Confession: This year was the first I’d heard of the Alison Bechdel Test (or Bechdel Rule). As soon as I knew it, I admit: I was hooked. Suddenly I left every film calculating whether or not it passed, how quickly it passed, how well it passed, etc. It’s a fun game and industrial critique!
Did the rest of America, like me, go ga-ga for Bechdel this year?
Probably not. But certainly the popularity of the Bechdel test surged in 2010. I alone have cited it in six reviews and articles this year, from The Social Network (fail) to True Grit (pass, barely) and Winter’s Bone (pass!).
First, for the uninitiated, what is the Bechdel Test? You can learn more at the crowdsourced web site or on the wiki, but it’s a simple 3-question test for any film to determine the prominence given to women. To pass, a movie must have:
1. At least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
A lot of movies fail, including what must be the majority of Hollywood films.
This year, there’s been a spike in interest in the test, which has been around forever and has been covered for at least 10 years. Alex Juhasz says the test has gone “as viral as any lesbian thing ever could.” A Google News search finds 11 mentions of the test from 2003-2007, six in 2008 and twenty-five in 2010 alone. NPR has given it a story (obviously), so has Entertainment Weekly, and it has been cited on numerous blogs, from Film School Rejects to Cinematical.
And, as seen in the image above from Google Trends, more and more people started Googling the phrase this year.
On the website itself, people are starting to fill in the blanks in film history. Each year the number of films run through the Bechdel Test goes up: 66 in 2006, 84 in 2007, 137 in 2008 and 158 in 2009. This year already has 124 — many films get filled in long after their release as people watch them on DVD, Netflix, etc.
Certainly the Bechdel test isn’t the final word on a film’s feminist message, or even its portrayal of women. As I noted, numerous feminist films can fail the test for a variety of reasons, and many people have cited Salt as a key example. And of course no pass/fail “test” could ever capture the complexities of feminist politics, something I re-learned this week when the Women Film Critics Circle cited Black Swan as the “worst female image” this year, a film I heralded as a rare movie about a woman’s existential crisis.
But wouldn’t it be nice if every studio executive and script doctor put their films through the test before going into production? The stunningly low bar is easy to meet, and if more people are aware and push for changes, we’ll get more roles for women, and, maybe, a gradual shift in how casting and writing are done in Hollywood.