Why We Need a Higher Bar

Why We Need a Higher Bar

Most advice for new writers includes references to the Bechdel test. Even veteran writers suggest new writers be familiar with and make certain their work passes the test. It isn’t bad advice, but I’m not sure it’s good advice either.

The Bechdel test states simply that a story (no matter the media) should possess at least two female characters who, at some point in time, converse about something which doesn’t involve a man, even if that conversation is as simple as ordering a cup of coffee. People have pointed out the statement “Oh my god, Becky, look at her butt!” passes the Bechdel test. And while it’s absolutely important to make certain some three dimensional women populate your world, and that their lives don’t revolve around men, I’m not sure passing the Bechdel test is reason to jump for joy. Why?

It sets the bar too low.
Studies show that movies which pass the Bechdel test may actually do better in the box office. But in terms of feminist representation, some movies that pass the test are worse than those that don’t. Case in point; by some definitions GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra passes (the second woman is not named) while Pacific Rim does not.

Rise of the Cobra is one of the most disgusting movies I’ve seen when it comes to treatment of women on screen. First of all, the movie’s sole female team member spends the entire movie using her boobs to get them stuff. She is given the ‘distraction’ task at least twice. Later, when Bruce Willis enters the action, she spends all her on-screen time bemoaning that she’s not a secretary and freaking out when she is asked to so much as write something down (because that’s totally how we convince people that women are capable). But it’s most heinous crime is the scene during which our heroine describes her tragic past to her apparent love interest. It’s your typical ‘I grew up with brothers and my dad thought I wouldn’t be good enough to be in the military because I was a girl’ stereotype, but that isn’t the worst thing about it.

While she’s describing her tragic back story, her love interest is watching her change clothes in the reflection of a turned off TV screen. THAT’S RIGHT! I love you so much I’m going to spy on you while you change clothes. And that movie can be considered to pass the Bechdel test.

Even if a story includes an arbitrary interaction of two women (such as the complimenting of shoes), that doesn’t mean it’s treated the portrayal of women with respect. We need something that sets the bar much higher. Because…

The Bechdel Test does nothing to promote well-developed female characters.
As we’ve already illustrated, the Bechdel Test doesn’t give a damn which two women have a conversation. They could be incidental characters that have nothing to do with the rest of the story. Some people add the condition both women must be named, which would at least eliminate movies like Rise of the Cobra. Still, the bar is so low, the conversation doesn’t even have to contribute to the development of one of the named characters. Nor does it have to contribute to the plot at large. Most movies that do pass the test do so in an interlude, usually comical, that has little or nothing to do with the rest of what’s going on. By the logic of editing, you could cut the conversation and it wouldn’t make a difference; except that you’d lose your pass.

If we want to see women better treated in media, and taking more leading roles, we need to promote well-developed, three-dimensional characters who contribute to the plot with their presence and actions. In this case, the ‘sexy lamp test’ is more useful. (The sexy lamp test states that if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp without changing the story, you’ve got a problem.) Even more useful is the Mako Mori test, which requires that a female character get her own story arc which does not support that of a man. Disappointed Pacific Rim fans created the test when the movie failed to pass the Bechdel Test. And Mako Mori is an excellent example of a fantastic, well-written female character. It’s also interesting to note that while she was the male lead’s partner, there is no indication that the two of them have romantic interest in each other (but the incessant need to have a love sub-plot is another blog post).

The more female characters in a story, the easier it is to pass the Bechdel Test. But the last thing we want is a hoard of paper-thin ladies. Maybe we shouldn’t have tests at all; good writing shouldn’t come down to a checklist. But we do need a higher standard.

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