It’s obvious to many that patriarchy has deep roots in many aspects of our society but we often don’t realize how deep those roots go. Communication theorist and professor Cheris Kramarae touches on this in her muted group theory. Her work, based partly on the work of social anthropologist Edwin Ardener, asserts that because men hold more power in society, they are the ones who create the structures of language that are used (including, as we’ll see, film language.) Because of this, women are forced to use the language of men to express themselves instead of doing so naturally.
The theory as it applies to media is relevant because in a significant majority of films and other media, the representations of women are created by men. Because of this men primarily portray women as they relate to men instead of as beings in their own right. Men are the main characters in the majority of narratives (71% of the time according to some estimates) and aren't equally represented even in menial parts of a film like crowd scenes. Though these disparities are obvious when analyzed and studied they're often hard to discern unless you're specifically looking for them. This is where the Bechdel test comes in.
Though the ideas that the Bechdel test are based on have been around for years, specifically in the work of Virginia Woolf, this particular application of the test originates from a comic called Dykes to Watch Out For, written by Alison Bechdel. In her 1985 strip “The Rule,” Bechdel laid out the test’s three components:
- The film (or other work of fiction) must have two or more female characters. (Some use the variant that the characters must have names.)
- The two women must have a conversation. (There is some disagreement on what constitutes a conversation. Some say it has to last longer than 60 seconds.)
- The conversation must be about something besides a man. (This is often up to interpretation, since characters may start talking about a man and then transition to another topic.)
So let’s look at a few examples from this year’s Best Picture nominees. In Boyhood, Samantha and Olivia (two of the many named female characters in the film) have a conversation about Samantha’s grades (pass.) In The Grand Budapest Hotel, there are three female characters but they never talk to each other (fail.) In Selma, Coretta Scott King talks to a protester, Amelia Boynton about her fears about being a part of the civil rights movement (pass.) Unfortunately, unless you count Birdman, whose passing is disputed, Selma and Boyhood are the only two nominees in 2014 that pass the test.
The test is far from perfect, however. Alison Bechdel herself expressed ambivalence about the popularity of the test after a major chain of Swedish theaters began rating films based on whether or not they pass. Some films, like The Hurt Locker, which earned one of the only major female directors in Hollywood, Kathryn Bigelow, an Oscar for Best Director, fail the test. The test isn't meant to vilify all female/male conversations, either. The reality is that men make up half the population. So even if you’re trying to tell a story about a female character (like in Dear White People, for example) she’s bound to run into a man at some point and talk to him. The test is beneficial for us in that it can indicate whether the female characters in the film are created solely to serve the male characters in the story or to be intelligent human beings outside of the male awareness. But it’s not the ultimate feminist or egalitarian test of a film’s quality and shouldn’t be applied without a certain amount of critical thinking. Some great films don’t pass the test for legitimate reasons (a great battlefield film set in WWII likely won't feature many women in the interest of historical accuracy.) Some terrible, even misogynistic, films pass because two female characters who have names talk about something besides a man for a few seconds. So the test can be prone to false negatives and false positives. But it does begin to peel back the layers that reveal hegemonic patriarchy in the media and give us an opportunity to encourage change by pointing to a specific, measurable attribute. As Christians, part of our call is to advocate for those who can’t speak for themselves and in a film industry that is dominated by male gaze and men in power, women certainly fall into that category. It’s important that we think about film (and all media) critically, not just as they relate to our faith and values, but in how men and women are portrayed and from what perspective the content is being created.
What have you observed about the portrayal of women in film? How do you think this would differ if more women were creating content? How do you think the portrayal of women affects our view of gender? How should we react to this as Christians?