"the Bechdel Test is total and complete bullshit."

(53 Posts)
BelfastBloke Wed 12-Jun-13 20:12:40

I am not posting this because I believe it. I'm posting this because I had never really thought about this angle on the Bechdel test, which I enjoy applying to many Hollywood films.

A correspondent to Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog writes:

"As I think I?ve written to you before, the Bechdel Test is total and complete bullshit. I?m a Hollywood screenwriter, so let me drop a little knowledge on this one. The only way a film is going to pass the Bechdel Test is if the protagonist is female, or it?s an ensemble cast with a bunch of different storylines. Anything else is bad screenwriting. Here?s why: Movies do not suffer digressions well. To be good, they have to stay on their main storyline. This is one of the structural realities that separates them from novels.

That means, in a non-ensemble movie, If two characters are talking, and neither of them is the protagonist, then those two characters have to be talking about the protagonist. If you have a scene where two non-protagonist characters are talking about something unrelated to the protagonist (and thus, to the main storyline), any writer or executive worth her salt is going to cut that scene. It?ll drag the entire movie down and make people reach for their popcorn. Thus, if the protagonist is a man, then if he?s not on screen, any characters who are on screen are going to be talking about him. It?s just good writing.

Do I wish there were more movies with a strong female protagonist? Hell yeah, I do. I?m actually returning to writing one as soon as I finish this email. But the Bechdel Test is utter hooey. It?s using a metric that fails to understand the basic principles of the thing it?s purporting to measure.

Portofino Wed 12-Jun-13 20:15:43

So why do so many films have a male as the protagonist?

MalenkyRusskyDrakonchik Wed 12-Jun-13 20:15:57


Well, I guess if he's a screenwriter he knows more about it than I do, but I think his analysis of structural realities sounds suspiciously simplistic.

Maybe writing fewer boring movies would help!

(TBH I think he sounds mansplainy as heck, hence my irritation.)

I think it's a satirical joke that's been adopted as a tool to show how male-centric the media tends to be. To that end, it does its job. There are other ways of looking at films through a feminist lens though.

Portofino Wed 12-Jun-13 20:19:13

The "I see dead people" film, or AI or practically anything I can think of, boys vs girls, men vs women. It is insidious.

FreyaSnow Wed 12-Jun-13 20:19:35

Well it's just not true is it? There are lots of conversations that men have in movies that are not about the main protagonist.

Example off the top of my head - Star Trek - two minor characters talk about paperwork to do with a torpedo. Neither relates it directly to the main character.

In fact a film where everyone who ever spoke did so about the main protagonist would just be bizarre.

Perhaps films with a plot which isn't about a man doing things, and the entire plot revolving around those things (which usually involve him shooting at other people) might actually be interesting to a large section of humanity? The rest of life need not be viewed as a "digression" from the plot if it is done well.

FreyaSnow Wed 12-Jun-13 20:27:47

Even if the plot is just about a man doing things, it simply is not true that every conversation is about him. Bane has conversations that are about his own life, not about Batman. The photographer and the editor in Superman (can't remember their names) have conversations about crime in general without talking about Superman.

I think he needs to give some examples of movies where no two male characters with names ever have a conversation that isn't about the main protagonist. If 90% of top 100 films each year fail that Male version of the Bechdale test, then he has a point, but I can't think of any examples of such a film at the moment.

joanofarchitrave Wed 12-Jun-13 20:29:38

The Bechdel Test is not some kind of all-powerful statement. It's just a different angle to look at films from. Having said that...

'The only way a film is going to pass the Bechdel Test is if the protagonist is female, or it's an ensemble cast with a bunch of different storylines.'

Point, that's, the. Rearrange into a well-known phrase or saying.

joanofarchitrave Wed 12-Jun-13 20:31:00

FreyaSnow, I saw Behind the Candelabra yesterday and I think it pretty much fits the template he's describing. Very good too.

