Recently, Sofia Coppola, director of The Beguiled (2017), revealed in a GQ interview that she hadn’t previously heard of the Bechdel Test.
There was a bit of outcry about this factoid (see the original article here) – a few pass-agg articles and many amused/frustrated comments on Facebook, you get the gist. While Sofia’s revelation might be old news by now, it’s worth revisiting because it highlights the Bechdel Test itself, and raises an important question about films that pass: are they rendered implicitly unproblematic simply because they pass the test?
Before we get to the meaty stuff, it’s worth recapping what the Bechdel Test actually is.
And no, it isn’t a test that measures how tasty béchamel sauce is, as a friend thought. It’s a test that measures male-leaning gender bias in films, and it was created by Alison Bechdel in her 1985 comic strip The Rule, which was a part of a larger series of comic strips called Dykes to Watch Out For.
To pass the test, a film needs to feature the following: two (preferably named) female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. Sounds easy, but a surprising number of films that you think would pass the test actually fail it. I’m looking at you, Run Lola Run (1998) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).
That’s not to necessarily shame those films and their creators, though. Lisbeth Salander and Lola, the protagonists of each film, don’t actually interact with any women. But one could argue that their intelligence, tenacity, and persistence still present to audience members two well-rounded, complex characters, partly making up for the lack of female-to-female interaction. But does such well-written female characterisation negate the fact that these characters are essentially living in a man’s world? Maybe not. But maybe, just maybe, creating a Bechdel-friendly film isn’t a guarantee that your female characters are written and presented in a multifaceted and interesting manner. It also doesn’t guarantee the humanisation of other minorities, like people of colour or the disabled.
Many of Coppola’s films pass the Bechdel Test, and she didn’t even know what the test was. It could be said, then, that Coppola instinctively possesses an awareness of creating complex female characters, who have complex relationships with other female characters. Trying too hard to write a film that passes the test, if a filmmaker ever has done so, would probably come off as inauthentic. A little like the fact that featuring a person of colour in a film merely to increase visibility of minorities doesn’t negate the potential tokenism at play.
Films that present women as scenery will probably always exist. Consciously making an effort to feature women on screen together, discussing more than just the man they both slept with is a definite start to negating the effect of such films. Writing well-rounded female characters who aren’t seen through the lens of a male is another step in the right direction. It’s okay for a female character to be a wife, a girlfriend, a daughter. But we want to see more than that. We want to see what makes them tick. We want to see their struggles, who they are when they’re not providing advice to men or boys, and what they’re like when they’re lying on a beach with their girlfriend or best friend, drunkenly rambling about their fond memories. We want them to present to us real human beings, rather than the walking vaginas that some films feature. Same goes for any other minority. A person is more than their race, disability, or gender, and it’s important that film highlights this. That might be something for Coppola to keep considering, whether or not she knows what the Bechdel Test is.