comment about the math made me think...

On the one hand, 1/3 seems the wrong number. When you're examining 2 choices from a set of two possibilities (and order doesn't matter), the breakdown is 1/4, 1/2, 1/4. So F/F conversations ought, on average, to form 1/4 of all conversations.

On the other hand, a typical movie contains far more than a single 2-person conversation. Let's say an average film has 5 (which I think is conservative). Without any cultural bias, the expected chance that *none* of those conversations being F/F is (1-1/4)^5, which comes to just under 24%. The observed percentage is much, much larger. (And the chances drop exponentially. At a mere 7 conversations, the odds of no F/F combos is down to 10%.)

(especially if you're broad about what counts as "about men", i.e. "On one level, the conversation is about politics and courage. But on another, it's entirely about men")

Well, it is possible that I was being overly harsh on that one scene. But it's the only scene that even comes close to passing the test, in a book that is well over 500 pages. A book that size ought to have several clear passes in it, not just one, and that one arguable.

Re: More math quibbling

On the other hand, a typical movie contains far more than a single 2-person conversation.

Yup -- but as I say above, that's not the qualification for 'passing' the Bechdel Test. The qualification (as you stated it) is

1) It must have at least two women in it.
2) ...who, at some point, talk to each other.
3) ...about something other than a man.

Re: More math quibbling

Which is, in fact, what I am addressing. In order to pass point 2), at least one F/F conversation must take place. In order to fail 2), *no* F/F conversations must take place. Given that a typical movie contains several conversations, looking at the odds of any one conversation doesn't give the full picture.

If movies did only have one conversation in them, then we would expect (absent cultural bias) that only 1/4 of them would pass the first two points. If we expect a movie to have five conversations, the expectation of passing the first two points rises dramatically, to over 3/4. We don't observe that, or anything close to it.

Re: More math quibbling

I'm going to break character and say that math is not the way to approach this one.

Think about it: people don't write stories just at random. (Well...maybe Piers Anthony.) Generally, a story has 1-3 major characters, and most of its significant conversations will be among those characters. (I feel kind of silly saying this to Alexx and Alex, but never mind.) Movies in particular tend to be stingy with their conversation scenes. So, the only way a movie is likely to have a significant F/F conversation is if two of the major characters are women; and, if The Protagonist is male, then they're likely to be talking about him.

So the space of movies that can pass the test is populated largely with movies where the protagonist is female, and there's at least one other major female character. You can talk about why that's a small set; but you have to explain with reasons, not with probability.

(Mind you, this analysis really doesn't hold for, say, novels, which have room for more characters and more conversations.)

Re: More math quibbling

Now I'm thinking...

How many books can you name which pass the test and are not written by a woman?

Re: More math quibbling

I was thinking about having a poke at Shakespeare's plays this weekend, to see how they hold up.

Do Olivia and Viola's discussions [from Twelfth Night] count, even though one of them is masquerading as a man? The audience knows who she is...

I had never heard of this test before. Commence me applying it to all media I've been imbibing lately... NOW!

And then there's the Bechtel Test, in which they have to be talking about construction.

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