B1 Intermediate US 17 Folder Collection
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So I read that you should start videos on YouTube with a strong, exciting intro. Something
that will wow and excite people unfamiliar with your work and reward those already familiar
with it. So I'm going to start this one with some titillating disclaimers. How much
more exciting could this intro be! So, first up, I'm a straight, white, cis
man living in a world ruled by straight white cis men. I have every privilege in the world,
and you should bear that in mind when I discuss issues of representation.
Secondly, I really like the Bechdel test as a litmus test of the general state of representation
in the Film industry. It's useful, insightful and easy to apply to films. When I criticise
elements of the so called test I do so only in relation to how it is used.
With those scintillating disclaimers out of the way I want to discuss the Bechdel test.
For those unfamiliar with the Bechdel test it was a set of rules described in Alison
Bechdel's comic strip 'Dykes To Watch Out For' that has become a symbol of and
a tool for feminist critique of films. The three rules that make up the test are as follows.
1. The film has to have at least 2 women in it who 2. Talk to each other 3. About something
besides a man. What is so wonderful about this test, and the reason it has endured as
an idea until this point, is that it sounds like a low bar to pass until you actively
interrogate it in relation to films you're familiar with. The requirements to pass the
test are simple, concise and yet a shockingly low number of films actually pass, even today.
Flip these rules on their head and it's hard to think of a movie that would fail.
So obviously I like the Bechdel test, obviously I think it's useful, it's relevant and
it has a place in discussion about film. But I have four issues with how people use it.
Problem 1. It's not a test for sexist films This may sound a little odd, but the Bechdel
test - a test often used as shorthand for feminist critique of a film - is not, and
shouldn't be used as, a test to see if a film is sexist. Take the recent, excellent,
Moonlight. It fails the test. I don't know anyone that would accuse the film of sexism
for failing that test because Moonlight is a story about a boy becoming a man. It isn't
concerned with anyone except the people that specifically interact with Chiron. He doesn't
have many positive role models and only one of them is a woman, and choosing not to focus
on those women is an appropriate way to handle the story being told. I don't think having
some of those female characters talk with each other would have hurt the film, but Moonlight
focused tightly on what was essential for the narrative and leaving such a potential
scene out doesn't leave the film lacking in any major way.
If we take the Bechdel test as a requirement we would exclude many important and even blatantly
feminist works such as the fascinating Orlando. The Bechdel test as requirement would exclude
Orlando, a film written and directed by a woman, adapted from a book from arguably the
most famous proto-feminist writer, Virginia Woolf, and starring Tilda Swinton in a role
only she could play. That last part isn't really relevant, but if you've seen it it
really is perfect casting, I genuinely don't think anyone else could have played the role.
My point is that Moonlight failing the test does not make it a sexist film and Orlando
failing it doesn't rob it of its distinctly feminist perspective nor should it be seen
to damage any feminist arguments it implicitly or directly makes.
If all of this seems obvious, great, but I wanted to bring up this issue because it seemingly
isn't obvious to many. I saw a professional critic on broadcast television say that Blade
Runner 2049 was sexist because it failed the test. Firstly he was wrong, it's generally
accepted that it did in fact pass the test, but more importantly that it supposedly failed
doesn't and wouldn't explain why the film was sexist. It was a film that was dominated
by male actors, male voices and male perspectives, but that doesn't make the film itself sexist.
That this critic thought it did only demonstrates his ignorance of both what makes the test
useful and the difference between issues of representation and outright sexism.
Problem 2. It's not a minimum standard This one's really brief and quite simple.
It's not a minimum standard to reach. It should be a standard that most films reach,
certainly, but you haven't made a worthwhile film by virtue of passing the test, nor should
a film be considered less valuable for failing it. What the so called test is useful for
then is as an illustration of the issues the film industry has in representing women. If
it is used as a test then that test is useful for revealing just how male dominated most
films are, how few women there are in films and how they've frequently been treated
as an accessory to a male character. But it isn't useful as a demonstration of an individual
film's sexism or misogyny – see the aforementioned Moonlight or Orlando.
Problem 3. The so called 'test' At this point I expect you're wondering
why I haven't shown the specific comic strip the Bechdel test was inspired by. Here is
that strip. I didn't show it up until now because people seemingly leap to use the Bechdel
test without remembering where it came from. People, actively or otherwise, divorce the
test from its original presentation. They forget that 'Dykes to Watch Out For' wasn't
a series of feminist essays on film criticism, it was a humorous, but sometimes pointed,
comic strip. The so called Bechdel 'test' feels cold and sterile in comparison to how
it was originally presented. Now forgive me, I hate to explain a joke, but there are many
levels that this strip works on and the so called 'test' would strip all of those
levels away. The first major gag is seen in the background, the movie posters the characters
pass are all loaded with distinctly phallic imagery, characters clutch their guns and
swords in manners equal parts aggressive and suggestive. The second is the idea that the
rule is strict, particularly when it comes after a panel for thought. the idea that such
a low bar is in fact such a major stumbling block for so many films is funny, but also
rather depressing. Finally there is this panel where one character tells the other the last
film they were able to see under these rules was Alien. Worth noting here is this strip
was released in 1985. Once again it's amusing but with an edge. The specific choice of Alien
as an example, Alien being of course loaded with phallic imagery, is no accident and both
women are visibly unhappy that is the last film they could think of.
The strip as a whole then has a number of ideas and themes, it's telling that the
cinema – a public space – doesn't represent or welcome the interests of the lesbian characters
but the private space can, and no doubt there are messages and ideas I have missed, but
a final layer, and an important one, is that by applying the moral principals of their
personal politics to media consumption the characters would greatly limit what they could
enjoy.
Bechdel's strip 'The Rule' is clever and insightful. The rules it describes are
useful, but they shouldn't be used as a sword to separate harmful and positive representation
lest we exclude some of the very films that feminist ideals would otherwise champion.
Using the so called test to decide whether a film might or might not be sexist is ridiculous
and as much as I do think it's useful I'd much rather appreciate the comic strip than
the 'test' it inspired.
If there are any of you still subscribed I'd love to hear your thoughts. Is the Bechdel
test still useful? Have you left a comment to tell me that I should have mentioned the
rule was inspired by what Bechdel's friend, Liz Wallace, said? Oh, ah, speaking of which
[problem 4. It should be called the Wallace test].
As always I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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The Bechdel 'Test'

17 Folder Collection
jeremy.wang published on May 13, 2020
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