The Bechdel Test

Want to know if a movie either hinders or advances the feminist movement? Look no further than The Bechdel Test. Created by Alison Bechdel in 1985 for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, it’s a fairly rudimentary but important set of rules which are, according to Wikipedia, “an indicator for the active presence of women in the entire field of film and other fiction, and to call attention to gender inequality in fiction”. 

The three rules are:

 

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it.

    a. (It’s sometimes added that these women have to be named.)

  2. Two (or more) of the film’s women have a conversation.

  3. That conversation is about something other than a man or men.

 

It was originally written as a joke, but the test has now become part of feminist film critique. With all this in mind, I’d like to see if three of my favorite films pass the Bechdel test.

 

Stand By Me (1986)

Quick summary: Gordie LaChance and his friends head into the Oregon woods to find a dead body. 

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it -- it does. Gordie’s mom is featured in two scenes and a waitress at a diner is featured in one. In Gordie’s story sequence, women are seen in the audience watching the pie-eating contest. However, none of these women’s names are explicitly stated.

  2. Two (or more) of the film’s women have a conversation -- this does not occur in the film, which makes rule 3 non-applicable.  

Stand By Me’s Grade: Fail

 

My take: The film’s main themes are not romance, or women, or men’s relationships with women; there is no love interest in this story, and there is no message that men are superior to women. Rather, the main themes are death, maturity, masculinity, and masculine friendship. The fact that women are not really featured in this film does not hinder the movie’s messages, nor does it set the feminist agenda back, so I personally don’t give this film a bad rap for its lack of female representation. I am biased, however, as this is my absolute favorite movie. 

 

Over the Edge (1979)

Quick summary: Carl Willet is driven to rebel against his hometown, whose adults neglect their children.

1. The movie has to have at least two women in it -- there’s Cory, who is Carl’s love interest, Abby, who is Cory’s best friend, Julia, the head of the town’s rec center, and Sandra, who is Carl’s Mom, in addition to other female teens that Carl hangs around with and other moms in town. 

2. Two (or more) of the film’s women have a conversation -- A girl named Lisa speaks with her friend, Cory and Abby talk together, and Lisa speaks to her mother.

3. That conversation is about something other than a man or men -- Lisa tells another girl a story about how she got in trouble with her mom, Cory and Abby spout off exclamations to each other demanding to know where the food is when they break into a house, and Lisa mocks her mother using the school’s loudspeaker, knowing her mother can hear her. I’d say these all count.

Over the Edge’s Grade: Pass

 

My take: While this film passed, it didn’t really advance the feminist agenda. Carl is a (white) male hero, he saves the day, and the movie’s main female, Cory, is only really there because he has a crush on her and she comes around to him, of course. She’s a solid character in her own right: she has dreams which she tells Carl about, she initiates raiding the house for food, and she’s self-assured by all accounts, but other than becoming Carl’s girlfriend and going along with whatever his plans are, she does not do much else. The other female characters are present but not important.

 

Bridesmaids (2011)

Quick summary: Annie Walker’s life falls apart as she tries to be a good maid of honor for her best friend Lillian. 

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it -- In addition to lead character Annie and Lillian, there’s the other bridesmaids (Rita, Becca, Megan, and Helen), Annie’s roommate Brynn, and Annie’s mother Judy.

  2. Two (or more) of the film’s women have a conversation -- I’d say at least 85% of the film features one of the women talking to another woman.

  3. That conversation is about something other than a man or men -- Three examples: Annie has to apologize to Lillian for her behavior, Annie and Helen have many passive-aggressive conversations, and Megan shows up to Annie’s house to give her a pick-me-up after Annie completely gives up.

Bridesmaids’ Grade: Pass    

 

My take: The script was written by two women (Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, with Wiig portraying Annie), and the film is so much stronger because of it. Granted, there are some stupid moments, such as a food-poisoning fiasco at a wedding dress shop (according to Wiig, it wasn’t in the original script), but Annie learns how to fix her messy life, Megan is independently successful, and Helen eventually learns to be a better friend to Annie. While romance is one of its main themes, I’d argue that Bridesmaids is, indeed, a girl-power film. The movie’s only flaws with its characters are that there are no queer women.

What do you think of my takes? Does your favorite movie pass the Bechdel test? It’s interesting to think about huh? And, it’s also important to consider: Is it possible for a film to fail the Bechdel test but still represent women well? In the words of Billy Ray Cyrus, “Much to think about”.