The 80s saw the dawn of some pretty rad stuff. In the next to last decade of the millennium we witnessed the birth of Keanu Reeves’ acting career; we were given Rainbow Brite and Popples; me and all the other Millennials were born; and feminism was given the Bechdel test.
In 1985, Alison Bechdel featured a strip called ‘The Rule’ in her series Dykes to Watch Out For. ‘The Rule’ referred to a conversation had between women wherein one character asserted that she refused to watch any film that did not fit the following criteria:
1) The movie has at least two women characters
2) These two women speak to each other
3) Their conversation is about something other than a man
The test, named for Bechdel after its wider cultural adoption, revealed deep gender biases within popular media. It demonstrated that within most mainstream films, women’s relationships were either wholly absent, or were without any discernable plot trajectories of their own. Neda Ulaby emphasized the test’s importance as ‘it articulates something often missing in popular culture: not the number of women we see on screen, but the depth of their stories, and the range of their concerns’.
Mark Harris, of Entertainment Weekly, noted that if every film had to pass the Bechdel test, 50% of 2009’s Best Picture nominees would have been dropped and Comic-Con that year would have been reduced to 45 minutes from its usual length of five days.
High Priestess of Amazing Bone Structure, Geena Davis, also felt troubled by the lack of complex representations of women in media and in 2004, she established The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Aiming specifically at children’s programming, Davis points to the disproportionate number of male to female characters represented. ‘We are communicating to society that women and girls are less important than men and boys…Our children should be seeing boys and girls sharing the sandbox equally’, she said at a public event to empower girls. This disparity is alarmingly notable in recent children’s films with movies like Frankenweenie and The Lorax failing the first premise, or both the first and second.
Of course gender is not the only element of identity that anchors popular cultural biases. Building on the Bechdel test, variations focused on race investigate the disproportionate representation of whiteness. Ars Marginal begins by asking if there is one named character of color, whose primary trait is not their race, and who does something important other than helping a white person.
An analysis of disability in popular films would, I suspect, reveal similar wholes in representation. What film has a named disabled character who is notable for reasons other than their disability? And yet difference in ability is an essential marker of human experience.
Herein lies the necessity of the Bechdel test: not all movies have to include one type of every person who walks this earth. Conversely, however, the entire film industry cannot persist in depicting and marketing only one type of human experience.
Films like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for instance, are incredibly androcentric and hardly contain any women characters whatsoever! But as it has been argued, women were not a large part of J.R.R. Tolkein’s works and so to insert them into the film would be somewhat anachronistic. Fine, it’s a film about furry little dudes. *shrug*
Nevertheless, the question remains, why is it that we are inundated with dudes, furry or otherwise, when there are so many kinds of stories to explore in film? Why is ‘the journey’ still overwhelmingly his?