The Bechdel Test, and Other Media Representation Tests, Explained

Original Article

By Nick Douglas

In the latest episode of Rick & Morty alternative The Simpsons, guest star Alison Bechdel describes her famous Bechdel test for films: Do two female characters have at least one conversation that’s not about a man? Marge immediately brings up Homer, provoking Bechdel’s FAIL animation, shown here in handy exploitable form:

 

Bechdel’s test, popularized in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, was never intended to wholly define a film as “feminist” or “sexist.” After all, “Baby Got Back” passes it. Bechdel invented the test with her friend Liz Wallace to set a low bar that many Hollywood movies still can’t clear. As her character Mo puts it in the comic, “Last movie I was able to see was Alien.”

Setting that low bar has many valid uses, which is why it’s so popular. For one, as the A.V. Club’s Caroline Siede points out, it raises basic awareness of the massive gender disparity in media: Very few movies would fail a reverse Bechdel test for men.

And it’s a strong measure of female representation across an industry. Multiple organizations keep a running Bechdel scorecard of feature films. One chart of over 7,000 films indicates representation slowly improving since the 70s:

The standard is used in industry revenue analysis (showing that passing films outperform failing ones) and in annual Oscar wrap-ups. It’s the basis of a ratings stamp in some Swedish theaters, and it’s one of many check-box criteria on screenplay database The Black List. But Bechdel’s isn’t the only popular test for media’s portrayal of women.

More Tests of Female Representation

Tumblr user Chaila invented the Mako Mori test after noting that Pacific Rimfails the Bechdel Test despite a strong female character, while Thor passes it. A film passes this test if “1) one female character 2) gets her own narrative arc 3) that is not about supporting a man’s story.” The test is more subjective than Bechdel’s, but of course so is the issue they both address.

Writer Roxane Gay proposed a six-part test: Is there a central female character, with supporting female characters, who doesn’t compromise herself for love or live extravagantly for no explained reason? And at least half the time, is this character a woman of color, transgender, and/or queer? Gay’s sixth point is a non-requirement: Female characters “shouldn’t have to live up to an unrealistic feminist standard.” They can be flawed, so long as they feel like real human beings.

The satirical Sexy Lamp test by comics writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (co-creator of Pretty Deadly and Bitch Planet) is the easiest to pass: If your female character could be replaced by a sexy lamp without the plot falling apart, “YOU’RE A FUCKING HACK.” Naturally, many movies fail it. Especially if, as Tumblr user shitifindon suggested, you’re allowed to stick a Post-It on the sexy lamp.

The Crystal Gems test, designed by critic Locuas and named after the cartoon heroes in Steven Universe, combines the three above tests, and adds a scale for each—because we deserve to raise our standards. An example of its tridimensional results:

The Ellen Willis test requires the story (or pop song) to make sense if the genders were flipped. (It’s meant, of course, to call out gender roles, not biological factors.)

Editor and fandom expert Jenn Northington’s Tauriel test just asks that in a given work, at least one woman be good at what she does.

Other Media Tests

But hey, women are only one of a beautifully wide range of people poorly represented in media! So there are tests for other marginalized groups as well. Some of the best:

The racial Bechdel test has the same simple rules as the Bechdel Test, applied to people of color: At least two of them must have a conversation that’s not about a white person. (The native Bechdel test applies a stricter version, to show that movies and shows with Native American characters still often fail.)

Similarly, actor Dylan Marron’s YouTube series Every Single Word features brief compilations of every line delivered by people of color in a given well-known film. Of the 34 compilations, only five are longer than a minute.

The Deggans rule (by TV critic Eric Deggans) requires a show that’s not about race to include at least two non-white human characters in the main cast.

The Morales rule, by actor Natalie Morales, asks that no one calls anybody Papi, dances to salsa music, or uses “gratuitious Spanish.”

The DuVernay test, proposed by film critic Manohla Dargis in honor of director Ava DuVernay, is more abstract. A work passes it if “African Americans and other minorities have fully realised lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories.”

GLAAD’s Vito Russo test has three requirements: The film must contain a lesbian, gay, bi, or transgender character. That character must not be predominantly defined by their orientation or gender identity—they need to be as unique as straight cis characters. And they must be important enough to affect the plot—they can’t just crack some jokes or “paint urban authenticity.

The Topside test for trans literature, created by literary editors Riley MacLeod (now at Kotaku) and Tom Leger, asks that a book include multiple trans characters who know each other, who talk to each other about something other than medical transition procedures. The goal is to set a higher bar than, say, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, which use trans characters as a prop for non-trans characters. (The link includes some recommended texts.)

For more media tests, like the Finkbeiner test for non-fiction and the Lauredhel test for toys, check out this list on the Geek Feminism Wiki. Remember, no one test can replace a qualitative examination of a film. Not all of them are even recommended in earnest. But each test opens up critical discussion, challenges and inspires creators, and provides another tool for measuring the industry.

Maggie Gyllenhaal: ‘Pornography Is An Art Form’

By Jane Mulkerrins
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy in The Deuce

 

Set in the grimy, trash-strewn New York of 1971, The Deuce is named after a notoriously seedy stretch of West 42nd Street that was populated by pimps and prostitutes, and home to live peep shows and porn shops. Written by David Simon, who created The Wire, and his frequent collaborator George Pelecanos, the series charts the rise of the pornography industry in New York City. Simon has said that the show is about “the commodification of women” and from the female bar staff poured into skimpy leotards by James Franco’s bar manager, Vinnie, to the violent control the pimps exert over the prostitutes they run, every woman in the show, and her sexuality, is being packaged and profited from. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Eileen “Candy” Merrell, a prostitute and single mother who rejects street-walking protocol and refuses to be controlled by a pimp, stating that “nobody makes money off my pussy but me”.

