Bhuchar: Beyond Bechdel

by Varun Bhuchar | 1/6/15 6:22pm

The underrepresentation of women and minorities in the entertainment industry is a large problem that needs to be addressed.

In today’s column, however, I’m going to talk about the former in regards to Andrea Nease’s Jan. 6 Arts column, “Beyond the Bubble: keep passing the Bechdel test.” Nease writes as if the Bechdel test is an unassailable metric to which Hollywood executives are somehow blind. However, she does not do justice to the serious flaws in the test, nor why it should not be used as the be-all, end-all method to determine whether or not a film or work of art is inherently sexist.

The Bechdel Test is straightforward. A film must contain two female characters who talk to each other at some point in the film about something other than a man to pass, though some versions of the test also require the female characters to be named. Nease is right in saying that a staggering amount of films fail the test, but what was left out of her analysis is the often miniscule technicalities that cause a film to fail the test in the first place.

According to, for example, “Gravity” (2013) fails the test because there are only two characters, and only one is a woman, as opposed to the two needed to pass. “Under the Skin” (2013), in which Scarlett Johansson plays the lead role and appears in every scene, fails because she does not speak to another woman. Yet, the film is meant to be a subversion and examination of gender roles as Johannson’s character literally hunts men down and consumes them. Are we to disregard the film and its message because it fails the test?

Perhaps the most baffling failure I found on was that of “All is Lost” (2013), a film in which Robert Redford plays a man stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean. As he is the only character on screen, the film fails not only because he’s a man, but because he does not speak to anyone else. If the character were replaced with a woman, it would still fail because she would not speak to another person.

And what about some of the films that did pass? They count amongst their numbers “Showgirls” (1995), in my opinion one of the most hilariously sexist movies ever made, “The Other Woman” (2014), a film about three women who find no peace in their lives until they encounter good men at the end, and Bridesmaids (2011). I include the last one because of all the films I found on, this one seemed to inspire the most debate as to whether or not it deserved to pass. As it centers around a group of women preparing for a wedding, the forum looks like a battle zone as commentators blast weddings as inherently patriarchal and lampoon Annie (Kristen Wiig), the main character, for being defined by her relationships with men. In fact, you will find dissent like this common on other entries, as the meaning of test is so subjective.

As such, I can’t help but agree with British film critic Robbie Collin, who calls the test “box-ticking and stat-hoarding over analysis and appreciation.” Thus, while the Bechdel Test is a great introduction to gender inequality in popular media, it is perhaps best not to focus on arbitrary criteria and instead to move on to something more substantive — discussing how to improve the multidimensionality of female characters in films.

In this respect, as Nease points out, Hollywood is improving, but still has a lot of work to do. Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl (2014) and Reese Witherspoon in Wild (2014) are good examples of strong female leads, but sadly there are few others. Yet, with Oscar nominations virtually assured for both of them, one can be hopeful that the tide will change soon for female representation in film.

Still, relying on the Bechdel Test as a panacea to solving everything is kind of like deciding to build a house after reading your first Lego manual. It’s a good introduction and starting point, but the real work is yet to be done.

Bhuchar is the Hop’s film intern for the year and the film columnist for The Dartmouth Chronicle. He is a former member of The Dartmouth Arts Staff.