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The Bechdel Test is Gay

(This was originally posted to WordPress in 2018 and then on an old version of this site in 2019.)

How many times have I read feministé articles and critiques and thinkpieces about the state of sexism in media that rely on the Bechdel Test to give a low bar the movie refuses to step over wrt the portrayal of women and their storylines? Too many times.


How many times have those feministé articles and critiques and thinkpieces about the state of sexism in media acknowledge in any capacity that the Bechdel Test came from a lesbian for lesbians about lesbian representation in media? Never.


The History: Bechdel

Let me put up a disclaimer: I don't read Bechdel's work; I'm not a historian of the Bechdel-Wallace Test in any capacity, but I am bisexual and I am familiar with enough of our history to have come across information about the test, and also Google is free.


Out of context, it's difficult to tell that this is about two lesbians. However, the comic is called Dykes to Watch Out For, which should give the reader some kind of idea about the characters and probably their author.


Bechdel said this: "And it was just a lesbian feminist joke of the ’80s, the kind of stuff we were all saying to each other. And it, you know, it just disappeared. But then, 20 years later, these young feminists resurrected it. I think it started with women in film school who were being told the exact opposite. “If you want to sell a movie to Hollywood, don’t put more than two women in it.” Etc."


So she says explicitly that it was a lesbian feminist joke; her work as a lesbian with lesbian comic characters provides the context that so many articles want to remove from the strip. So with the context, the strip transforms from

I hate being defined only by my relationship to men as a heterosexual woman

to

I'm trying to find any scrap belief that I'll be able to see a lesbian like myself on the screen in any given movie

Bechdel says in an NPR interview that she made herself a "professional lesbian" in response to her father being a closeted gay man (who she suspects committed suicide); her openness about her sexuality is an act of rebellion and an act of healing. It's important to her, it informs her work, and it should inform the way her work is used to analyze media.


So What Is the (Current) Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test, which Bechdel herself would prefer to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace Test to give credit to Liz Wallace mentioned on the movie marquee in the first panel, is just a de-contextualized repetition of the words Liz Wallace says to the regular comic character (Ginger? I'm not familiar with the source, but I think it's Ginger):

  1. It has to have at least two women in it who

  2. talk to each other

  3. about something other than a man

I've seen the test evolve to say the two women have to have names, but this criteria is what the original strip gives us and the baseline that these feministé articles use when talking about the test and whether films pass it.


So What's My Problem?

Bechdel is a lesbian. She says that the strip The Rule was a lesbian joke. It's a tool for lesbians to find media that allows them to have scraps, crumbs, of representation. It's a way of projecting the hope that lesbians can be seen in films in any capacity.


Stripping the importance of Bechdel's lesbianism and the lesbian identities of the characters in a comic that's called Dykes to Look Out For is doing a huge disservice to lesbians and by extension to the rest of the community. The hetero women who use the Bechdel test to suss out whether they're represented well are being represented.


The lesbians who are looking for scraps in a culture that is slowly improving its relationship with LGBT people are not.


None of this is to say that straight women aren't allowed to want representation where they're not defined only by their relationships with men; the sexism of making female characters extensions of male characters is still an issue that needs addressing. The three rules given in the original comic do a good job of creating a jumping off point for people looking to consume their media critically and especially for creators to look at their content to analyze before it's released to make sure the female characters get strong(er) presence and storylines.


And I'm not even saying the Bechdel-Wallace Test can't deliver on pointing out those issues. Bechdel herself says the following about how it's evolved: "But it’s really cool, because it’s this real index of how the culture has changed. It was a very fringe, marginal thing in the ’80s, and now it has become this more mainstream discussion, which is amazing."


However. HowEVER. It's at best poor taste and more likely straight up homophobia to take a tool created by lesbians for lesbians without acknowledging its history, its context, or using it as it was intended to be used: to identity movies where it's feasible to believe there's lesbians anywhere.


Let's take a look at some lists of movies praised for passing the Bechdel Test:


BechdelTest.com

From the 2017 list on the left hand column

47 Meters Down. Pass. LGBT characters? None.

6 Days. Fail. LGBT characters? None.

A Christmas Prince. Pass. LGBT characters? None.

Alexander IRL. Fail. LGBT characters? None.

Alien: Covenant. Pass. LGBT characters? Yes, apparently, but bury your gays got 'em.

American Assassin. Pass. LGBT characters? None.

American Made. Fail. LGBT characters? None.

Amityville: The Awakening. Pass. LGBT characters? None.

Annabelle: Creation. Pass. LGBT characters? None.

