Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bechdel Test for Gender Bias

My wife was reading Tad Friend's recent New Yorker article about Anna Faris last night, and she quoted this interesting passage to me:

The Bechdel Test, established in 1985 by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her friend Liz Wallace, is a way of examining movies for gender bias. The test poses three questions: Does a movie contain two or more female characters who have names? Do those characters talk to each other? And, if so, do they discuss something other than a man?

Bechdel, incidentally, is the author of Fun Home, one of my all-time favorite books. She's also an old college buddy of Kathleen Finneran, the author of The Tender Land, which may be my absolute favorite book of all time.

In any case, I found the idea and the simplicity of this test striking. It occurred to me that none of the books I teach to my freshmen would pass: The Odyssey, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Huck Finn, or Romeo and Juliet. (Not to mention O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

It's startling to realize not only how many movies, but also how much of classic literature fails to pass this test.

Must give this issue more thought.


framiko said...

Via my friend Chris S., here's Bechdel's comic strip that introduced the test.

Chris said...

I was just reading some of Alison Bechdel's recent blog posts at the site linked above, and she comments here about how "the Bechdel test" has seen somewhat of a resurgence in popular media lately. Since the comic that first mentioned it came out in 1985, she writes "It’s like the culture is finally catching up to the radical lesbian-feminist notion from a quarter century ago that women can be subjects."

Rich said...

Sophomore curriculum:
Frank O'Connor passes some and fails mostly,
Gawain fails,
Master Harold fails,
Macbeth fails,
Plainsong passes,and
Catcher in the Rye fails.

In Literature of Initiation,
Hemingway (what a surprise) fails,
Kite Runner passes narrowly,
Glass Castle passes overwhelmingly, and
Extremely Loud narrowly fails.

aintstudyingyou said...

It might be worth considering this a specifically *lesbian* test, despite the inflammatory effects of using such a word. Stories that are arranged around Odyssean journeys and Oedipal conflicts will rarely pass the test. Still, I think these idiosyncratic standards might exclude a good deal of literature (and cinema) that we would call feminist--and include some that we might not (I imagine some horror flics would pass the test). This idiosyncrasy is what makes me link it to the 1970s attempts to theorize a "lesbian literature." In "Towards a Black Feminist Criticism," Barbara Smith uses Bertha Harris's remarks at the 1976 MLA discussion of Lesbians and Literature to argue that lessbian literature does not require that women be lovers but features women as "central figures" who are portrayed positively and "have pivotal relationships with one another. The form and language of these works are also nothing like what white patriarchal culture requires or expects."

One wonders if the Bechdel test is a popularization of this academic conversation... and if it serves any purpose to remember that the test began as an attempt to dismantle (forgive me) heteropatriarchal stories from a specifically lesbian position. I guess I'm just wondering if heterosexual stories are likely to pass this test, even if those stories are feminist.

framiko said...

Good points and questions. I wouldn't doubt that Bechdel's comic strip is influenced by lesbian scholars of literature. Her book Fun Home makes brilliant use of other literary texts—Joyce, in particular, among others—and demonstrates a familiarity with academic lesbian writing, as well as a certain ironic distance from it.

I like your point about heterosexual feminist stories. For example, Their Eyes Were Watching God, it seems to me, passes only narrowly, to use Rich's terminology. That's somewhat surprising, isn't it?

In my African American Voices curriculum, Beloved passes, despite its Odyssean elements. Among the ZZ Packer stories I teach, "Brownies" passes handily, as does "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" (but then again, it's at least a pseudo-lesbian story). "Doris Is Coming" passes—and I would argue that that story has both an Odyssean journey and Oedipal conflicts. On the other hand, "The Ant of the Self," another Odyssean/Oedipal story, does not pass.

I'm not trying to refute anything you've said, just playing around with it, seeing what it turns up.

aintstudyingyou said...

Ahh, well thank you, Framiko. I'll have to think more about my use of Odyssey and Oedipus as shorthands.

BTW, are you familiar with the contention that Their Eyes is a lesbian novel? I remember getting caught up on the line "mah tongue is in mah friend's mouf" on a recent re-read. Y'know, once I'd come of age! Of course, black feminist literary scholars got there before I did: Karla Holloway, Carla Kaplan, and Cheryl Wall. Then there's my favorite, Deborah Plant, whose book argues Hurston was not feminist (although she does see the murder of Tea Cake as the elimination of the possibility of any male lover for Janie). So, the novel's lesbian, but not feminist? Oh, and Valerie Boyd's biography of Hurston (kindly given me by the U High English Dept) finds Hurston using the phrase about tongues, mouths, and friends to talk about her own relationship with Ethel Waters, whom Boyd identifies as a known bisexual (though it was news to me!).

Euripides said...


Romeo's obsession with love (however he defines it at a given time) is often difficult for our students to appreciate or even understand. Perhaps this is because he is the inversion of the all-too-comfortable figure that the Bechdel test uncovers: the guy who only ever talks to his buddies about girls?

As for The Odyssey, Nausicaa's trip to the beach with her friends strikes me as a glimmer of a woman's life beyond the marriage bed. To be sure, Athena lures her out with talk of marriage, and the episode ends with her falling for Odysseus, but in that vague, ill-described in-between time, when it's just she and the girls chatting and washing clothes and playing ball, I think we see for a moment - however brief - young women out from under the thumbs of their fathers or their husbands. To be sure, this moment does not even merit The Odyssey a narrow pass on the Bechdel-Rich test, but it is to me a chastening reminder of either 1) the truth that no "heteropatriarchal" (as aintstudyingyou puts it) discourse is so totalizing that it can erase ALL vestiges of alternative ways of being in the world or 2) Homer's capacity for nuance never ceases to amaze. (Or, perhaps, some combination of the two?)

The cynical reading would be that Homer doesn't really care about Nausicaa's time with the girls, and thus does not allot much narrative time to the description of the scene. The more generous reading might be that Homer realizes it is a world he has no knowledge of, and thus he does not sing of that which he does not know (though the Muse has no excuse in this regard). Or, perhaps it's some combination of the two. :)

framiko said...

Great points, Euripides. Your comment about Nausicaa and the maids reminds me of Mercutio's reference to "that fruit that maids call medlars when they laugh alone"—which I think is another sidelong glance at a world of female conversation that is largely outside the purview of the male bard.