Why the Bechdel-Wallace Test Still Matters
Sofia Coppola doesn’t know what the Bechdel-Wallace Test is.
That’s not a problem. Indeed, I would be surprised if she was aware of it, given that she’s a director who doesn’t engage with social media or the online evolution of critical language in pop culture. What did surprise me, after seeing someone ask her about the test in an interview, was the response from some fellow critics over the supposed pointlessness of the test as an analytical tool. Coppola and her latest movie, The Beguiled, for which she won Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, have been at the epicentre of the critical conversation lately due to dissections of race, gender and their intersections in her work. Some critics have taken umbrage with that, and so the Bechdel-Wallace Test became a fresh target to dismiss. I saw strange giddiness from some - almost exclusively male — critics over the prospect that the test would be dropped from the narrative altogether, and an odd smugness that anyone would ever wish to use it.
Too frequently, whenever the test comes up in conversation, I see the rolling of eyes and insistence that such a simple tool is a mere distraction or unfair standard to hold artists to. I hear the same arguments of the sacredness of art and demands that us lowly (female) film fans stop looking for answers in the media we consume and just make out own. Many of these defences, and they so often feel defensive in a discomfiting way, ignore what the test is, why it exists and the continuing necessity of it in modern film.
For those who don’t know, the Bechdel-Wallace Test originated in the work of cartoonist Alison Bechdel, perhaps best known today for her memoir Fun Home (she credits her friend Liz Wallace for coming up with the test itself, inspired by the work of Virginia Woolf).. It first appeared in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For as a conversation between two characters discussing the possibility of seeing a movie together. One character explains her rule for going to the cinema: “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.” The other friend quips that the rule is pretty strict but a good idea, and the woman notes that the last film she was able to see was Alien.
The test was never intended to be used as a tool of feminist pop culture analysis. Bechdel herself said it was simply a little joke in a tiny newspaper read by lesbians. Nevertheless, it’s become a handy marker of Hollywood’s failure to pass the simplest of markers, highlighting the limitations put upon an entire gender by one of the most powerful forces in entertainment. Nowadays, there are more tests that look at a film’s gender failings, from the Mako Mori Test (does at least one female character get her own narrative arc that isn’t about supporting a man’s story?) or the Sexy Lamp Test (can you take a female character out of the story, replace her with a sexy lamp and have nothing change?), all of which act as easy to use guidelines and check points for understanding entertainment’s frequent failures to treat women like people.
Because the test was not intended to be used outside of a one joke cartoon strip, it’s obviously something that struggles to work within a consistently evolving culture. What was simply a handy way to point out how every movie seems to use the same stories, characters and ideas became “a measure of feminism”, as noted by Bitch Media’s Andi Zeisler. It’s a broad tool that overlooks everything else in a film - how well-developed said women are, the roles they play in a story, the story itself, and so on - and it’s a very easy system to game. You can pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test simply by having two women ask for directions, or even by having them be bitchy towards one another. The test doesn’t offer much wriggle room for stories that explicitly take on the toxicity of male dominated worlds and stories, or the reality that women, living in a patriarchy, just naturally spend a lot of time talking about dudes. There’s no intersectional slant to the analysis, and misogynistic depictions along lines or race, sexuality, and so on are ignored. None of that negates the qualities of the tools themselves, but you need a full arsenal to do the job properly. That’s why we create new tests, expand upon old ones, and constantly question why the same problems occur repeatedly, even as we’re supposed to have evolved from the limitations of the past.
To even call them tests makes the whole affair sound more academical and restrictive than intended. It’s led to accusations from many critics that they amount to little more than passive box-ticking exercises and ignore a film’s inherent qualities. There may be some truth to that but that ignores a crucial problem most women have put up with for decades: Some of the best entertainment ever made can be absolute bollocks to women. Masterpieces have been made that treat their female characters, assuming there’s more than one, like an afterthought, and when the vast majority of those stories are told by white men, that makes your frustration fester. The idea that women walk into a cinema with a bingo card of requirements is bonkers, and kind of insulting, but many of us do sit down in front of the screen and wonder how much of ourselves we’ll even be able to see. That sliver of representation we get is so precious, so when we finally see something that passes arguably the lowest bar you can set a film - a chat between two women about something other than a man - it’s a reminder to the rest of the industry that doing better is a simple process.
The Bechdel-Wallace Test is still a helpful tool of your critical vocabulary as long as you use it properly. Have it be the lens through which you see the entire landscape, not just individual films. Don’t define it as a determining quality of feminism, because that’s not how art, criticism or feminism works. Use it to start conversations, not bring them to a grinding halt. Always remember to keep it intersectional. Don’t dismiss the critical concerns of viewers who use such tools - they exist for a reason and it’s exhausting to be told to shut up and accept it from people who can see themselves on screen at any given time. Remember, these tests are there to spotlight the issues, and frankly, we’re not in a place with our entertainment where we can stop worrying about such things yet.
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