Atomic Blonde. Pass. LGBT characters? Yes, but only the white protag survives.

Baby Driver. Fail. LGBT characters? None.

The Babysitter. Pass. LGBT characters? There's a 'hot kiss' scene between two women but it looks like it's between two straight girls for the titillation of the boys. Doesn't count. Homophobic actually.

Band Aid. Pass. LGBT characters? None.

Batman Vs Two-Face. Pass. LGBT characters? Debatable? Catwoman is bisexual, she's in the movie, but no mention of her sexuality.

Battle of the Sexes. Pass. LGBT characters? Yes! It's about a lesbian! (Its portrayal of the actual woman Billie Jean's lesbianism is apparently questionable, though.)

Beatriz at Dinner. Pass. LGBT characters? None.

Beauty and the Beast. Pass. LGBT characters? Yes. LeFou, but again. Questionable.

Before I Fall. Pass. LGBT characters? None.

The Beguiled. Pass. LGBT characters? None. Even tho the director says it's "for [her] gay friends" which, oh my god.

John Wick: Chapter 2. Fail. LGBT characters? None.


INTERESTINGLY. Philadelphia fails the (modern) Bechdel Test but it's all about a gay man with AIDs and his legal battle against his homophobic trash bosses. Additionally, it navigates the relationship between two gay men; they talk about music and being in love and dealing with Beckett's failing health. Is it lesbian representation? No. Is it still a good movie that features more LGBT rep, more meaningful LGBT rep, than the vast majority of movies that got a pass on this list? Hell yes.


I do acknowledge that many people find it questionable rep because it's focused on the death of a gay man, which is very fair; I think Philadelphia can be both another entry in the Gay Tragedy collection that so much media about gay relationships is forced to stick to and a lovely movie about a lived experience.


Is it still kind of shitty that Philadelphia doesn't feature two women who speak to each other, even in the background? Yeah, I guess. But the irony is...interesting. I'm personally way less interested in having two (straight) women who speak to each other in this movie than I am in seeing an acknowledgement of the AIDs crisis, the impact of homophobia and serophobia, and two gay men in love trying to live their lives for as long as they can. It could have been a great opportunity to highlight the role of lesbians in caring for gay men who were disowned by their families and society at large, but then would the feminist critics still rail against the representation if the lesbians were talking about Beckett, a man, and his care?


Weird Science. LGBT characters? None. (Ironically the list itself calls this movie out for being super sexist, so what's the point of passing it if the women are still treated like sexual objects?)

Ferris Bueller's Day Off. LGBT characters? None.

American Pie 2. LGBT characters? None. (Also. God. Why.)

The Stepford Wives. LGBT characters? None. (Conversion therapy is probably included in the Stepford handbook, anyway.)

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. LGBT characters? None.

Remember the Titans. LGBT characters? Apparently some subtext, but none explicitly LGBT.

Goodfellas. LGBT characters? None.

You get the idea.


Independence Day. LGBT characters? None.

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. LGBT characters? None. (I think? Idk who the characters are who are speaking and one says she prayed for the day their love would bring them together again, but I don't know their relationship.)

Birdemic 2: The Resurrection. LGBT characters? None.

Paranormal Activity. LGBT characters? None.

The Human Centipede. LGBT characters? None. (Also come the fuck on lmao)

Starship Troopers. LGBT characters? None. (Even tho dizzy is gay as hell lbr.)

Die Hard. LGBT characters? None.

Sin City. LGBT characters? Yes.

Snakes on a Plane. LGBT characters? Unless those snakes are lesbians, none. Even the joke gay flight attendant turned out to have a girlfriend and isn't explicitly bi. Insulting. Another homophobic joke.


Some of these results might not be right wrt the presence of LGBT characters; I just Googled "[Film Name] LGBT" and looked over the first page of results; if the character isn't talked about enough or known enough to be on the first page of results it's probably not good news, right? But anyway, like...there's five out of thirty-seven films. That's 13.5% of the characters who are LGBT, and only half of those aren't Questionable Rep.


You might be thinking, "But Bear! ~10% of characters seems about appropriate given the common idea that about 10% of the population is LGBT!"


Well, hypothetical commenter, the problem is that it's not reflecting how many characters are LGBT. It's reflecting a percentage of movies that have LGBT characters in their cast of, what, like 3 to 10 named characters? The actual number of LGBT characters is probably like...8? Let's be generous and say 10.


The characters in those movies put together, according to IMDB cast pages? 446.


That's a ratio of 10:446, or 2.24% of characters who are LGBT in the 37 films I found listed according to their pass/fail of the Bechdel Test.


