Rubrics Like the Bechdel Test are a Start, Not an End

The Bechdel Test has been getting a great deal of attention lately as people expand it beyond the original scope (a film must feature at least two women talking to each other about something other than a man) and applications—thus, we’ve seen versions developed for race and queerness, for example, as well as the use of the Bechdel Test at Swedish theatres who wanted to challenge cinemagoers to think about the media they were consuming. People seem to have an oddly polarised view on it: either they love it and think it’s the greatest thing ever, no reservations, or they hate it and think it’s horribly flawed.

What both sides seem to be missing is that the Bechdel Test is a form of rubric: it’s a basic standard of performance applied to media in the interest of coming up with an even way of assessing works of pop culture. Using the Bechdel Test doesn’t mean that the analysis is over, however. It’s just the start of a deeper analysis of a piece of media, viewing through a feminist lens. I’m not a feminist, but I use it a great deal because there’s a larger framework at work here, in the goal of determining whether media is sexist, articulating why, and providing concrete information that can be used for analysis. One great thing about the Bechdel Test, for example, is that with a standard, you can say ~n% of films passed the test in a given time period.

The obvious question you have to ask after applying it is ‘why did it pass (or fail)’? You can point to specific scenes, or lack thereof, that helped a film or other piece of media meet the standard, and you can note shortcomings of the Bechdel test; for example, if a piece of media is a solo performance by a woman, it’s going to fail, but does that mean it’s necessarily sexist? If a movie passed, does that mean it’s not sexist? Two women talking to each other about something other than a man in a piece of media don’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t contain sexist stereotypes or other problems.

You also have to look at the deeper nuances of the media you’re evaluating. If you’re looking at gender alone, you’re missing larger issues, including the treatment of disability, race, sexuality, class, and other subjects. A holistic assessment of media needs to include these things to provide a truly comprehensive view of whether media fights or contributes to harmful social attitudes; what good does a woman-centred film do if it’s racist, for example? What if a film doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test but isn’t specifically sexist, and does offer great commentary on disability and social perceptions of disabled people?

The point, for me, is not a checklist; this isn’t like taking my car in for the 32 point inspection, where the mechanic runs through a series of boxes to confirm that my car is in good working order. You can finish a car inspection and still not address a major problem with the vehicle, and my mechanic knows that. The goal here to to create a starting point, a framework, an opening for discussion that will create an opportunity for advancing the analysis of whatever media I’m consuming. It’s a tool, but it’s not a definitive tool, or the only one, that you can apply to the thoughtful exploration of media and pop culture.

I often feel as though I’m living in a very binary world; things are either good or bad in the eyes of the general public. And life is just not that simple. The Bechdel Test isn’t the end-all solution to analysing media, nor is it a hopelessly flawed and pointless gimmick that should be thrown out. It’s just a tool, one that can be powerful in the right hands and useless in the wrong ones, and one that can be used in many different ways.

Such tools help us come up with common ground and a basic framework for starting out, to ensure that we’re all beginning with the same basic information. Instead of having to lay the ground rules each time, we can skip to the more advanced part of the conversation and get some actual traction, exchanging thoughts and ideas and responses in a way that is lively, authentic, and complex. Sure, we could just apply the Bechdel Test and call it good, but that’s not why we consume and analyse media. We do it because we want to explore how people interact with media, and how media influences us as individuals, and how media is used as a social tool.

And to do that, we need to break down individual pieces of media on their own, in addition to viewing them as part of a collective as work. Thus, we can use broad assessments and evaluations like the Bechdel Test as tools, but they’re just the keys that open the door to a larger discussion. And there’s nothing wrong with saying that, with admitting that the rubric in this case isn’t the end of the line, but rather the beginning.