The Bechdel test is stupid

Note, the header image was used non-ironically on another website.

Tl;dr:  the Bechdel test comes up in discussions about women’s roles.  It is a useless test.  It neither explains the role of women in the novel nor does anything to make the novel better, hence my ironic usage of the header image.

For those unfamiliar with it, a Bechdel test consists of two parts, with a third part sometimes added:

  1. Two women must talk to each other.
  2. They must not talk about men.
  3. Sometimes, it’s added that both women must be named.

It’s a very useless test.  Let’s make a hypothetical story that illustrates why.  A man and a woman are on a plane, when it suddenly has engine failure and goes down.  All of the passengers are dead, except the man and the woman.

The man is completely paralyzed.  The woman has to get all of the food, water, and build the shelter.  Part of the wreckage she recovers has a map on it.  She doesn’t know exactly where they are, so she builds a makeshift raft and goes from island to island, marking off places that she knows are not correct.  She can’t venture too far out though, because otherwise the man will die or at least be in serious trouble when she gets back.

After doing this for a few years, she figures out where they are.  The nearest civilization is a week away on a raft.  Now she has a choice.  If she chooses to leave the island alone, the man will die.  That’s been her only friend for years.  If she chooses to leave the island together, they might both die, since the man can’t do anything to help out.  Does she abandon the island?

That’s the story.  The woman is clearly the main protagonist, has all of the action, and basically does everything.  This hypothetical story would still fail the Bechdel test.  We don’t have two named women talking to each other in the story.

This is the exact scenario of one movie, Gravity, even though Sandra Bullock portrays the heroine, it fails the Bechdel test.

Part of any story is that there’s a main character.  Everything in the story will revolve around the main character.  If it doesn’t, you’ll have a meandering story with needless filler.  Needless filler is a bad thing.

So if you have a typical trifecta in a story, male protagonist, female love interest, and male best friend, the dialogue is going to revolve mostly around the male protagonist.  Most everyone will be talking about or reacting to what the male protagonist does.  This is basic storytelling.

So if you look at a list of movies that pass the Bechdel test, they all have one thing in common.  The unambiguous winners are  Beauty and the Beast, Star Wars: Last Jedi, Wonder Woman, Despicable Me 3, and Guardians of the Galaxy.  Of those, the first three are female protagonist lead. The last two feature scenes involving female family members.

The ones that rank on the barely scale are Spiderman Homecoming, It, Logan, and The Fate of the Furious.  These are male protagonist stories.

What you learn at a quick glance is that the Bechdel test is heavily weighted against any stories involving a male protagonist.  Since the story revolves around the protagonist, the only way around it with a male protagonist is to have female family members, or to insert random dialogue to get the barely mark ticked off.

Goodhart’s law states that:

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

When films actively try to tick off a mark to pass with barely, that mark becomes meaningless.

The Bechdel test is a convenient way to discredit any stories with a male protagonist without having to explicitly say, “I don’t like stories with male protagonists.”  It’s fair enough if you don’t, just don’t make up a test about it.

It’s a compelling theory because on the surface, it looks deep.  How hard is it to have two female characters talk about something besides a man?  But once you scratch it, you realize that it doesn’t tell you anything useful.

What would a decent test look like? Well, you need to ask what a test is even supposed to do.

There are three parts to any test. Construct-validity, does the test measure the things it is purporting to measure? Content-validity, does the test bias itself towards some groups more than others? And predictive-validity, does it actually predict anything useful?

In terms of content-validity, I say that it has none, and show that overwhelmingly, it favors certain types of content over others.

In terms of predictive-validity, it doesn’t tell me anything useful. Anything useful is derived from its content-validity, which is whether or not the movie is female protagonist.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10450463/Bechdel-test-is-damaging-to-the-way-we-think-about-film.html

Movies that pass the Bechdel test include “empowering films like Showgirls… The Hottie and the Nottie, Bride Wars, Bratz: The Movie, Burlesque, Sex and the City 2 and any number of other stereotype-peddling car wrecks in which two or more of the leads happen to be female.”

That’s a low level of predictive power there. As stated, that’s derived from its content-validity, it’s simply a measure of two leads who are female.

For Bechdel it was never a test, but the trigger for a pessimistic punchline: even in films that meet these seemingly foolproof criteria, the female characters are always delimited by something.

As for how predictive it is:

three of those five results are either false positives or false negatives: for that level of insight into culturally ingrained sexism, you might as well forget the Bechdel test and go straight to Jim Davidson.

In short, it has no construct validity and therefore, no predictive validity. It is useless as a test, from all definitions we have of what a test is supposed to do.

So, what would a good test look like? It wouldn’t be anything as easy or shallow as the Bechdel test.  There’s been a number of alternatives proposed to the Bechdel test, most of them are still as shallow as the Bechdel test.

