Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Bechdel Test

I don't like the Bechdel Test. This irritates my wife quite a bit, but I don't think it's a particularly useful metric for anything meaningful.

For anybody unfamiliar with it, the test has three criteria for a film (or TV show, videogame, or whatever media is at issue) to meet:

  • It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  • Who talk to each other
  • About something besides a man

It's usually brought out to indicate the number of relevant female characters in a film, but my main problem with it is that it doesn't matter what they're talking about, so long as it isn't a man. They can talk about any number of cliche "girl" topics and still pass the test. Shopping? Shoes? Fashion? Cooking? All fine.

At the same time - depending on your interpretation of the third point, but based on the wording - if they mention a man in their conversation at all, then it's an instant failure. Again, the content and context of the interaction appears to be irrelevant. I'm not sure what happens if they're talking about a fictional character, or a real historical figure, or someone whose gender is unspecified.

And the test doesn't care if a woman's talking to a man as an equal or superior, if she's running rings around him in an argument. Her ability to hold her own against someone doesn't count unless it's another woman.

It doesn't measure the quality of characters. It doesn't care whether the characters are rounded individuals or stereotypes. It's a simple box-checking exercise, that almost deliberately gives media the easiest possible set of criteria to meet. To pass, you don't need to rewrite entire characters - just make sure they refer to each other by name and have at least one random dialogue about the weather.

Easy, right?.

So why the hell doesn't everything pass? What the f--k is wrong with our media that we can't even have that stupid conversation in everything?

It strikes me as weird and kind of wrong that so many fanservice-heavy and moe anime shows - which do genuinely just objectify girls and women as their entire point - actually pass this test when "smart" TV shows just stick women around the edges to emphasise the importance of the men to the point that they can't talk about anything else.

I'll be honest: I don't think about this stuff 90% of the time when I'm watching TV or movies. I don't like the test, if for no reason other than there are better measures of a character's worth than how many times she talks to another woman rather than a man.

But Jesus, it's not exactly setting a high bar, and we still can't manage it.

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