So What Does That Mean?

It means that LGBT people--lesbians specifically, since, again, it was a lesbian who made the comic to voice her disappointment at lesbian representation in film--are being hoisted out of the discussion of representation even as that discussion relies on the very tool that one of us, a lesbian, created.


It means that the idea of intersectionality is being shit on by people who claim to be for the betterment of representation in media. It means that we've had an important tool for discussing our issues and the shortcomings of media to give a shit about us taken from our hands and used as a tool to show how...people criticizing that same media also don't give a shit about us.


Here, look:

Feminist Frequency (hold your criticism of Sarkeesian personally) explains the importance of the Bechdel Test without ever mentioning it being a tool for lesbians and lesbian representation.


Youtuber Rowan Ellis (whom I just found thru my Googling right now) talks about the pros and cons of the Bechdel Test without mentioning its history and its creation as a tool for lesbians. What's really interesting is that she goes on to say people aren't understanding what the test was meant to be used for in the first place, and arguing that it's a marker of quality allows "every bad lesbian porn film [to] pass the Bechdel Test and [be] hailed as some feminist vision." With no sense of irony or awareness.


The Verge demands we hold movies to a higher standard, including looking for cast and crew of color, but doesn't mention that the Bechdel Test was created to find lesbian representation.


FiveThirtyEight analyzes data about movies that pass and fail and discuss the limitations of the Bechdel Test as a marker for Feministé Movies, but yet again fails to mention it's a tool for finding lesbian representation.


The Washington Post also says we have to do better than the Bechdel Test, but yet again. Doesn't say anything about it being about lesbian representation.


Priceonomics analyzes data and info about films that pass and fail and says the Bechdel Test created a branch of critical feminist theory, but what don't they do? Say anything about it being a lesbian tool. This is especially frustrating because the article talks about how Dykes to Watch Out For is all about LGBT and women's issues and acknowledges that Bechdel herself is a lesbian. Also super ironic, it says Bechdel's own work passes the Bechdel Test without saying anything about its lesbian history or the lesbian representation component being inherent to the Bechdel-Wallace Test.


The extra frustrating thing? Like half those articles mention Dykes to Watch Out For by name. By NAME. You'd think the use of the D word would be a tip off that maybe this has something to do with lesbians. But nope; not one mention of the comic specifically being geared towards finding representation as a lesbian consuming media. Even in articles that emphasize the importance of seeing different types of women, lesbians and other wlw (or even the LGBT community in general) are conspicuously absent.


Even though. Again. This was a lesbian's tool for finding molecules of representation in movies that did not feature any lesbians at all in reality.


In other words, the appropriation of the Bechdel-Wallace test is pretending as though women are not present in media as a whole, which is simply not true. White, straight women have always been in films; A Trip to the Moon had women in it. The Birth of a Nation (yes, that one) had many white women in it. The Cabinet of Dr. Calgiri had women in it.


True, many of those movies restricted what a woman could be. However, women have never been banned from being represented as a class unless they're shown for being degenerate sinners under the Hayes code like lesbians specifically have been.


Okay, Bear, So What Do We Do?

The most obvious answer? Include mention of the Bechdel-Wallace Test's roots as a tool to find lesbian representation. Don't decontextualize it. Don't straight-wash a tool created by our community by focusing it on movies filled with hetero relationships without making an effort to explain its history within the LGBT community.


Ideally, I'd like to see the Bechdel-Wallace Test revert back to its original purpose. Realistically, I'd be happy with making a distinction between the 1980s DTWOF understanding of the rules for movie viewing and the contemporary understanding of the rules to critique sexism as a whole.


But I think it's still a little difficult to be content with that, because lesbians are women. Lesbians face sexism and lesbophobia. But none of the thinkpieces I've read want to explore anything to do with the specific brand of homophobia/sexism that makes up lesbophobia when they discuss the Bechdel test. They assume that talking about sexism wrt a woman's relationship with a man will work for lesbians as well as it will for straight women, and. Like.


No. It doesn't.


This isn't even just a personal failing in not understanding where the comic came from and what the original rules were made for, although I think we all have some kind of responsibility to learn more about the "tests" and theories and ideas we use to critique media -- the main issue I have is that actual influential news outlets (Feminist Frequency [again, personal ideas about Sarkeesian aside, she's a big name and an influential figure], The Washington Post, and Buzzfeed are all listed above) are completely complicit in burying the lesbian history of the strip, either through ignorance or homophobia.


Just embrace the fact that it's for lesbians to scrounge up representation; maybe stop using it to analyze super hetero romcoms. Maybe that.

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