MalenkyRusskyDrakonchik Wed 12-Jun-13 20:32:08

I do love 'drop a little knowledge', too. Cos all of us who'd been referring to the Bechdel test, we're really thick, right? hmm

(Just to 'drop a little knowledge', I think he's talking hooey about novels too.)

notcitrus Wed 12-Jun-13 20:33:37

Also, the Bechdel Test was made up by a comic strip writer, off the cuff, not intended to become a widely-used analysis tool. It just happens to be useful as a guide for all sorts of media - maybe there are reasons for simplistic Hollywood movies failing it, but TV series, books, cartoons?

Half of CBeebies episodes don't even pass it!

Portofino Wed 12-Jun-13 20:34:45

I don't get to the pictures much apart from kids films. The Croods for example. Great strong female character (the others were just cliches) but at the end of the day she gets to choose between her dad and her boyfriend as I. Who is right. Most disappointed.

ouryve Wed 12-Jun-13 20:35:13

'The only way a film is going to pass the Bechdel Test is if the protagonist is female, or it's an ensemble cast with a bunch of different storylines.'

People don't just talk about people, though, do they? They talk about things, animals, events, science, religion, politics....

Chubfuddler Wed 12-Jun-13 20:36:04

Perhaps as a Hollywood screen writer he could explain why it has to be the case that the majority of films have a male protagonist and scenes in which he does not appear are principally comprised of discussion about the make protagonist?

That would help.

Unless he's being all like ironic. It's hard to tell when people are being ironic and when they are just being thick tbh.

Portofino Wed 12-Jun-13 20:36:46

Hotel Transylvania. She gets to choose between her dad and her boyfriend as to who is right. Anyone see a them emerging....

AmandaPandtheTantrumofDoom Wed 12-Jun-13 21:08:19

Drop a little knowledge? Patronising much?

And it is total bullshit that you always have scenes either with or about the protagonist. Action movies maybe, but even then it is pushing it.

FreyaSnow Wed 12-Jun-13 21:58:01

Joan, I have just put on Beyond the Candelabra, and within the first two minutes, two named male characters, neither of whom are the protagonist, are having a conversation with each other which is not about the main protagonist. Had those characters been female, this film would be among the 10% of films which pass the Bechdale test. Thanks for the recommendation though. It does look good.

So, has anybody got an example of a film in which at no point two male named characters have a conversation that isn't about the protagonist. Maybe that film where Tom Hanks is trapped on an island with only a ball for company?

HullMum Wed 12-Jun-13 22:04:28

How fucking obnoxious because not only is he talking shit about characters ever being able to discuss anything besides the protagonist. But even f that were the case..well then surely it would stil highlight the fact there are few ensemble casts or films with females as the protagonist which is the point?

What a fucking idiot.

HullMum Wed 12-Jun-13 22:05:58

Who is this "screen writer" anyway?

is he just an angry unpublished man?

SabrinaMulhollandJjones Wed 12-Jun-13 22:39:58

Not films, but 2 TV series which pass the Bechdel in spades recently are Scott & Bailey and The Fall.

The Fall's a weird one - it seems to cover both ends of the spectrum in that it shows very (arguably) gratuitous, almost fetishised violence and torture of women by stalker man - but also has a bevy of very strong female characters. I loved Gillian Anderson in it.

I recently told my dh about the Bechdel test and he had a bit of a lightbulb moment about it - he had honestly never realised that the majority of Hollywood films were so male-centric, and that women's representation in them is so poor. I suppose the fact that there are some very fine women in movies, playing strong characters (Helen Mirren, Judi Dench spring to mind) distracts people from this sad fact.

Chubfuddler Wed 12-Jun-13 22:40:35

Actually I watched Wimbeldon last night and there is not one conversation between two women and every conversation which does not involve the male lead is about him. So massive fail.

TheDoctrineOfAllan Thu 13-Jun-13 09:25:57

But how many films with a female protagonist fail the reverse Bechdel test?

TheDoctrineOfAllan Thu 13-Jun-13 09:31:20

And how many films with a female protagonist still fail the Bechdel test, because everyone she speaks to is either male or she is speaking to another woman about a male?

