The Bechdel Test and Intersectionality

By Abigail Rosenthal and Carissa Davis

“Bechdel” is a household name to feminist scholars and film critics alike. It has exploded in popular consciousness since it’s humble origins amidst 1980’s lesbian feminism in Alison Bechdel’s comic, D*kes To Watch Out For. But in its popularity, it has lost most of its meaning. Media critics have questioned the validity of a test that with an exchange as superficial as “I like your shoes” “Thanks” qualifies as a pass, while films with complex female characters like Guillermo del Torro’s Pacific Rim fail, for lack of female characters. This inspired the Mako Mori Test, which a female character can pass without speaking to another woman if she has her own narrative arc that isn’t supporting a man’s. Others have proposed more wholistic “tests” looking at film production, actresses of color, female narratives, and supporting characters. Amazingly, none of these tests touch on the issue Bechdel presented in her comic: the isolation of lesbians and bisexual women, who are hardly allowed to talk to each other about anything other than men.

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The original comic

The eponymous “Rule” was not created by Bechdel herself, but her friend, Liz Wallace (Maerz). Bechdel prefers the test be called the Bechdel-Wallace Test. In an interview with Melissa Maerz, Bechdel says “the test was meant to be a joke, but like any joke it has a kernel of a very powerful truth” (Maerz). Alison Bechdel was surprised to find the test used to search for feminist media when it doesn’t necessarily require any strength or complexity of character for the “two women, talking to each other, about something that isn’t a man.”

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20th Century Women

I expected a film with “women” in the title to center around female narratives and, maybe a little too hopeful of me, their relationships with each other. However, the story focuses on the male protagonist, a teenage boy named Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and his relationships with his mother (Annette Bening), his best friend (Elle Fanning), and his artistic neighbor (Greta Gerwig). Greta Gerwig’s character, Abbey, introduces Jamie to feminist theory with the book Our Bodies Our Selves by Judy Norsigian, inspiring him to be sensitive to the issues of the women in his life. This is a great message for young men from the perspective of a man, the writer/director Mike Mills. We do appreciate men who pay attention to the women in their lives, but the problem I have is we only get Jamie’s perspective on the women’s lives. When the female characters do talk to each other, which is rare, they talk about Jamie. His coming of age story takes up so much space in the narrative, the women don’t have room to interact with each other.

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Thelma and Louise

Thelma and Louise does Bechdel and Wallace would ask of it. The two female leads are independent, but support each other in the face of sexist assholes who mistreat them. Thelma and Louise prioritise their friendship with each other above their relationships to any men, and even share a kiss right as they drive over the edge of the Grand Canyon. The film was written by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott, the same director of Alien, the film cited in Bechdel’s comic strip.

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Jules and Jess in Bend It Like Beckham

In the film Bend It Like Beckham, written and directed by Gurinder Chadha, the characters of Jules and Jess play soccer together and develop a friendship through their mutual love of the sport. The film easily passes the Bechdel test through their friendship. But what the test doesn’t acknowledge is the representation of Indian culture seen through the main character, Jessminder, and her family.

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A scene from Bend It Like Beckham

Chadha, an English woman of Kenyan-Asian origin, is able to offer the perspective the story requires. The film, while a comedy, doesn’t poke fun at Jessminder’s culture, even when her parents disapprove of her playing on the soccer team. As one reviewer noted: “What’s especially gratifying about “Bend It Like Beckham” is that it’s wise enough not to make the Indian parents into feckless figures of fun. Their opinions about soccer may be wrongheaded, but neither they nor the tradition they represent are disrespected by either their daughters or the film.”

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Jessminder and her family

In the simplicity of the Bechdel Test, film critics are able to ignore representation behind the camera. Had this film not been directed by an Indian-English woman, it might have portrayed Jessminder’s family insensitively and offensively for the sake of comedy. This is important to recognize. 

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Ana’s mother criticizes her in this scene

One of the films we watched for class, Real Women Have Curves, tells the story of Ana, a Mexican-American woman from a lower income family who struggles against her mother’s opinions on her body. Ana’s continuous insistence that she is more than her body is an example of a woman pushing back against the ideals she is supposed to uphold; in this case, her body shape. Ana grows more confident in her body as the film continues, seen when she strips down to her underwear in the factory and in her scenes with Jimmy. The film, of course, passes the Bechdel Test. But merely applying the test to the film ignores the fraught conversations Ana has with her mother regarding Ana’s body, which reveal different attitudes women have regarding their own bodies.

 

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Ana in the factory

In many films about women, economic status is fairly ignored. In shows like Friends and Sex and the City, money comes extremely easily to the main characters. Even when they express the fact that they are “broke,” it is largely played off for comic relief, and no one ever seems to be in danger of facing any serious consequences. In Real Women Have Curves, Ana’s sister struggles to pay rent, the electricity bill and her employees. The economic stress is palpable throughout the film, right from the beginning; Ana tells her teacher the family doesn’t have the money to send her to college.

These aren’t necessarily new observations. But as a film course discussing gender and the identities that intersect with gender, it seems important to acknowledge that one of the most widely known critique tools ignores issues of intersectionality. White, thin women have been present in film for decades. It doesn’t necessarily help anyone if two thin white women speak to each other. While the Bechdel Test is a good jumping off point for discussing women’s representation in film, it largely simplifies the issue of representation as a whole. In requiring that there only be women in the film, without mention of race, sexuality, body type, ability or economic status, the Bechdel Test’s movement into mainstream film discussion offers an “easy way out” for filmmakers. As long as women are present and speaking about something other than a man, the film it tends to be considered more “progressive” than others. As we continue to critique films from a feminist perspective, it’s important to remember that the Bechdel Test, as important as it is in realizing that women are lacking in film, is not the end-all-be-all judge for a film and the way it presents all women.

Sources:

Maerz, M., Breznican, A., & Sperling, N. (2015). Alison Bechdel Reflects on the Cult of Alison Bechdel. Entertainment Weekly, (1361), 38-43.

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