Each of these alternative proposals are simple bean counting exercises, the only question is what color beans do we count.  When dealing with a complex phenomena, attempts to reduce that phenomena to a single point are necessarily inaccurate and misleading.  So here’s a complex list.

1.) Agency. Do the females have a role in the book besides “wife or hot girlfriend” of protagonist?  Do they exist for reasons outside of serving the interests of the protagonists like giving them emotional pathos or story resolution?  Or being rescued ad nauseam like Lois Lane in a Zack Snyder film?

Note that female protagonist roles would fail this as well.  The exemplar here is Lara Croft’s rebooted Tomb Raider (2013) series.  The only reason that side characters exist is so Lara can have whatever emotional development she needs at that point before the characters are immediately discarded.

Sound like other criticism I’ve leveled at books?  Yes, this is rule 5 of the sinsNPCs are not replaceable, or the girl in the fridge problem.  Side characters should have their own behaviors and motivations outside the sphere of the main character because it’s a principle of telling a good story.  This applies to both male and female characters.

2.) Pivotal role. Do the females have a major part to play in the book? Could you remove them?  Again, this is the same criticism I have when discussing good and bad harems.  A harem without interesting people in it is boring.

Our test is pretty simple:  A work should have women with agency doing things that actively change the story.  You can’t count beans with that theory, but it’s a better formula than the rest of what’s out there.  If you do this instead of worrying about how many women talk to each other about nonsense, you’ll get the added bonus of having a better story than following all the bean counter versions.

3.) Realism.  Now we have the exception that requires more analysis than anything as simple as the Bechdel test would ever allow.

Let’s say I write a book about Athenian Greece. In Athens, women weren’t allowed outside without their husband and were basically confined to domestic duties. It would make complete sense if women didn’t appear much in a novel that revolved around ancient Athens.

Now let’s say I do one in Spartan Greece. The men were constantly out in battle, Sparta was run by women. It would not make sense to do a novel about Sparta and not mention all the women on it, at least if the novel is about Sparta itself and not about the Spartan men in war.  If it’s Spartan men at war, there weren’t any women.  Realism depends upon the context.

This applies to other contexts too.  Doing a game about WWII?  Sorry, there weren’t any female infantry soldiers in the Allied troops.  Doing a medieval story about the Holy Roman Empire?  You won’t have any racial diversity in it.

This realism caveat doesn’t apply to fantasy works that take place in alternative Universes or Earths, unless that’s part of the plot and is explained within World context.

Bechdel herself points this out by pointing Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Our Own.

it is becoming evident that women, like men, have other interests besides the perennial interests of domesticity… the splendid portrait of the fictitious woman is much too simple and much too monotonous. Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them: how literature would suffer!  

Updating with comments from Adam Myhr:

Because I think it’s fun to come in with other perspectives, this line in the article is the key to supporters of the test: “What you learn at a quick glance is that the Bechdel test is heavily weighted against any stories involving a male protagonist.”

In the end, I don’t think they’re trying to make everyone “have female family members, or to insert random dialogue” by pointing out the test. IMHO, they’re trying to point out that the number of stories with a “male protagonist, female love interest, and male best friend” is disproportionate to the number of actual males versus females in the world.

For another similar situation, look at some of what’s going around about the Black Panther movie. While it doesn’t tend to strike those of us who are white males, there are a huge number of people that are seeing, for the first time, a story featuring people that they can easily relate to (look/act similar etc) doing the right thing. To them, this is a big deal and makes the recent movie even better and more important than the rest of us may realize.

When someone calls out the Bechdel test they’re either crowd following or calling for more stories outside of the “typical trifecta” in a relatively ineffective way, but perhaps the only way they know how.

For the part about complaining about the amount of trifecta stories vs. the amount of men and women, it’s a true and good point. If that’s what they want to say, then that’s what they should say.  Quoting myself, it’s a bit disingenuous to make up a test as a metric instead of saying what you really want to say.

Rather than increasing the diversity of stories told, the result has been to insert token characters into roles to fill quotas. Add gay character here. Insert transsexual character there. It hasn’t resulted in a shift in storytelling, just a shift in the way beans are counted.

For the part about Black Panther, I find that a marketing ploy.  Comparing Black Panther to The Color Purple, Boyz n the Hood, Ray, Glory, New Jack City, Hotel Rwanda, or Ali, I don’t think Black Panther ranks near any of them.

Black Panther is considered powerful because there’s a marketing push to make it into more than it is, but it isn’t near Glory or Hotel Rwanda.

What it shows is something more mundane and simple, same as Force Awakens.

  • If you tell a good story, no one will give a shit whether you have a female lead or a black costar or an all black cast.
  • If you tell a shitty story, no one will care what your cast looks like.

Maybe Black Panther and Force Awakens will convince the producers in Hollywood with the purse strings of that fact, but anyone who watches film already knows it.

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