The Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test

A new generation of writers see female stories as important, relatable and entertaining

By Ellen Snortland 07/10/2013

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As you’re keeping cool at the movie theater, consider applying the Bechdel Test to whatever you’re watching. For example, “The Heat,” with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, passes with flying colors … hurrah! The Bechdel Test is a template by which to judge gender bias in entertainment, whether on a page or screen. According to its own Web site, “The Bechdel Test … is a simple test which uses the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it who have names, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.” Hundreds of our most popular and beloved movies fail this test.

Colin Stokes’ must-see 2012 TEDx Talk, “How Movies Teach Manhood,” was my first foray into “Bechdel Land.” Stokes wants his daughter to see positive images of women and girls in the movies, but also wants his son to have a more realistic understanding of the agency and importance of women and girls. Raising boys to be men, in his view, is not served by the current menu of action, violence and insensitive masculinity as portrayed in movies and TV. Also damaging is the paucity of women and girls portrayed as real people, rather than marginal characters: plot asterisks, prostitutes, or impossibly thin and beautiful trophies.

The late, great historian and author Dr. Gerda Lerner said, “Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin ‘helping’ them. Such a world does not exist — never has.” Dr. Lerner is the mother of so-called Women’s History. I say so-called because we don’t call the often skewed and inaccurate “regular” histories “Men’s History,” although that would be more honest than pretending most histories are comprehensive. How could various histories be truly accurate with more than half of the world’s population unaccounted for? Given that women are often only mentioned in historical footnotes, if at all, we are still paying for our invisibility in history, over and over, by our disappearance from popular culture.

Given that women are MIA in most “manstream” (my smart-ass term for mainstream) human histories and pursuits, it’s not really mysterious that we’d be missing from literature, news and entertainment. We have generations of both women and men who consider women and girls to be insignificant on the world stage and page. Only men’s stories are considered “universal.”

Where do writers get most of their ideas? From personal experience, history and the news — the daily gathering of information that becomes history. But if you have rafts of news gatherers and storytellers who believe that females are ancillary, you’re not going to have most of them writing about us.

But now that is starting to shift. Enter a new generation of writers who see female stories as central, important to life, relatable to both men and women and best of all, entertaining!

Given that theater is the “mother” of performance, playwrights can lead the way for all forms of the written word. Earning an A+ in the Bechdel Test Overachiever category is Lori Ada Jaroslow, a Renaissance woman: educator, actor, director, playwright and, most recently, mother. Her status of motherhood is the foundation of her moving and highly entertaining musical “The Baby Project,” which has a cast of (gasp!) five women. And yes, I have my own criteria for theater, The Snorty Test: Did I cry twice? Did I laugh twice? Did it make me want to create my own art? Absolutely yes to all questions.

Theater companies all over the country need to get a hold of “The Baby Project,” since there are so few pieces which feature all women, other than Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba.” Interestingly, “Alba” flunks the Snorty Test and the Bechdel Test; Lorca has the all-female cast talk endlessly about a man who never even shows up onstage! “The Baby Project” talks about sperm for sure, but not the sperm deliveryman.

Yes, folks, it’s possible to delightfully tell a great story with all women, just as having a stage, screen or novel filled solely with men. I rarely hear people coming out of a theater saying, “There were so many men in that cast!” In truth, I’d like to have more people commenting on the unfair male-to-female casting ratios typically found in theater and film, but that’s another column.

 As my hubby pointed out, would it have killed “Iron Man 3” screenwriters Drew Pearce and Shane Black to have Harley — the precocious 10-year-old boy and budding tech wiz — be a precocious 10-year-old girl instead? “Hailey” might have inspired untold numbers of little girls to pursue more science and math in real life. Yes, life imitates art, and if you can see yourself on screen, page or stage, you can imagine the real deal.

The Bechdel Test is just one way we can move the needle toward humanizing both women and men in entertainment and life. Enough of hyper-masculinity and feminine invisibility!


Ellen is a writing coach in Altadena. snortland.com

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