Chubfuddler Thu 13-Jun-13 09:34:15

I think the second scenario happens far more than the first. Most films with a female protagonist are concerned with her love life, and therefore most conversations are about her love life.

TheDoctrineOfAllan Thu 13-Jun-13 09:36:58

So, for example, "Elizabeth". Are the only conversations between the various lords and dukes and what have you only ever about Elizabeth?

(can't remember, it's been years since I saw it.)

TheDoctrineOfAllan Thu 13-Jun-13 09:41:37

Exactly Chub, exactly.

"Amelie" might fail the reverse Bechdel but then Amelie is on screen pretty much all the time, I think.

MarshaBrady Thu 13-Jun-13 09:44:55

Loads of movies work well with storyline digressions.

Robert Altman he does it doesn't he, lots of different conversations and scenes to make up a whole. One of his movies is based on Raymond Carver's stories anyway. But he's up there with some of the best.

In your average run of the mill female lead movie they all talk about the main female protagonist. I saw one the other day with Meryl Streep, every single comment was aimed at her or about her, as if non of the other characters had ever spoken to each other.

Chubfuddler Thu 13-Jun-13 09:45:27

In Elizabeth they are ostensibly about her but really about her as vessel for playing out male power struggles by way of who she will marry, or plans to kill her. Not really a great feminist story.

MarshaBrady Thu 13-Jun-13 09:47:13

Meryl Streep is great in The Devil Wears Prada, a great central female role.

TheDoctrineOfAllan Thu 13-Jun-13 09:48:23

Marsha, really?

I'm struggling to think of many female protagonist movies, TBH. Which one did you have in mind?

Trills Thu 13-Jun-13 09:49:13

That statement is on a par with "BMI is bullshit because <insert rugby player here> would be classed as obese"

It's not a test for whether an individual film is "good" or "feminist". The relevance is when you apply it to the population.

One film may be very feminist and fail the Bechdel test. One man may have a BMI of 35 and yet be very healthy. But when you look at hundreds and thousands of people/films, the fact that most films fail, and that fact that half of the adults in the country are overweight - that's not a one-off freak. That's a pattern.

MarshaBrady Thu 13-Jun-13 09:51:37

I saw a Meryl Streep one the other day, it wasn't great. About her love life of course, but it was centred around her. All her friends sat at the dinner table ignored each other and every conversation was about her.

Hmm what was it It's Complicated. It was pretty crap, but don't 'chick flicks' do this, make it all about the lead female?

I like the scene in TDWP where Meryl talks about what the press will say about her divorce. It is centred around her and shows how much the media will twist it.

MarshaBrady Thu 13-Jun-13 09:53:45

Is it ok if it's about general sex life not romance and attachment with one guy? I assume talking about work is ok.

Have forgotten the rules.

ParsingFancy Thu 13-Jun-13 09:58:01

Everything Joan said at 20:29:38.

But also completely agree that a reverse Bechdel test will demonstrate whether this bloke's argument is even true.

Would it be useful to add a reverse test to the Bechdel test website, I wonder? Might be interesting what it would show.

ParsingFancy Thu 13-Jun-13 09:59:36
TheDoctrineOfAllan Thu 13-Jun-13 10:00:49

Thanks Marsha, haven't seen that one but I read the book. is the film from the POV of Anne Hathaway? If there are two or more female leads (like Charlie's Angels or SATC) I can imagine it's easier to fail the reverse Bechdel.

The Silence of the Lambs might fail - there's a conversation between Clarice's boss and the local police chief but I think it's about Clarice.

ParsingFancy Thu 13-Jun-13 10:02:53


Bechdel Test:
1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

Yeah, I'd say he's totally missing the point.

Btw was just re-watching the last season of West Wing and it's great for passing Bechdel... you've got a female chief of staff and female national security adviser talking about how to respond to war and genocide, women on presidential campaign staffs arguing about strategies, etc.

