The Bechdel Test: Feminism in film 101

By Nthabiseng Mokoena (@ntha_biseng)

 Women on screen are usually flat, two-dimensional characters. Even if they are interesting characters, like the chain-smoking, support group addict Marla Singer of ‘Fight Club’, or Trinity the hacker who “cracked the IRS d-base” and can kick your ass in slow motion, all we’ll know about these woman by the end of the movie is that some guy really loves them. That’s not ideal. What we should be able to see is women as the leads in their own stories, and not as the sidekick or secondary to a man’s story. 

This post was originally published in September 2014  and is republished here as part of our one year anniversary retrospective.

I like watching movies. I like watching good movies. Well, what I think are good movies. For me, that’s movies that challenge me, make me feel something, make me feel uncomfortable, and engage me. . I think the best way to feel after watching a movie is a bit shaken and more curious about the world. Yes, I like humour and entertainment, but I value insight over anything else.

You know what I don’t like? I don’t like it when I watch a movie and I feel disrespected. I don’t like it when a movie sends me the message that because I’m a woman, what matters most about it me is that I’m beautiful. I don’t like seeing women in movies that are there simply to be decorative. So many movies don’t even have any women as characters. Women exist in the movie world only to be lusted after, controlled, rescued and won as a prize.

Ever heard of the Bechdel Test? It’s a sort of litmus test for ‘how feminist’ a movie is, that is to say, how well it portrays women. The test came about in 1983 when Alison Bechdel wrote a comic strip in which one of the characters says that she will only watch a movie if it meets the following criteria:

  1. It has two women.
  2. Who speak to each other.
  3. About something other than men.

I’m willing to bet that some of your favourite movies don’t pass this basic test, where two women just have a conversation about something other than their love lives. (I do, however, think that it’s important at this point to mention that not all these movies that fail the Bechdel Test necessarily represent women in a bad way.)

It’s important for the women on screen to not only be protagonists, but also to be well-rounded, developed characters with a lot more going on with them than their looks. Women on screen are usually flat, two-dimensional characters. Even if they are interesting characters, like the chain-smoking, support group addict Marla Singer of ‘Fight Club’, or Trinity the hacker who “cracked the IRS d-base” and can kick your ass in slow motion, all we’ll know about these woman by the end of the movie is that some guy really loves them. That’s not ideal. What we should be able to see is women as the leads in their own stories, and not as the sidekick or secondary to a man’s story. This is important because what we see on screen has a significant influence on how we relate to the world, and that influence should be one that encourages women (and men) to see themselves as more than the love interest.

To illustrate how this is possible, I have chosen the films for a variety of genres and according to the criteria that they are written by women, directed by women, or feature women in leading roles.

Action|Crime|Drama:

set it off3

Set It Off (1996)

This movie is incredible. This was directed by F. Gary Gray, who in 1995, won the MTV Award for Best Video of the Year for TLC’s “Waterfalls” video and in 2003, directed ‘The Italian Job’. It was also co-written by a woman, Kate Lanier. It’s about four black women who are tired of feeling helpless and decide to throw a middle finger to the system that keeps screwing them over, and become notorious bank robbers. This movie passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours and Queen Latifah’s role as Cleopatra ‘Cleo’ Sims is one of her best performances. Plus it stars Kimberly Elise, Vivica A. Fox and Jada Pinkett-Smith.

haywire

Haywire (2011)

Directed by ‘Ocean’s Eleven’’s Steven Soderbergh and starring Gina Carano, who was cast in this leading action role because she could really pull it off. Seriously, she’s a Muay Thai record holder, and participated in the first-ever sanctioned female Mixed Martial Arts fight with World Extreme Fighting. Haywire is a sleek action thriller about a black ops super soldier who is betrayed and set up during a mission. Another good reason to see it is that she totally hooks up Channing Tatum in this movie, and has one of the best fight scenes ever with Michael Fassbender.

Romance:

love and b

Love and Basketball (2000)

Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, this story is about Monica Wright (played by Sanaa Lathan), a young girl who is a talented basketball player and has a thing for her next door neighbour Quincy, who also dreams of being a professional basketball player. Not only is it a moving love story, it’s also a great sports movie. We get inside Monica’s head during the games and see her struggle to be the best athlete that she can be. Another one that aces the Bechdel Test, and it has one of the best soundtracks this side of the Civil Rights Movement.

celeste and jesse

Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)

Co-written by and starring the charming Rashida Jones, this is a story about a young couple going through a divorce. It also stars Andy Samberg, so it’s hilarious. What I love about this movie is that it feels real. Rashida Jones plays Celeste, who struggles with a divorce in such hilarious and relatable ways as getting high, getting drunk, and getting drunk again. The intimacy in this movie feels so real that you find yourself rooting for a couple that you also believe has no chance of making it. Break-ups suck and this movie does not attempt to sugar coat it, other than with another amazing soundtrack.

Musical: 

across the universe

Across The Universe (2007)

Directed by a woman, Julie Taymore, this musical exclusively features the music of The Beatles. With a psychedelic backdrop of artists and musicians living in New York, and the chaos of the Vietnam war, this musical is not only great to listen to, but it’s incredible to look at.

sarafina

Sarafina! (1992)

A South African musical starring two women, Leleti Khumalo and Whoopi Goldberg, about teenagers fighting against apartheid during the Soweto Uprising. Who hasn’t seen this? Another Bechdel Test acer, and somehow the most fun I’ve ever had watching a movie about apartheid. 

Drama:

   persopolis

Persepolis (2007)

This is without a doubt my favourite animated movie. It was co-directed and co-written by Marjane Satrapi. She also wrote the comic that the film is based on. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young Iranian girl that begins during the Islamic Revolution. It’s also in French. It won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. It’s hilarious, and frightening.

somewhere sofia coppola

Somewhere (2010)

After her Best Screenplay Oscar win for ‘Lost in Translation’ and the controversial-in-France ‘Marie Antoinette’ featuring American accents and starring Kirsten Dunst, Sofia Coppola directed what I consider to be her best movie, ‘Somewhere’. It’s about a Hollywood actor, who has lost the ability to enjoy any aspect of what most might consider an exciting life, and is unexpectedly forced to spend time with his 11 year old daughter who he barely knows. This sounds like it could be cheesy, but it’s sophisticated and Coppola manages to tell a simple story with an incredible amount of restraint and detail.

 

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