Hello folks and welcome to yet another edition of Food for Thought — where we chew over aspects of pop-culture that are trending today! Actually, tonight’s topic has been a Thing for quite some time, all the way back to Virginia Woolf (Uh oh, my English major is showing) even. And it’s one of the (relatively) new hot things that feminist critics will use to judge current media–specifically movies, and even television. What am I talking about?
Just one of the many ways to evaluate if a work of fiction adds depth to its female characters: The Bechdel test!
The Bechdel test was introduced by American cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, first as the punchline to her comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. One of the earliest on-going representations of lesbians in popular culture that featured equal shares of witty humor and biting commentary. In one strip, one of Bechdel’s characters remarks that she has a simple, three-rule criteria for movies that she will watch:
- It has to have at least two women in it
- That talk to each other
- About something besides a man
Seems simple enough, right? But, why all the fuss; what’s wrong with having female characters–especially female side-characters–whose conversations just so happen to be centered around on the typical male protagonist?
To kind-of-sort-of answer this question, we’re going to have to take a page from Virginia Woolf. (We won’t be spoiling Mrs. Dalloway, don’t worry; we also won’t be going over the steam of consciousness so everyone relax)
On October 24, 1929, Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, an extended essay based on her own
ramblings lectures she once conducted at women’s colleges around Cambridge. Assuming a fictional persona (But totally hedging in her own thoughts), her essay makes use of a a fictional narrator and narrative to actually explore how women are perceived as writers and as fictional characters. Her fictional narrator (Which is really her, what a twist) argues for a “space” (literal and figurative) for women writers within a literary canon that is dominated by a distinct male voice. Basically, she meta’d herself into the realm of non-fiction literary criticism with an essay billed as fiction.
Anyroad, regardless of how you feel about Woolf (Because she wasn’t that nice, but that’s a story for another day) her essay does what a lot of current feminist critics of pop-culture like to labor over today: Examine the “space” that fictional female characters occupy within their worlds, and if in this “space” women are mere props or are actually important and dynamic to the story at large.
Like Bechdel’s three-rule criteria–that pokes fun at the fact that some female characters only communicate with each other via a man–Woolf herself remarks:
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. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Project Gutenburg version)
So yes — this has been a Thing, for quite some time, it seems. Compelling fictional female characters that are free from their roles as potential love interest or plot prop. It speaks of the underlying concern that fictional women are lacking in the same amount of depth of their male counterparts. I mean, we all know about the typical “hero” type, and how this hero may have his own goals and other quirks and life journeys to attend to, but what about his female counterpart? Is all her being tied to the success of her man/is her interactions with the rest of the world tied to this man?
If we’re going to use a very recent example, let’s take a gander at Shingeki no Kyojin/Attack on Titan. It surprisingly not only passes the Bechdel test with a cast that consists of several female characters, but they are dynamic in their own right with backstories and motivations that are theirs alone. Sure, you could argue that Mikasa Ackerman falls into that old “love interest” trope, and her world and motivation is built upon her relationship to our hero, Eren, but Mikasa is more than just a “love interest”, for sure. She converses with the other female characters (Le gasp) about things that aren’t Eren-centric; she also has her own substantial role for the group at large as a leader. She has a few memorable moments with the team’s uh, comic relief, Sasha, who by the way also has a few moments with some of the other female characters — Ymir and Christa.
BASICALLY, Shingeki does make a pretty good pass with the Bechdel test in that our team of characters not only has pretty good female representation, but their main motivations go beyond fighting over the main man or their relationships as characters navigated through their connections to men. They are a pretty cohesive unit and with their own friendships and personal angsts/journeys to complete, making them just as compelling and interesting to the fandom as their male counterparts. Good job, monster-hack-n-slash.
Other (relatively) recent shows/movies that pass the Bechdel test? Thor comes to mind rather easily for me, and for all its camp and space vikings drama, Jane Foster and Darcy have their moments. And for a more recent example, The Conjuring does a pretty good job, actually.
BUT while the Bechdel test is a way to determine if there are women present and visible in media, does it necessarily mean that every film that passes the Bechdel test is a good film? And what about things that don’t pass the test, does that make them intrinsically bad?
An example of a fail on the Bechdel test would be something like Pacific Rim, another summer monster-hack-n-slash that’s been popular around the fandom for its dynamic characters, such as Mako Mori. Now the topic of whether Pacific Rim is a good film has been uh, debated before, but in my humble opinion, Mako is an example of a good female hero. Arguments abound that she is “weak” or “unnecessary”, but I argue that Mako takes on a role that many female characters don’t often inhabit: She’s the Rookie pilot who needs to go on a personal quest to prove herself, and like all “new” heroes she has her moments where she fails, but ultimately–as we all know how this trope will end–rises above it all and saves the day and grows into the hero she’s meant to be. (Yay!)
Now that, I think, is a good role for women to inhabit. Unfortunately, Pacific Rim doesn’t pass the test, since Mako Mori and the only other female Jaegar pilot, Sasha Kaidonovsky, don’t necessarily chat. But that does not downplay the fact that Mako Mori is a pretty good character — although it might speak about the decisions of writers/constraints, if anything.
So what do we do with the Bechdel test? Well, it may not be the “be all and end all” in determining whether media contains great female characters/presents a positive image of female characters — but it certainly paints a picture for how women are portrayed in media. By using the test, it seems only half (or less than half?) of movies a year can pass it — leaving critics (And I suppose, the average audience) with something that may be hard to swallow: 84 years after Woolf and the discussion about the representation of fictional women as compelling characters or mere props still remains.
As an audience we are allowed to be critical of the media we consume, and if female representation is a concern for your viewing experience, it may be a good set of criteria to keep in mind. Annnd with that, that’s all there is to this week’s Food for Thought, keep on loving the things you love, but never be afraid to really savor the experience with a bit of critical thinking =)