“Somebody asked me the other day whether I thought porn was exploitative or empowering for women,” says Gyllenhaal. “At the time, I didn’t actually know how to answer. Then a couple of days later, I thought, can the answer just be: ‘Yes?’”

It is a typically nebulous answer from an actor, who, in spite of roles in mainstream films such as The Dark Knight and Nanny McPhee Returns, has spent much of her career in the independent film sector. She is famed for playing the kind of complex, unconventional women who are now increasingly emerging from the small screen; her most famous role to date, of course, was the troubled, submissive assistant to the masochistic James Spader in 2002’s Secretary. While initially wary of the extensive shooting schedules of most series, the enormous success of The Honourable Woman – the BBC miniseries that won her a Golden Globe for her role as Baroness Nessa Stein – opened up Gyllenhaal to television. With The Deuce – set to be one of HBO’s biggest shows of the year – how did she feel about the high levels of nudity the part required?

“You know, I spent no time moralising it. I am pretty comfortable with it,” Gyllenhaal says when we meet in a slick boutique hotel on the Brooklyn waterfront. “I have never been very shy about my body, and this is something I really believe in.” She lets out a small laugh. “This is so silly, but the only place I have felt shy is imagining those people who I see when I pick up my kids from school watching it. And I have to be honest and say that I don’t think I ate any bread at all while I was making this show. When you know you are going to have to wear very short shorts all summer long, you don’t.”

The show has already been commissioned for a second season, which will jump forward to the late 1970s; while a pending third season will take place in the mid-1980s, thus charting the effects of the boom in pornography on its players over a 15-year stretch. In order to explore the intricacies of such a shrouded, changing industry, Gyllenhaal was faced with a challenge. “There is so much about sex work that is in the dark, because it’s illegal, so how do you get that information in a reliable way?” she asks.

She was directed to Annie Sprinkle, a 63 year-old writer and television presenter, and former porn actor, who had also worked as a prostitute in the early 1970s in San Francisco and New York.

“She has a support group for women who are involved in porn and prostitution,” says Gyllenhaal. “So she introduced me to this world of women in their 60s who had been, and some of whom still are, involved in sex work.” Their experiences challenged many received ideas about prostitutes as victims. “They all said: ‘Don’t write us off,’” reports Gyllenhaal. “They said: ‘Yes, there is often an element of damage [in their past].’ But there are a lot of other things too; there’s curiosity, and an actual love of sexuality. And I saw both elements.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal with James Franco in The Deuce
 I am the barfly … Gyllenhaal with James Franco in The Deuce. Photograph: HBO

And, contradictory though it may sound, in a show that features both graphic sex and violence, there is also an innocence to the trade it portrays. “Annie said that sex work then really had a different feeling about it than now,” nods Gyllenhaal. “That they were just coming out of the 1960s, and there was a celebration of freedom. People had this idea that they were smoking pot and making love.” Similarly, her ideas about pornography were transformed. “I thought of all pornography the same way, and what I realised is that pornography is an art form. And that there are actresses who are very proud of what they did in pornography.” The growth of the embryonic porn industry is seen primarily through Candy’s lens, both figuratively and literally: over the course of eight episodes, she develops an ambition not merely to star in porn films, but to direct them. “It’s like a light goes on inside her, and she starts thinking of herself as an artist,” says Gyllenhaal.

A similar shift took place with Gyllenhaal’s ambitions, too. “I wanted some kind of guarantee that I would be a part of the storytelling, part of considering what it is we want to be saying,” she says. Gyllenhaal asked for a production credit, but people around her said that given a show of this size and profile she shouldn’t expect to get one. “And I thought, ‘Well, I’m still going to ask for it.’” To her surprise her request was granted. When this happened she felt a “real shift in my sense of myself as a woman and an artist. Which was like a meta version of what the piece is about.”

As a producer, she was empowered to suggest additions to the script. For example, a deeply intimate scene in which we see Candy masturbate was Gyllenhaal’s own idea. “It wasn’t that I had a burning desire to pretend to masturbate on television,” she says, wryly. “It was that I wanted to find a way to express the difference between performative, transactional sex, and sex that is about someone’s actual desire. And I thought that was an interesting way to do it. But that was the scene I felt the most vulnerable about. Because I was trying to create something that looked and felt real.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal with James Spader in Secretary
 Pushing the envelope … Gyllenhaal with James Spader in Secretary. Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar/Lionsgate

Other challenging scenes included a porn shoot in episode two in which Gyllenhaal’s character “gets Campbell’s soup sprayed on her face with a fucking turkey baster,” she says, looking suitably horrified. “I can’t actually think of anything more degrading. And I knew it was in service of having a conversation about degrading women – which we are having – but I still had to do it, and I found that very difficult.”

So far, The Deuce has been widely applauded for its exploration of the female gaze, and Gyllenhaal claims that it is “absolutely, definitely a feminist project”. But therein also lies a challenge: how to make a show about the sex trade and pornography without it becoming pornographic itself. Gyllenhaal, however, believes that is part of the show’s power and what it has in common with The Handmaid’s Tale and The Girlfriend Experience.

“If it turns you on, but then makes you horrified to consider what’s actually turning you on, and what the consequences are for the characters that are turning you on, then it’s a better show,” she says. “If you’re patting yourself on the back and just thinking how terrible porn is, then it doesn’t make you consider your position as a person in the world right now, and how sex is commodified everywhere today.”

The Deuce continues on 3 October, 10pm, Sky Atlantic