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The Bechdel Test

Perhaps you have heard about The Bechdel Test? It’s from Alison Bechdel’s 1985 strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In the plate called “The Rule,” a female character asks another if she wants to go to a movie. The other responds that she has “this rule”: “I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.”

Suffice to say, the women don’t go to a movie. It’s a good joke and gets at Hollywood’s sometimes boringly narrow films in which female characters seem to always act the same way and say the same things.

But it’s not good enough for some folks. Over at Slate, Katy Waldman passes on Roxane Gay’s rules:

1. A woman’s story is being told. She is not relegated to the role of sidekick, romantic interest, or bit player.

2. Her world is populated with intelligent women who also have stories worth telling, even if their stories aren’t the focus of the movie.

3. If she must engage in a romantic storyline, she doesn’t have to compromise her sanity or common sense for love.

4. At least half the time, this woman needs to be a woman of color and/or a transgender woman and/or a queer woman because all these women exist! Though she is different, her story should not focus solely on this difference because she is a sum of her parts. She is not the token. She has friends who look like her so they need to show up once in a while.

5. She cannot live in an inexplicably perfect apartment in an expensive city with no visible means of affording said inexplicably perfect apartment.

6. She doesn’t have to live up to an unrealistic feminist standard. She can and should be human. She just needs to be intelligent and witty and interesting in the way women, the world over are, if we ever got a chance to really know them on the silver screen.

Thank goodness a woman character “doesn’t have to live up to an unrealistic feminist standard.” Otherwise these criteria would be way too narrow!

The subtle irony of Bechdel’s rule, it seems, is lost on Gay and others who are taking this discussion way too seriously. All extra-aesthetic criteria are limiting–even if they don’t seem so at first, and even if the rules are supposedly a reflection of reality. Gay assumes, for example, that her rule regarding women of color and transgender and queer women in film is justified because it reflects reality (“all these women exist!”).

Well, first, no where near 50% of women are gay or transgendered. Only 9% of the American population is gay, lesbian or bisexual. And less than a quarter of 1%–that’s right, .25%–are transgendered. Second, how is one to define “reality” when it comes to ideas? What is “a woman’s story” exactly, according to Gay? (This slippery question, by the way, was used to great effect by Soviet censors to suppress works that did not support the regime because they were not “realistic.”)

What’s also missing from these discussions is an understanding of how genres work. Sometimes an intelligent woman with a story “worth telling”–terrible as this might seem to some–simply does not work for an action movie. Nor does an intelligent man with a story “worth telling” always work for a comedy. Of course, all genres are plastic, but they also must cohere.

Anyway, I won’t let myself get too worked up. These sorts of rules always backfire. (We are all indeed a “stiff-necked people.”) But they sure are tiresome.

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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