By Phil James
Recently, the term “Bechdel Test” has arisen in various editorials on a number of new movies, including Linda Holmes’ take on the new female-centric comedy, The Other Woman. Based on a comment made by a character in the comic strip, Dykes To Watch Out For, the term has been unofficially appropriated as a means to gauge the validity of female characters in film, literature, theater and television. Basically, if there are no scenes in a movie where two women are speaking to each other without directly or indirectly referring to relationships, then the work ultimately fails the Bechdel test. Although in its beginning it was a tongue-in-cheek jab at cardboard representations of gender in popular culture, it has recently become more prevalent for analyzing everything from recent Disney blockbusters to newer works of literature.
While The Bechdel Test is a fairly effective way of picking apart the stupidity of major entertainment industries, it is far too easy to use such rhetorical exercises as a means to encourage censorious behaviour. In fact, I believe that the test goes against what many writers of both sexes have been trying to defy for the latter half of the 20th century.
Postmodernism, a term thrown around Ad Nauseum, is too difficult to define in a single sentence let alone article, but at the core of the postmodern ethos is a skepticism against preconceived narratives that govern the way we read cultural artefacts. Fiction writers like Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift and Margaret Atwood have challenged the authority of history books with their novels, while playwrights like Caryl Churchill and David Hwang have challenged gender roles in the hopes of dissolving rigid binaries that still remain prevalent in contemporary society. What postmodernism allows is for discourse to remain in flux, not suppressed by narratives or larger institutions that want to suppress the dissemination of ideas.
You may be thinking that The Bechdel Test is included in this paradigm, and in many ways, it is; if we can pick apart rigid gender binaries and open our eyes to who we really are as people, perhaps we can use art to learn a lot more about ourselves. On the other hand, using the Bechdel Test to delegitimize a work of art is equally harmful, as it implies that the work is only permissible if it follows a certain set of pre-ordained characteristics. Muzzling an author based on requirements they may not have even considered is falling into a trap that authors of both genders have fought against for decades.
It is worth noting that the genre of The Other Woman, comedy, has origins closely tied to romance. The Comedy–be it yesterday’s Shakespeare or today’s Apatow–stems from the original Athenian conception of performance, which involved the convergence of the community to experience collective, emotional catharsis. Aristotle, who outlined the role of the comedy in his Poetics, believed that comedies worked best when, through a series of mistakes, misunderstandings and general buffoonery, audiences were able to recognize the excesses and exaggerations of the actors. What they promoted were moderation or a particular middle-ground where veracity would triumph over mendacity. Bringing the community together to reflect upon their behaviour and promote honesty in courtship and marriage served a specific purpose in society.
That’s not to say that marriage is required in a comedy, but the desired effect of bringing an audience together and laugh has traditionally been rooted in society-building. I’m not saying that comedies are inherently non-sexist because of this, but it is rare that comedies deviate from a formula where love–on either side of the gender–does not play a part in moving the plot forward. Websites strictly devoted to the analysis of whether or not a text passes question playwrights like Shakespeare for their potential sexism, but characters like Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and Katherine in The Taming of The Shrew openly call out the idiocy of male courtship, and although they become “subject” to marriage by the end of the plays, their wit often defers the feeble words of her suitors.
Alison Bechdel herself is a wonderful writer of graphic memoirs, my favorite being her introspective nonfiction, Are You My Mother?, about trying to reconnect with her mother and be accepted after decades of tension. The book, however, leaves out a major character: her father. After telling a fellow reader about it during a discussion, they just looked at me and laughed, and told me that her first graphic memoir, Fun Home, is actually all about her father. My point is that all works of fiction and literature must leave particular items out to reach their desired end, and for many works, certain conversations will never see the light of day, simply because they don’t need to. Some works will inevitable have flat characters who happen to be women, and some may not contain women at all. Some may not contain men, either.
With that in mind, a lot of pulp literature and popcorn cinema is sexist, and I’m not trying to divert attention away from the objectification of men and women that Hollywood producers consistently use to make a quick buck. That being said, The Bechdel Test should not be a requirement to gauge the legitimacy of a work, because doing so will often ignore the context of the work itself, and will only bring the focus back to gender when a work may actually be about nationalism, courage, loneliness or even the rights of bees. The test is a fun rhetorical exercise, but it cannot be a serious tool of analysis, unless your study of literature and film rests solely on the teller and not the tale.