The Bechdel Test Is Not Enough

Lots of new movies are coming out, as is the usual happening at the beginning of the year. Of course this creates this whirlwind of discussion about how movies are not representing the non-male population. My wife was kind enough to link me this video, which is a Ted talk about how movies are impressing our young people.

For your reference, the Bechdel Test basically has three requirements: Are there at least two female characters, do they talk to each other, and is that conversation about something other than men?
A friend also shared this article with me, which is a good argument on why the Bechdel Test isn’t enough.

Now fast forward about 35 seconds, and this sparked a conversation about the Lego Movie, which just came out on February 7th and has a staggering 96% on Rotten Tomatoes as of the time of this writing. Whoa. Very few animates movies ever maintain that kind of high rating. I just happened to see it this past Sunday, right before this whole conversation started.

Now, the Lego Movie barely passes the Bechdel test, and it only passes by virtue of the fact that the Unikitty character is being considered female (although it’s a cat unicorn thing, so I don’t know how much identity reinforcement is really happening there). The main female character, Wild Style, is a totally kickass Master Builder who basically has no romantic interest in the other main character until she does. I don’t want to spoil the plot for you, but of course they get together in the end.
Here’s the not-so-awesome. There are basically exactly four female characters in The Lego Movie. Five if you count Unikitty. Out of thousands of characters. You have Wonder Woman, Random Cat Lady, Female Construction Worker (with cleavage), Unikitty, and Wild Style. The last character they had to invent, because there are basically no female legos in the real world.
EDIT: Apparently there are actually six because Lego Cleopatra.

You know how I know that? Because I LOVE Legos, I play with them more often than any adult should. Oh, and because this brilliant 7-year-old also noticed that there are no girl legos.

But despite this weirdly disproportionate arrangement, the Lego Movie still technically passes the Bechdel Test. I hope you will understand, then, that I feel there is a call for a greater test.

We’ll call it the Seibert Test because that’s my last name and that’s how you name stuff like this.

First, to adequately represent the actual population of the world, is the cast (including minor and major characters) made up of at least 50% female characters?
-If you don’t think this is a problem, you need to read this amazing article on Geena Davis. “The percentage of women in crowd scenes in films is 17”. 17%, not even close to the actual nearly 51% of the population that is female.
In order to pass this test there must be both minor and major characters, so a movie with one main male character saving a planet full of women only to be wined, dined, and sexed by them? Does not pass. Sorry, Captain Kirk.

Second, because we’re all sick of the stereotypes, is the genre ANYTHING other than romance?
-If you don’t think this is an issue, name three movies with an all-female or mostly-female cast that are not porn or romance movies (especially rom-com). Let me see… Steel Magnolias? Nope, 8 female and 12 male characters. Arguably a rom-com-drama. Bridesmaids? Rom-com. Sex and the city? C’mon, it has the word Sex in the NAME. If you think of three movies, now think of three that have been released in the last decade. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
I want for someone to prove me wrong, except that rom-coms keep being delegated to the girl’s section in the movies. This needs to change.
To pass this portion of the test, the movie can’t be filed under one genre but so full of romance that no one really knows the difference. It’s safe to say if it fails the Bechdel it will also fail this one.

THIRD, do any of the female characters have power over their own destiny?
Movies like The King and I, which have literally 60 or 70 female characters, would fail this portion of the test because basically everyone is stuck going along with the whims of a powerful male. Some define this as being a “strong” character, but I like the way my friend Betsy Dornbusch calls it “women of impact.” If a character just goes with what’s happening and lets the world hand her platter after platter of whatever the hell, she’s not really a character of substance. Which means she exists to tick a box. This is not how real people work, and it’s not how characters should be either.
For the record, if there are no intelligent conversations between two women, there probably won’t be any evidence of passing this point.
A caveat/addendum to this rule is that rape may not be used as a plot device to further the story unless necessary for the sake of historical accuracy or because of a “real events” representation. It is not an easy out for the writers to use to show how much of a jerk the bad guy is and may not be used as a power play or in any way painted in a positive light. Rape strips power from the characters in a movie or show and that can never be fully recovered.
– Why do we need this check? Because otherwise movies with one dude with a harem would totally count as gender equal because there are lots of women in it.

FOURTH: Are ALL Characters capable of being equally hypersexualized regardless of gender? You can put the girls in awkward skin tight clothing if you do the same thing to the boys because it’s A. Porn or B. A World Device.
Examples of this: The Avengers in Joss Whedon’s World, the characters in Remember Me (a recent Capcom/Steam release that got not enough attention), Orange is the New Black (mostly).
– If you don’t think this is necessary you probably also don’t notice yourself staring at cleavage.

FINALLY, as a bonus point, shoes. Sensible freaking shoes. Dear DC: Catwoman probably shouldn’t wear spikes. Neither should Wonder Woman. Kate Beckett would be one of the coolest characters ever if she didn’t wear those idiotic heels. At least Lt. Rizzoli only wears those heels in the promo photos. As sexy as they make you look, they are clearly a crippling disadvantage–especially in action situations! No real woman makes these dumb footwear decisions if they live in a highly active situation.
…except my wife who insists on cute shoes, but she clearly isn’t guiding my action star criteria.