MarshaBrady Thu 13-Jun-13 10:06:20

They're pretty much all female in TDWP. Meryl Streep as the editor, Anne Hathaway as assistant, and her work friends. A couple of males as fashion editor, boyfriend and designer. Mostly from AH's point of view, but lots of interaction between the two lead roles MS and AH, not about men.

How about when females talk about sex with each other? Does that count as being about a man, if it's kept very general then it is about what the woman wants. There's quite a bit of that lately post-Sex in the City, but can get rather cringey.

I see that it has to be two named characters. It's Difficult just has lots of unnamed friends hanging around talking about sex so might not count.

UptoapointLordCopper Thu 13-Jun-13 10:17:27

Haven't read the whole thread so perhaps someone has made this point already: you lot are just not getting it - conversations between women are just not interesting. People want to hear men talking because they have something worthwhile to say, whereas women, well! They only talk about fluffy things and shopping, spending their men's money, or about their children which no one else cares about. Not very interesting, really, to people, ie men. hmm grin

ParsingFancy Thu 13-Jun-13 10:37:00

Your nickname passes the reverse Bechdel, Copper!grin

DonDrapersAltrEgoBigglesDraper Thu 13-Jun-13 10:43:45

The thing is, every single movie ever made passes the male Bechdel Test.

Why is it suddenly SO difficult - nay, impossible! - to make films which pass the female Bechdel Test?!


UptoapointLordCopper Thu 13-Jun-13 11:27:16

ParsingFancy I've never tried to analyse Evelyn Waugh's novels from a feminist point of view. I suspect it's not for the fainthearted! grin

HullMum Thu 13-Jun-13 21:46:28

Just remembered a friend of mine made the point that lesbian porn always passes the bechdel test hmm grin

Not sure what that means for the test really!

joanofarchitrave Thu 13-Jun-13 22:06:40

Perhaps the Bechdel test redux should include:

4. The two female characters keep all their clothes on for 95% of the screen time.

Quangle Thu 13-Jun-13 22:20:18

Random sample. I'm watching Billy Elliot. It's passing the reverse Bechdel test in virtually every scene. There's only really one woman in it and nobody talks about her much. Current scene - two men on a bus talk about London. All films pass the reverse test pretty much.

He totally misses the point. And mansplains. And suggests that conversations that aren't about men (who are of course naturally the main protagonists) are digressions. hmm

samandi Thu 20-Jun-13 12:31:01

What absolute rubbish. Has this man even watched any films lately?

LeGavrOrf Thu 20-Jun-13 12:38:16

I would have thought as a screenwriter he would use that novel concept of subplots.

Unless he doesn't write nuanced scripts and sticks to Transformer like films.

LurcioLovesFrankie Thu 20-Jun-13 12:56:22

Assuming this is the same guy, I see not much evidence to think he has had a stellar screen-writing career. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Sullivan Appears to be more of a right-wing shock-jock to me.

ParsingFancy Thu 20-Jun-13 13:05:51

Greenfingers, set mostly in a men's prison, passes the Bechdel test.

Really, it ain't that hard.

BelfastBloke Thu 20-Jun-13 13:20:46

Lurcio, Andrew Sullivan is not the screenwriter who wrote this quotation. Andrew Sullivan is a journalist for Newsweek and the Sunday Times, and is the main author of The Daily Dish website.

The screenwriter who wrote this quotation is just one of The Daily Dish anonymous readers who contributed to an ongoing discussion about the Bechdel Test.

LurcioLovesFrankie Thu 20-Jun-13 15:44:08

Apologies for not reading carefully enough.

But, in other words, we have no idea whether the anonymous contributor really is a screenwriter or is just a complete fantasist. I'd be tempted to log onto the website and call him on it - either list films/TV shows he's written for, or shut up!

(My workplace had to do a major piece of damage limitation after some random anonymous person wrote a comment on the BBC website on a very high profile issue, pretending to be an employee there, and the comment got quoted at face value widely across the press. Surprise, surprise, none of the papers thought to double check the source.)

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