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The Bechdel Test and Why Representation Matters

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Jacqueline HeadshotOne of the reasons that I love Helenna and her growing media empire is the visibility that she has.  Ms. In the Biz is a ready-made resource for all aspiring lady filmmakers. This treasure trove of information wouldn’t have existed 5 years ago, let alone 20. And while we have made a lot of strides in Hollywood and the media in general, we still have a long way to go.

The amount of visibility that women have gained in cinema recently is wonderful, but it has a seedy underbelly that you might not have noticed. Have you ever heard of the Bechdel test?  No? For those of you that are link-shy, let me explain it to you. The Bechdel test was originally a half-joking idea from a comic called Dykes to Watch Out For by the amazing Alison Bechdel. In order for a movie to pass the Bechdel test, it must do three things:

1)    Have two women characters (Sorry, Fight Club!)

2)    That talk to each other (Sorry, Pacific Rim!)

3)    NOT about a boy (Sorry, most chick flicks ever!)

For more information about the Bechdel test, including an ongoing database of films that do and don’t pass it, go here. You would be surprised by the number of movies that don’t pass the test, including some of our (and my) favorite movies of all time: the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy doesn’t (Arwen, Eowyn, and Galadriel are awesome, but certainly don’t talk to each other), let alone the Hobbit movies, where they had to shoehorn Galadriel in because even the filmmakers noticed the paucity of women roles. Casablanca doesn’t pass the test. Neither does The Dark Knight. Now I know what you’re saying. Wait a minute, those are all fantastic movies! No one is saying that the Bechdel test is a standalone gauge of movie quality, or even a gauge of whether or not a movie is feminist. Gravity, arguably one of the most feminist films we’ve ever seen, fails. There are wonderful movies that fail the test (even *gasp*, sacred upon sacred, the original Star Wars Trilogy) and terrible movies that pass it (Star Wars Episodes 1 and 2, Snakes on a Plane). The Bechdel test is about representation. No one is saying boycott all movies that fail the test. What proponents of it ARE saying is that it is a test of visibility. Examine which movies pass it and why. Look at our Oscar winners, our blockbusters, and notice the roles available to women.

Examine that we do have our breakout stars now. We have our Katniss. Our Bella (whether or not you think she’s a good role model, she certainly sold a lot of movie tickets). But for every Astronaut Sandra Bullock, we have a slew of movies where women are the love interest, a side plot – or even worse, a prize to be won upon the completion of a quest. We make up half the population, but not half of the well-rounded characters. And the actresses that portray even our favorite characters don’t earn nearly the same amount of money as the male actors do. An even more disturbing trend is that lady actors tend to “age out” of the megabucks, while male actors tend to grow into them. Check out that list again. Very few women have the staying power to be the most bankable, top-grossing actresses year after year. What’s that? In a society that glorifies and commodifies youth and beauty, especially that of women, young pretty women earn the most money? Shocking.

Why does this matter? Maybe if there were more women behind the camera, given the opportunities to make their own movies, we wouldn’t see such abysmal numbers. Maybe if we stopped deciding that movies with more than two ladies in them count as “chick flicks” and are therefore immediately not worth our attention, there’d be more opportunities for women in film. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a movie that had all (or almost entirely all) male characters. Recently, right? Now when was the last time you saw a movie with all (or almost entirely all) female characters? I bet you had to think harder, and the movie that you came up with was probably classified as “a chick flick”. Male characters = humanity! We can identify with them! Lady characters = FOR WOMEN ONLY. Hopefully at this point, at the tail end of 2013, I don’t think I have to explain to you why visibility matters, why representation matters, why diversity matters. It would be so easy to change the industry. Let’s get started!

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Check out Jacqueline’s webseries, Force Push (about a group of nerds that try all sorts of weird experiments to get Jedi Powers), here! (It does pass the Bechel test, of course.)

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About Jacqueline Steiger

Jacqueline Steiger is jumping back into the industry full-force after a break for school (graduated summa cum laude from UCLA, to brag). She has been enjoying taking classes and working on both sides of the camera this time around. As a child she was lucky enough to work with some of the industry's greatest, including Danny DeVito and Sally Field. Outside of the industry, Jacqueline enjoys all things sci-fi/fantasy, anime, and anything with melted cheese on it. She is an LA native. Check out her webseries, Force Push (about a group of nerds that try all sorts of weird experiments to get Jedi Powers) here: http://youtube.com/forcepushseries (It does pass the Bechel test, of course.)