Pass or fail?
bal exchange amounting to a “conversation” of more than a minute (a criterion sometimes added to the test).
It is relevant to consider why pornography comes to these critics’ minds when imagining scenarios in which women talk to each other. It is a rhetorical move presupposing a cultural hierarchy (in which porn is the opposite of a quality film) and ridicules those behind the A rating for not knowing that potentially, it gives them precisely what feminists are supposed not to want: porn.
The critique evokes a fear of women interacting with each other that goes back to early cinema caricatures of suffragettes, in which women working together for the right to vote descends into drinking, smoking and fighting.
It also brings to mind the renowned Swedish critic Bo Stromstedt, who, upon watching Mai Zetterling’s The Girls in 1968, exclaimed: “What a case of clogged up menses!” Zetterling and her film have now been revalued and given a central place in Swedish film history.
Disregarded in this debate is the fact that there is an audience that is very interested in movies featuring women interacting with each other in interesting ways. There is a great fan base for films such as Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), Foxfire (Annette Haywood-Carter, 1996) and The Heat (Paul Feig, 2013).
Audience pleasure can’t be reduced to the ability to identify with or desire a “strong woman”. The A rating is not about classifying films as feminist or non feminist. It aims to alert viewers who find female sociality compelling to films they might like, and so challenge the industry to make more such films.
This is an old desire, as Bechdel notes in her blog, where she points to Virginia Woolf’s work A Room Of One’s Own as inspiration. Woolf mocked gender hierarchies in literature by imagining a novel by a female writer in which two women are friends, a thought so radical that reading the sentence “Chloe likes Olivia” might feel like a scandal. The debate over the A rating shows that the scandal Woolf joked about persists.
The Bechdel test is of course not a magical solution to all critical questions around gender and cinema. There are many possible levels – division of labour in film production, audiovisual language, characters, narrative – at which a film could be said to be feminist or, at a very basic level, interested in women.
The Bechdel test is not a substitute for critical interpretation. And questions of race/ethnicity, sexuality and class are as relevant and complex as ever. But it is equally reductive to deem the A rating as “damaging to the way we think about film”, as Robbie Collin, the chief film critic of the Telegraph, contends.
Analysing narrative, characters, dialogue, and what counts as “representation” is a com- SOME unlikely films did surprisingly well on the Bechdel test, while some you’d think would pass, failed miserably. > All the Alien movies pass (the first one is a borderline case though), except for Alien3 which had only ONE named female character. Corpse Newt and Alien Queen Embryo don’t count. > The biggest film franchises of the millennium, Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings, fail. > White House Down doesn’t exactly pass, but fares better than Olympus Has Fallen (which has a strong woman character, the Secretary of State, who unfortunately doesn’t talk to the other women characters). Roland Emmerich’s flop has multiple named female characters, but they only talk about men; specifically, Channing Tatum. There you go. > The Wolverine passes (Yukio and Mariko’s friendship) while Iron Man 3 doesn’t quite make it (Pepper and the Extremis lady only ever talk about Tony Stark and Aldrich Killian). > James Wan’s The Conjuring passes, while his Insidious: Chapter 2 fails. plex intellectual, affective, and social practice, not at all the simplistic attitude that some critics claim. Furthermore, attention to these features in no way excludes an in-depth analysis of cinematic language. Films that pass the test have the potential to provide a representation of women as agents and social subjects with differences between them, instead of falling back on universalising ideas about womanhood. This is important given the still dominant mythological narratives that assign to women only the functions of obstacle, victim or gift on the path of the male hero.
Instead of rejecting the Bechdel test and the A rating as simplistic, critics should focus on the obvious. What does it mean that, in film, women can barely be imagined to have important things to say to each other? Does this have anything to do with implicit criteria of quality and taste? Why not take the challenge to push one’s imagination outside the conventionals that come most easily to mind? This is a call for producers, distributors, critics and audience alike. – Guardian News & Media
Flying colours: Thelma&Louise is one popular movie that passes the bechdel test. (Inset) yes, even Theheat passes the test.