Getting beyond the Bechdel Test

Alice Butler

THOUGH she was hardly the first person to pick up on the lack of well developed roles for women in film, Alison Bechdel was instrumental in generating much needed debate and discussion around the issue.

First voiced in 1985 by a shrewd female character in Bechdel’s comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, what has since become known as the Bechdel Test requires that a film features two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.

In the cartoon, the unnamed character who explains the rule to her companion appears understandably aggrieved as they stroll past one film poster after the next, each one dominated by the muscular shape of a forbidding male action hero.

Bechdel’s point was amusingly made but she needn’t have resorted to the blockbuster stereotype to highlight the shortage of films that explore complex, nuanced parts for women on screen.

The reality is that this disparity extends beyond the constraints of the Hollywood mainstream and is perceptible across a wide variety of filmmaking forms. This is no doubt related to the comparatively few numbers of women working in key positions behind the camera, a fact demonstrated by recurring discussion around the Cannes Film Festival where women directors have often been under-represented and in some cases been entirely omitted from the main competition.

Unsurprising, then, that when a group of cinemas in Sweden recently incorporated the Bechdel Test into their rating system, they reignited talk about how to address this abiding bias.

Not without its drawbacks, the Bechdel Test is a useful device as it prompts the viewer to critically engage with film by posing questions about what is being presented, rather than passively absorbing whatever appears. Asking ‘Did this film include a conversation between two female characters?’ leads to further questions. If yes, then what did they discuss? Was their discussion simply a means of furthering the plot or was the conversation significant on its own terms? And if there are no conversations between women, you start to ask yourself why.

Shortly after the Bechdel Test was brought to my attention, I watched Norma Rae (1979), starring a young Sally Field as a textile factory worker who decides to join in the attempt to unionise her shop floor.

Commendable in lots of ways, the film curiously didn’t manage to pass the test. The film’s means of accenting Norma’s strength was by viewing her as engaging almost exclusively with men, whether that was in conflict or in collaboration. There are plenty of films with a strong female protagonist that don’t function in this way, but the experience of watching Norma Rae felt pertinent to what I wanted to try to achieve with the season at the IFI.

The idea for the Beyond the Bechdel Test season was to challenge an imbalance that exists by presenting films from directors interested in using female characters, and their relationships with other women, as a means of evoking a wide range of experiences and stories, not all specific to women only. The objective was to highlight examples of great cinema where dynamics between female characters have played an integral role.

The films of Agnès Varda for example, are as masterfully executed as those made by her well known peers Godard and Truffaut, but hers stand out for their evocation of a world seen through the eyes of a female character. Cléo from 5 to 7, one of her most acclaimed films, follows the gaze of a young singer as she moves around Paris, conversing with the women she meets as she attempts to find distractions while awaiting the medical test results.

The motivation to programme this season at the IFI was to move beyond the Bechdel Test by foregrounding films that don’t just include an encounter between two or more women in one scene but that explore relationships between women in depth, and rely on them in terms of plot, meaning and narrative. The films selected for the season are dominated by women who seek out the views, opinions and experiences of other women.

These interactions are defined by difference: in age, in race, in sexuality, in class and in perspective. This was a deliberate attempt to underline the many and varied roles women can inhabit on screen and the many and varied worlds they can open up in cinema.

* Alice Butler works at the programming department of the IFI. The IFI’s Beyond the Bechdel Test season runs throughout July. www.ifi.ie/bechdel


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