By Katy Waldman, Slate
The Bechdel Test, the brainchild of cartoonist Alison Bechdel, bubbled out of a 1985 comic strip called “Dykes to Watch Out For.”
It was Bechdel’s modest proposal for assessing how well a given film represented its female characters and it went like so: Do you, movie, feature two or more named women? Do they talk to each other? About something besides a guy?
If so, then congratulations! You have passed the Bechdel Test.
The tongue-in-cheek standard caught fire, first on the Internet and then offline. It paved the way for countless blog posts, visualizations and spinoff projects. It was applied to Oscar nominations and pop music.
Yet Bechdel herself expressed ambivalence about the yardstick’s viral spread.
“I just can’t seem to rise to the occasion of talking about this fundamental principle over and over again, as if it’s somehow new, or open to debate,” she wrote last fall, noting that calls for subtler artistic portrayals of women dated back at least to Virginia Woolf in 1926.
Not that her hesitation mattered — the BT had taken on a life of its own.
And it has started to work. Last week, Versha Sharma and Hanna Sender at Vocativ looked at the 50 films that raked in the most box office gold in 2013 and discovered that the biggest blockbusters cleared Bechdel’s bar.
Of the 50 highest-grossing movies of the year, 17 clearly aced the test, seven inched across the threshold — the women discussed things that weren’t men, but barely — and the rest failed.
(Gravity wasn’t counted, because only two characters got substantial screen time.)
But even though just 36 percent of the coronated 50 films passed “with flying colors,” the Bechdel-positive pictures earned way more than the Bechdel-negative ones: a total of 4.22 billion versus 2.66 billion.
This is happy news, mostly. It demonstrates that audiences have an appetite for well-drawn, multidimensional female characters and it sends an important message to the film industry.
As Sharma and Sender write, “Dear Hollywood: We know how you can make more money in 2014. Put more women onscreen.”
But the exercise is also — let’s be honest — a bit of a letdown.
In 2014, we are still whooping with delight when movie studios depict a woman sharing a snippet of non-dude-focused conversation with another woman? This is not exactly a high bar.
And the test (which, again, Bechdel never intended to be the only word on the matter) seems potentially misleading.
Women can come off as human onscreen without passing (if, say, Charlotte talks to Ellen about a man named Kierkegaard).
Or they can inhabit films that pass the test and still treat them like sexy mannequins (Charlotte: “I love your pink heels!” Ellen: “They match my underwear!”).
Is it time to update the standard?