Sunday, 16 May 2010

Bechdel testing and intersectionality

The Bechdel Test (or more accurately, the Bechdel-Wallace Test, but it's sometimes also called the Mo Movie Measure) is usually said to trace its popularity back to the comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel, who credits Liz Wallace for the rule itself. The original strip can be found at Alison Bechdel's blog, and I'm not sure of the copyright issues, so alas I cannot reprint it here. But you should definitely take a peak at the strip in question.

The Bechdel Test in its original comic strip form is:

The film must have:
  1. At least two women in it,

  2. who talk to each other,

  3. about something other than a man.

There can be strengthened versions of the Bechdel Test too , so one can ammend (1) to require two women protagonists, and amend (3) to include a provision that the women must talk to each other about something other than a man or normatively feminine activities (eg housekeeping, childcare, etc). For example Juno passes the unstrengthened Test, but not a strengthened Test, because all the women in the film apart from Juno herself talk about babies, babycare, and motherhood when they are not talking about men.

The Test does not infallibly demarcate the sexist films from the non-sexist ones, but it is a useful tool to highlight the invisibility of women as protagonists who are not appendages to men, and trigger discussion of the roles women have in the general media, and within particular storylines. It's worth noting that only a tiny minority of mainstream films and TV programs pass the Test or strengthened versions of the Test, and children's films are known to fare particularly badly. Books tend to do rather better, but still not nearly as well as we might hope.

One might also want to have a Bechdel Test for demographic groups other than those that are gender-marked: one could have a Bechdel Test for race, queerness, disability, age, fatness, class, etc. It has been much remarked on in social justice circles that portrayals of members of these demographic groups tend to follow the same tired old tropes, many of which are downright harmful.

For example, a few weeks ago, I blogged over at my place about the problematic discourses of queerness that are presented in film and fiction books. In mainstream narratives, the death and hopelessness of queer people is still part of mainstream discourses about queerness, as is extreme gender dichotomisation. In mainstream novels and films about queer people, how many of them do not involve the death, often brutal, of a queer person, attributed to queerness itself? Consider Brokeback Mountain, Boys Don’t Cry, and even Queer As Folk (UK version). Angels in America is a rare exception: the death of queer characters is caused by silence and closetedness, not by queerness; and the ending is...more life.

There are similarly problematic narratives about disability, something that the team at FWD/Forward have been doing a stellar job of blogging. Disabled people in films are almost invariably presented as bitter and manipulative (House, Patty in the most recent series of Shameless), downright evil (Doctor Who's Davros), or just people whose lives are not worthwhile, as in the Grey's Anatomy case that is discussed at FWD/Forward, which involves narratives about both disability and size.

Racialicious and The Angry Black Woman have also discussed the difficulties of formulating a Bechdel Test for race. In much mainstream film/fiction, non-White people are either the Bad Guys, or their roles are restricted to stereotyped roles, or they are simply not present at all.

As feminists with a vested interest in addressing intersectionality, where does that leave us? I think the discussions that emerge from attempts to formulate Bechdel Tests for gender, race, disability, etc are useful discussions to have, because they highlight the problems with the roles that are currently allocated to people in those groups, and what less oppressive portrayals would look like.

But I wonder if part of the problem isn't that fact that we're trying to formulate these Test versions independently. That isn't a criticism of the Test, or of any of its versions. Nor is it a criticism of films/books that pass the Test(s). But few films/books pass more than one kind of Test, and if they do, it's certainly rare for them to pass more than two (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and Grey's Anatomy, for example, both pass a gender and race version, but no more). This means that no mainstream film or book I can think of is genuinely representative of human diversity, and I'm particularly hard pressed to think good portrayals of people who experience multiple kinds of oppression.



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