Wednesday, December 17, 2008
The Bechdel Rule for Movies
First off, enlarge the above image and read the comic strip.
This was called to my attention by comic critic Tom Crippen at the blog The Hooded Utilitarian. Alison Bechdel is a feminist comic writer/artist who is perhaps best known for her recent memoir Fun Home, though she also writes and draws a weekly comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For, which is, I believe, where the strip in question originated.
The rule she posits in that strip isn't quite a rule, actually — I don't think most people would use it as an unbreakable guideline for what they see, even if Bechdel's friend apparently does — but it does bring up some very interesting questions about the role of gender in (especially) Hollywood movies and the relationship of these movies to their presumed audiences. Thinking about what movies might meet the rule and what movies wouldn't is a useful test for determining what constitutes a movie made "for" women, as opposed to one made "for" men. I don't think the rule necessarily separates anti-feminist movies from pro-feminist ones, or sexist ones from non-sexist ones, but it does help gauge the position of women and their interests in films. As a general rule, films that pass the test give screentime to women independently of their relationships to the men in the films, whereas in films that fail the test, the women (if any) exist primarily only in relationship to the male leads. As Tom points out, there are films that might fail the test that nevertheless have strong central women characters; he cites the Terminator cycle, and he probably has a point there.
To give some idea of what results the test might yield when applied to various types of films, I thought about some recent films I've watched myself. Of the films I posted about here in December, the ones that pass the test are In My Skin; The Women (Naturally, I thought of this one first; though Tom cites it as a debatable case, I'd say the titular women, who are always talking, do talk about something other than men at least part of the time. At the very least, they talk about each other, too.); Le Pont du Nord (perhaps unsurprising from the greatest director of actresses); and The Seventh Victim (some women talk to each other about Satanism!). Considering that I've written about 15 films here so far this month, the fact that only 4 of them meet the qualifications of Bechdel's test goes a long way towards proving her thesis. Of the films that do not meet the test, however, it's worth pointing out that Rohmer's A Summer's Tale does have very complex and well-developed women characters. Interestingly, it would also fail a corresponding test for male characters.
The percentage for November's viewing is arguably even worse. I wrote about 33 films and still only 4 met the test's strict requirements: Bell, Book and Candle (women talking about witchcraft), Naked (women talking about poverty and jobs), A Prairie Home Companion (women talking about music and the past), and Far From Heaven (women talking about race, politics, etc). Equally interesting are the films that are left out. Sink Or Swim would doubtless be an exception for Bechdel and her friend, since the film is a one-woman show, an avant-garde pastiche with a voiceover; it is inarguably feminist. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is another intriguing exclusion: it features two women friends who, as far as I can remember, rarely if ever talk about anything besides men in the course of the film. And yet this is in many ways the point of the film, which is a satiric commentary on the ways in which society requires women to conform to various stereotypes imposed by men. Clearly, Bechdel's rule does not allow for the complexity of themes that can underlie the treatment of gender, even in a seemingly straightforward musical comedy like this.
Anyone else have any thoughts about this comic and what it says about film and gender?