Mark Harris revisits the Bechdel Test, which suggests that women deserve better movie roles than ''Topless Party Girl''
Since this seems to be a summer of 25th-anniversary celebrations, with everything from St. Elmo’s Fire to Spin magazine being feted, I’d like to propose my own candidate for high honors: the Bechdel Test — or, as it was originally called in 1985, ”The Rule.” If you’ve never heard of it, the Bechdel Test — which has, appropriately, gotten a sudden new lease on life, showing up on half a dozen different blogs in the last month — was first made famous by the smart, sardonic cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel. It’s a simple three-question threshold for whether a movie is worth seeing. (1) Does the movie have at least two women in it? (2) Do they ever talk to each other? And (3) Is that conversation about something besides a man? A later (and shrewd) variation added a particularly brutal requirement to question No. 1: Do the two women have names?
If any studio executives are reading this, let me give some examples: Names are things like ”Annie Hall” and ”Erin Brockovich” and ”Scarlett O’Hara.” Things that are not names include, to cite some credits from this year’s movies, ”Female Junkie,” ”Mr. Anderson’s Secretary,” and ”Topless Party Girl.”
The wonderful and tragic thing about the Bechdel Test is not, as you’ve doubtless already guessed, that so few Hollywood films manage to pass, but that the standard it creates is so pathetically minimal — the equivalent of those first 200 points we’re all told we got on the SATs just for filling out our names. Yet as the test has proved time and again, when it comes to the depiction of women in studio movies, no matter how low you set the bar, dozens of films will still trip over it and then insist with aggrieved self-righteousness that the bar never should have been there in the first place and that surely you’re not talking about quotas.
Well, yes, you big, dumb, expensive ”based on a graphic novel” doofus of a major motion picture: I am talking about quotas. A quota of two whole women and one whole conversation that doesn’t include the line ”I saw him first!”
Let me concede that many fantastic films, old and new, would not only fail the Bechdel Test but would be made worse by having to pass it. Nobody is demanding that Platoon or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or for that matter Brokeback Mountain be enhanced by the inclusion of a scene in which a gaggle of middle-aged divorcées uncork some chardonnay and get drunk and feel uninhibited enough to tell wicked secrets about themselves while screaming with laughter! (In fact, since this is a column about a rule, let’s add a new one: No filmmaker may include that moment in a movie ever again.) But if you’ve been to a theater lately, you’ll understand that the addition of a handful of words spoken by and to actual human females would not really endanger the sky-high quality of the current cinematic buffet. If that seems unreasonable, consider the double standard: If the Bechdel Test had suddenly landed in Hollywood with the force of law, it would have seriously jeopardized five of last year’s 10 Best Picture nominees. If we’d rewritten the rule to apply to men, it would have seriously jeopardized…um…let’s see…Precious. And that inequity only covers good movies. Apply the comparison to a roster of summer blockbusters, and the results are even less attractive. Not to mention Comic-Con, which now represents the ruling aesthetic of mainstream Hollywood movies and which, under the Bechdel Test, probably could have been knocked down from five days to 45 minutes and not strained the seating capacity of a local Olive Garden.
Some in Hollywood would argue that what we see in movies just reflects larger inequalities, but since this isn’t much of a problem in television series or novels, no sale. So maybe it’s time for the people who greenlight movies, some of whom are rumored to be or at least to have met women, to ask themselves if perhaps they should take this issue a bit more seriously. That brings us back to that loathed word, quotas — which, after all, have their place in the world, that place being to solve a problem when an unfair imbalance exists and the people in charge have no interest in correcting it on their own.
No, not every movie needs to pass the Bechdel Test. But since we’re talking about half the population, how about half the movies? Can I get an ”Amen!” from a studio corner office for that? Anyone? Anyone?