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"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.

AMumInScotland Wed 12-Jun-13 20:21:11

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.

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