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by Tomris Laffly
February 12, 2014 6:47 PM
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Beyond the Bechdel Test: Why It’s Not Enough

Alison Bechdel, acclaimed graphic novelist and creator of The Bechdel Test. Elena Seibert

The three-step Bechdel Test has become synonymous with female representation in movies. But at the Bechdel 2.0 panel held Feb. 9 at the Athena Film Festival – which has a mission to celebrate women and leadership -- participants said it shouldn’t be used as a measure because it only grazes the surface.

“I would like to make something very clear,” said panel moderator and film critic Carrie Rickey.I do not advocate using this model as a test for female representation. We should have other thoughts about how to outdo it and achieve gender equality behind the camera and on screen.”

So, what’s next? Here’s five reasons why moviegoers need to look beyond the Bechdel test.

1.    The Bechdel Test measure is the bare minimum of female representation, not an ultimate standard.

The test saw backlash recently after a number of Swedish movie theaters gave an “A” to movies that pass the test, which asks three simple questions about a film: Are there at least two women? Do they talk to each other? About something other than a man?

While useful in the aggregate, as a universal guide it’s too simplistic and sets the bar too low. Not only does it not allow for a female-driven film like “Gravity,” it also doesn’t address the context of what the female characters do for the film, and whether the film has any real interest in their stories.

2.     Pressure should be put on creators to support more female-driven projects.

 “It’s frustrating to hear, ‘Frozen!’ Who Knew?’, ‘Bridesmaids!’ Who knew?’ You know what, EVERYONE!” said panelist Linda Holmes of NPR. “And with the very limited number of films that don’t star dudes, there’s an anxiety which goes like, ‘If this bombs, it will be another 5 years for the next one to come.’”

By contrast, a greater number of female-driven films would take the pressure off a would-be flop -- and the larger sample size would drive adequate conclusions about their box office performances.

Rickey noted that in the golden age of Hollywood, studios had women screenwriters like Anita Loos, Frances Marion, June Mathis, and Phoebe Ephron. In fact, more women were nominated for screenwriting awards in the ‘30s and ‘40s than in the last 20 years.

Panelists called for the film community to actively and loudly challenge producers to make room for films written/directed by women, citing Judd Apatow as an example of someone who’s responded to similar criticisms well by producing “Bridesmaids” and Lena Dunham’s HBO series “Girls.”

3.    Audiences need to see female protagonists whose actions matter.

Quoting a line by Goldie Hawn’s character in the 1996 film “The First Wives Club,” Rickey said, “There are only three ages for women in Hollywood: Babe, District Attorney, ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’ This also brings to mind Emma Thompson’s recent comment at The Hollywood Reporter’s actress roundtable, referencing when all she was offered was roles that involved saying to a man, “Please don't go and do that brave thing.”

“I want to see more female characters who drive the plot,” said Inkoo Kang, a writer for Village Voice and Women and Hollywood. “I want to see them making some sort of a change in the world, not just as protagonists, but also as villains.”

Referencing Sophia McDougall’s New Statesman piece, I Hate Strong Female Characters,” Vanity Fair writer Katey Rich said the definition shouldn’t be punching a guy and knowing Kung Fu. Citing “Afternoon Delight,” “May In The Summer,” and “Hello I Must Be Going” as examples, she noted that films by women she saw at Sundance 2013 featured a different breed of strong females. “They are weird. They cry. But they also help themselves and have a range of emotions. And that’s what I would like to see more of.”

4.    We may not need more platforms that highlight female-driven films.

An Athena volunteer suggested that the solution lay in creating more outlets that focus on women-centric movies, but panelists disagreed to some extent; they said s some disagreement from the panelists, noting that success was more likely to lie in everyone seeking the titles online and in theaters, as well as looking for writers and critics who support them.

5.    Here’s what the audience can do: Celebrate the positives.

An audience member asked what else filmgoers can do to support female-centric films -- specifically, is it useful to boycott films that promote gender imbalance and poor female representation? Panelists cautioned against this approach, as gender imbalance is a complex topic and negativity can be self perpetuating. The point isn’t denying a particular product or art; it’s of greater benefit acknowledge victories and cultivate a landscape of change.

1 Comment

  • flubb | February 12, 2014 8:38 PMReply

    For a minute I thought that pic was of Rachel Maddow.