The Bechdel Press

Despite originating in a comic in 1985 (the rather marvellous Dykes to Watch Out For), The Bechdel Test (or as it was referred to in the comic, ‘The Rule’) has only recently begun to gain popularity and infamy. Perhaps it’s skiffle critic Mark Kermode’s championing of the test on his podcasts, or perhaps it’s the announcement that Swedish cinema’s are taking it up and using it as a seal for their releases.

So, what is The Bechdel Test? Simple. A film that passes the test is one in which there are two named female characters, who talk to each other about something other than a man. Straightforward yes? Not particularly. You see, a lot of films don’t pass it. No Batman film does, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Shawshank Redemption all fail miserably. Godfather, nope. Is that a problem? Yes and no. When a film passes the test it should rightly be applauded, but films that cannot (because of their subject matter, say if a film is set in a men’s prison) shouldn’t shoehorn something in just to fit the parameters of the test – that would ultimately be patronising.

I put the topic out for discussion on Facebook, and some of the responses were absolutely brilliant.

Graeme Calvert: “We would be best to allow the process to continue naturally and nurture it rather than to attempt to force it with a whip and boundaries at the risk of damaging potentially good art. Imagine if they had crowbarred some female characters into shawshank? It wouldn’t have made sense. Most war films don’t include women because historically women didn’t fight. The next generation of war films/books has the advantage of being able to report on the first women in the front line and writers should capitalise on this opportunity. I think this scale is a good indicator if you are looking for a particular type of film, or for use in statistics, but should not be used as a barrier to release. Some of the best art is controversial, we need less barriers not more. They should spend their time and energy supporting female writers and characters rather than suppressing male ones.

I think what I’m trying to say is – Support female writers, encourage female heroes. Don’t suppress good art. This test has its heart in the right place but censors/production companies/publishers/writers need to use their head when putting art out there.”

Guy Garrud: “the Bechdel test is a really fucking LOW standard of female inclusion.”

Valerie O’Riordan: “a film might be really fucking impressive on certain levels (cinematography, tension, score), but very problematic on others (representation) and for me that would preclude it from ever being ‘good art’.”

I know what you’re thinking, what does this have to do with books? Well, they do it for films, so why not books? I’ve read a lot of books this year (check out that sidebar!) and a good number of them fail to pass those tests. Some of them (all the Stephen King books I read this year, Beyond Black, Hope: A Tragedy amongst others) pass with flying colours. So why not a seal of approval in the same vein as Sweden’s approach, only for books?

Some YA books for example have small symbols on the back cover which indicate what content is inside (symbols stand for things like ‘horror’ ‘romance’ ‘violence’ etc…), and a small logo somewhere to indicate that a book passes the test would be enough to give the title some accolade, without pigeonholing it, or forcing all books to adhere to the rule.

It could be an interesting way of making people think about the content of their books, the way it has been making me think about the content of the films I watch. I think that’s where the test (which as Carole Keating pointed out in the discussion we had prior to this blog online, was never intended to be much more than part of a comic book) would come into its own. Where an opportunity to discuss the roles of women in fiction arises, it should be taken, and I for one, would welcome a Bechdel Approved sticker on the books I read.

What do you lot think? Let me know in the comments.

One thought on “The Bechdel Press

  1. Regular topic of discussion at the Manchester spec-fic group. We sometimes apply the test to our own writing as an experiment — it coincidentally popped up in conversation during last night’s meeting — but we certainly don’t use the test to crowbar ‘Bechdel scenes’ into our work to somehow get it ‘Bechdel approved’. That just smacks of tokenism.

    I applaud the stance by Swedish cinemas, but only from the point of view of encouraging an open debate about the subject, not from the desire to see the same rating system applied here in the UK. Such a system would, I believe, do more harm than good. It would let everyone off the hook, kill the debate, and the film industry would carry on producing the same content as before, albeit with each film now featuring a stock two-minute scene where woman-speaks-to-woman for the sake of a tick in the box.

    As for books, same opinion I’m afraid, so I’d be against any kind of rating system applied by the publishers, but a ‘Bechdel sticker’ sounds interesting. The bookshops would add those…so what about some Bechdel promos? A Bechdel shelf? Come on, some of you lot work in bookshops, get to it! And back to films, I want to see a Bechdel season on Film4.

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