It’s all gone a bit Bechdel

I was informed on an internet forum this week that I shouldn’t go and see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Why? Because it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. So, to clarify, one woman who identifies as a feminist (the lady who wrote the post) tried to tell another woman who identifies as a feminist (me) what she should or shouldn’t do – and called that a feminist act. Uh…..

The Bechdel test, named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and asks three questions of any work of fiction:

1. Does it have at least two named female characters in it?
2. Do they have a conversation with each other?
3. Is that conversation about something other than a man?

At the moment it is frequently being applied to movies, and a movie that answers all three of these questions with a ‘yes’ is considered to have passed, and have solid feminist credentials. It’s grown in popularity over the last couple of years, and it has its place – it’s certainly sobering to see the number of major movies that can’t even get themselves together enough to feature two women having a normal conversation. You know, like women do all the time.

So the test is useful – that is, until it gets used to beat women round the head for wanting to see certain movies in the first place, because it is, let’s face it, an extraordinarily blunt instrument. In common with many blunt instruments, it works with metadata, but try and delve into the details and things get very blurry. To take some examples:

The Shawshank Redemption: Does not pass. Of course it doesn’t. It’s set in a men’s prison. It’s never going to pass. Does that mean that women aren’t allowed to watch this film out of principle? Don’t be ridiculous; it’s one of the best films ever made, and trying to shoehorn some female roles into it would ruin it.

The Princess Bride: Does not pass. Seriously, it doesn’t. It falls down on question 3 (or even question 2, according to some). Are there women who don’t love The Princess Bride? Maybe, but to the best of my knowledge I’ve never met them. Of course, we could have a whole new debate about to what extent women have been socialised into loving romance movies in the first place, but maybe some other time.

Terminator 2: Passes, but only dubiously. And are there any fictional feminist icons quite as awesome as Sarah Connor?

How To Train Your Dragon 2: Does not pass. Despite Astrid and Velka, two kick-ass, don’t-tell-me-what-to-do female characters, which is two more than many movies can conjure up.

On the other hand, Independence Day, Starship Troopers and Die Hard all pass with flying colours. So do Sin City, Transformers and Only God Forgives. Really. Though you’ll have to pardon me if, amongst all the flag-waving testosterone and/or cringe-inducing misogyny, I have completely forgotten where in any of those films two women have a real conversation. It all makes me feel a bit…

I like the idea of the Bechdel test. Really I do. And I like that there are conversations happening about it. I like that movies that passed it took $4.22 billion at the US box office last year, while those that didn’t pass only scraped $2.66 billion. I like that, the more fuss is made about it, the more likely we are to finally get a solo Wonder Woman or Black Widow movie (I’m trying to ignore Kevin Feige’s take on the matter). As an analytical tool, it has its place.

But its place is not in telling anybody where they can and can’t spend their own free time.

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