Interestingly enough, there are lots of series that seem like they would make this cut–and that’s our perception of female-crowding in media going on, apparently. For example, I feel like Once Upon a Time has a solid and extensive female cast. But according to their wiki, they have only 61 female characters and over 100 male. Hey, L Word has lots of ladies, but it’s basically porn, sex, porn, romance, drama, porn. It was on HBO, though, so what do you expect?
Frozen by Disney has two female protagonists and they talk about lots of things besides boys–but as soon as Elsa hits 18 she becomes weirdly hypersexualized, and they are basically the only female characters in the whole movie (except Mom who dies, random lady with a kid, a single servant and a female troll or two). In the grand scheme of things there just aren’t a lot of girls around in Disney movies. This is kinda weird considering the fact that the Princess market is their biggest money maker…

Recently someone linked this very sarcastic and brilliant Cracked article  (yes, I did just say that) reversing the roles and calling out bad characterization of women in movies. I appreciate their points of view, especially since my biggest complaint in the Lego Movie was not its lack of female characters. Instead, I was frustrated by the “wind-blown plastic hair” and the fact that Emmett completely tuned out Wild Style because she was pretty.

To recap, the Seibert Test  calls for the following:
1. That a movie or TV show contain at least 50% female characters comprised of both main and minor characters.
2. That the movie/tv show be any genre other than romance and not have a romantic element so heavy handed that it “might as well be” romance.
3. That at least some of the female characters have impact over their own destiny and rape is not a plot device.
4. That if hypersexualization occurs in the movie/show, it is equally applicable to all of the characters regardless of gender.
4.5 That there are sensible shoes where sensible shoes should occur.

If film and TV directors and writers would take the reality of what the world looks like into account, and apply this test not just to female characters but to minorities as well, we would see a drastic shift in the way the next generation looks at people. We aren’t invisible and we aren’t going to be the silent majority any longer.

Monday: Strong Women in Fiction:

The language in this post may be a bit harsher than usual, and this is a long post.

 

Recently I have been conducting a series of arguments thinly disguised as panels at conventions around the city, discussing what could be considered a hot topic. Usually the attendance is primarily female, but I do find that a few men seeking character writing advice will often attend.

This panel and its contents are most interesting because everyone comes hoping to learn, but also with their own vision of what strength is and who has it.

 

By and large when we begin, people identify with the thought that physical strength is an indicator of character strength–the outmoded way of thinking that only masculine strength characteristics are valid. We will talk about what characters are strong and why: Katniss (Hunger Games), for her abilities with weapons. Merida (Brave), for her fighting and riding skills, Beckett (Castle), Snow (Once Upon a Time), for being complete badasses.

But then, as panelists, we direct the audience to consider what other aspects of these characters give them strength. If stripped of their ability to physically destroy their attackers, what else do they have going for them?

 

For most of them, the conclusion is also a life lesson straight out of a psychology textbook. Each of these characters, in spite of their surroundings, knows that she has the ability to change her own destiny (or fate, in Merida’s case). They do not allow external forces upon their life to convince them that their predicament is insurmountable. They are not carried along by other forces. They have their own goals and dreams and agenda and refuse to let those be stolen from them.

 

With that definition, many more characters get pulled into the mix. What about Nancy Drew, who was not physically dangerous but was smart, talented, and had a penchant for getting herself in and out of trouble? What about Arya of Game of Thrones, who a headstrong and brave 11 year old who doesn’t want to be a lady because she perceives that her society looks down on women in dresses?

 

But wait, our audience cries out. Do you have to play like a boy to be treated with respect?

While my own experiences are a bad example of dressing like a woman and playing in that arena, sacrificing one’s own style is not a sign of strength, but a sign of self defense. If our society is to outgrow the obsessive notion that women in power are bitches or sluts, women who prefer to be feminine must be able to do so without compromising their strength of character. There are examples of this.

 

What about Pepper Potts (Iron Man), who may seem to just be the assistant to a billionaire but is in fact an entrepreneur and a brilliant businesswoman who takes matters into her own hands whenever necessary? Beckett wears heels and runs in them–but not spikes, because that would be insane. The Evil Queen wears beautiful dresses and still manages to control everything.

 

This leads to further discussion about what constitutes good and what constitutes evil, whether one can be evil and still be strong, etc. Someone always mentions Twilight in these panels. I want to underline carefully that a character being weak does not necessarily mean the writing is bad.


Someone in the last iteration of this panel asked me how he could write strong female characters as a man. I told the audience to write what they know–write about their sisters, their daughters, their mothers, their friends in the workplace. Everyone knows strong women. Everyone has them in their life. If you do not see strong women all around you, you are not looking hard enough–or your mind is stuck in the 50s.