LonCon3 #15: Beyond Bechdel (feminism)

Panellists: Kate Heartfield, Kate Elliott, Jed Hartman, Julia Rios, JY Yang

The “Bechdel test” for female representation in films is now widely known. To pass it a film should contain two named female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man. In recent years, similar tests have been proposed for other under-represented groups, including the Mako Mori test for characters of colour, and the Russo test for queer characters. What are the strengths and weaknesses of such tests? How do they affect our viewing choices? And what does the popularity of such tests say about how popular media are being received and discussed?

First off, it’s pronounced ‘Beckdel’.

While the Bechdel test is eye-opening, it’s not a litmus test for feminism. It’s just one indicator albeit a strong one which critiques the entire film industry as the majority of films fail. However, if you applied the same test to men, most would pass.

The Star Trek franchise has so few women in their casts. One or two are standard. Only Voyager (1995-2001) breaks this tradition by casting three, one of whom is the Captain – the central character and the highest ranked officer on the ship. All of them get their fair share of screen time and grow and develop independently of men. You’d think the 2009 film reboot would’ve capitalized on Voyager‘s progress and addressed the imbalance by changing the gender of a crew member or two, but no, it takes its lead from the 1960s original. Uhura is Spock’s girlfriend.

An opportunity missed.

Star Trek Original
Star Trek: Next Generation
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Star Trek Voyager
Star Trek Abrams 2009

We currently have many women characters cast as adjuncts to men – defined as merely so-and-so’s girlfriend. We need more females who have a narrative arc not focused on men. A recent film to fail the test is Pacific Rim although it has one strong female character who is her own woman and isn’t defined by her relationships with the men around her. Her character thus inspired the Mako Mori test:

The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story. I think this is about as indicative of “feminism” (that is, minimally indicative, a pretty low bar) as the Bechdel test. It is a pretty basic test for the representation of women, as is the Bechdel test. It does not make a movie automatically feminist.

chalia also points out:

Why are so few people talking about the fact that Pacific Rim DOES pass the Bechdel test as modified for race (two characters of color talk about something other than a white character) with almost flying colors?! Mako and Stacker both have their own arcs, and also have an arc TOGETHER, which gets multiple scenes and is one of the emotional centers of the movie. As far as I know, this is really freaking rare in any sort of mainstream media.

The default in a public space is white men. Filmed crowd scenes are generally only 17% women though men perceive that 17% ratio as 50/50, says research done by the Geena Davis Institute.

Tangled, Brave and Frozen have ushered in a new era of feminist children’s movies after the sexism of previous Disney animated films. What still needs to change is the majority of the voices cast in animated movies are men who then voice female roles.

What’s nice to see is main protagonist roles originally intended for men being given to women as is the case with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien and Angelina Jolie’s Evelyn in Salt.

Off the top of my head while listening to the panel, I thought about SF&F movies with other female leads that weren’t recently released and I could only come up with Jodie Foster in Contact.

Some refreshing passes in recent TV shows include Orphan Black‘s majority female cast of characters (played by one woman) which showed the gay sidekick sharing a scene with a transgender character, even scenes where gay and lesbian characters interact, and Lost Girl‘s bisexual succubus protagonist’s friendships with two strong women, and a physical relationship with a third.

There are many epic fantasy series where all books in a series fail the test. Kate Elliott has majority female casts of characters in her books and she’s come up with the ‘Elliott test’ where both genders are shown naked in equal measures. Spartacus, the most recent incarnation, passes this test.

Tests for disabled and other under-represented groups is needed although many perceived flaws tend to hang on plot points, for instance an unattractive man is only unattractive for reason of plot, so new tests for these won’t necessarily be an accurate measurement, but it’s a place to start. Children and middle aged women are also shortchanged in film and TV, even in books intended for adults.

Although the Bechdel test isn’t foolproof it’s interesting to see the results when applied to real life situations – what you talk about with your friends, your colleagues and your families.

The night before I attended this panel I was sitting in my sister and brother-in-law’s new home watching Hansel & Gretal: Witch Hunters, after which I showed them my schedule for the next day and they asked what the Bechdel Test was. I explained and my brother-in-law suggested H&G passed and my sister confirmed, because the evil black witch Muriel had a little chat with Gretal while she kicked her arse.

This was the last panel of the day and it lit a fire in my brain. I couldn’t sleep. It was the best panel of the second day and of the event I’d experienced thus far. Every panellist contributed equally and there was none of the stilted awkwardness or overlooking and undervaluing of contributions from fellow panellists that I’d witnessed with some other panels. Though they were strangers they didn’t seem to be – they were all on the same page, passionate about the same things and they just gelled.

It was magical.

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2 thoughts on “LonCon3 #15: Beyond Bechdel (feminism)

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