This post is occasioned by two things: one, a discussion that I had with my friend, Vishwajith Sadananda (who
alarmingly well over at the Oxford Human Rights Blog), about public perceptions of feminism, and two, reading this report, on Huffington Post, about a pledge to, have more strong female characters in the Lego Movie sequel. The director of the Lego Movie, (which, as an aside, is terrific) said, “I’m not sure our movie passes the Bechdel test entirely and I think that it’s important.”
Bechdel: More Satire, Less Feminism
So first, for those of you don’t know/have been living under a rock for the past the past decade: what is the Bechdel test? The Bechdel test enquires whether two women in a fictional work (films, literature, plays etc) talk to each other about something other than a man. Alison Bechdel, the morosely humorous cartoonist who first came up with it (the original panel is here) envisioned it as a meter for how far a work of fiction was representational, of women’s concerns.
Over the years, the Bechdel test has become, in popular perception, a capsule feminism test. A film is feminist approved if it passes the Bechdel test and indicative of masculine cultural attitudes if it does not. It is so much of a thing, that there exist online databases like this, and annual roundups Bechdel-certified films, like here and here.
Two problems, right off the bat: first, this was a test formulated in a comic strip, for the purposes of humour. It sets the bar so low, it’s practically subsoil. To celebrate a film passing the Bechdel test, is to celebrate nothing at all. Sometimes, as in the case of Showgirls, it winds up legitimizing that one time Hollywood decided to not even pretend it wasn’t making smut.
Second. The Bechdel test was born out of a specific lesbian subculture circa the 1980’s and is geared to exploring the extent of a woman oriented community indicated in a work of fiction. It has been co-opted by the feminist movement, to suit their needs. Despite the cultural ubiquity, it actually does not measure anything resembling gender sensitivity. It does not measure whether the female characters are strong, well-rounded and have meaningful narrative arcs. More broadly, it does not measure the attitudes towards gender and sexuality. If we remember some of the camp sexploitation films of years past (this comes to mind), they had strong (if ‘evil’) female leads, which were as gratuitously exploitative as anything before or since.
Passing the Bechdel test doesn’t mean that a film is feminist. Failing it doesn’t mean the obverse. A few months ago, my theatre group, staged a play called ‘The Burqa, The Bikini and Other Veils’. It was strongly feministic in its outlook. It would fail the Bechdel test, though.
So what are the solutions? Adjustments like the characters must be a named character; must be a reasonably central figure; must have more than so and so much screen time have all been suggested. Foremost among these are a ‘essence of Bechdel’ test which looks at the film holistically to determine if female characters have a character arc that is independent of their reliance upon a man. Going further, some postulate, that it is not the positive affirmation of one or two female character that should matter, but also that there should no degradation of other female characters.
But What is Feminist?
However, problems still remain. If feminism is, what its modern acolytes say it to mean, then it is supposed to be concerned about the problems of gender and sexuality of humans generally, whether they be children, women, men, lesbian, gay transsexuals, cissexuals, whatever. To stick to a woman-only focus when deliberating feminist depiction in the media, is to fall into a large, and wholly avoidable trap. Not only that, it strikes a rather regressive note.
Third-wave (modern?) feminism recognizes that gender is performative and interrogates categorizations of gender as ‘done’ and not ‘is’. Even if a large part of feminism’s concerns have been with women’s problems, it is first and foremost an attitudinal doctrine. It is an unspecific framework that accepts and encompasses many approaches to achieving gender respect. Moving on from androgynous second-wave feminism, lipstick feminism and stiletto feminism push the boundaries in a bid to discredit all forms of slut-shaming or virgin/whore dichotomisation of women. Regardless of whether one agrees with the strategies of some modern subcultures, or chooses to deride them as internalized indoctrination, the concerns of modern feminism lie in pushing back the boundaries of what is considered acceptable both in terms of sexual attitudes and categorizations. Modern feminism, for instance, breeds respect for people who are trans or intersex, becoming as much a campaign for attitudinal change, as for political reform.
The Perception Problem
There is thus a split between what modern feminism truly talks about and the Bechdel test, one of its most public aspects. This is a duality that is also broadly reflected in public perceptions about feminism. The public perception of feminism still continues to stubbornly second-wave, with short haircuts and militant anti-sex attitudes the first images recalled. One consequent sub-theme of this discussion has been the debate about retaining the word ‘feminism’. Critics feel that insofar as it excludes the male Other (I would never have thought, that I would be able to write ‘male Other’ in any context bar satire) from joining the discourse, it hinders, rather than helps the cause of feminism. But, the problem, if we scratch below this thin veneer o argument, is not with the term but rather the images associated with the term. This public identification of feminism with second-wave concerns, rather than with modern third-wave attitudes is a problem of media depiction that must be overcome, sooner rather than later.
Of course, the problem of depiction, and a move in the public perception of what the feminist zeitgeist truly is, is a battle that must be fought every day and all over the world. But one suggestion. Retire the Bechdel test. Its woman-only focus is a piece of baggage from years past. Let us be done with it.
Maybe a modified Mako Mori test, with shades of the Vito Russo test. This requires that a movie has: a) at least one sexual minority (here I refer to all forms of gender disadvantages – women, intersex, lesbians, etc) character; b) who gets their own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story. The benefit of this test that it would show the extent to which the depiction of sexual minorities is problematic. In Bollywood, for instance, for every Tamanna that respectfully deals with these issues, there are the multiple cruelties of Bobby Darling
The original author of Mako Mori test proposes that this be used alongside with, and not to supplant the Bechdel test. To be honest, I don’t see the point. The Mako Mori test, much like its origins, is drop-dead serious. Bechdel, much like its origins, is a bit of a funny joke. Unfortunately, when comic figures wield power, the punchlines are usually tragic. Ask Silvio Berlusconi. If we can change this, most public face of feminism, to actually reflect the depth of feminism outreach, and the extent of its humanity, we can perhaps look forward to a different perception of feminism.
And boy, do we need a new perception.