I keep running across white women saying things like, “I’m never seeing any film or play that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test ever again!”
This statement epitomizes the problem with white feminism.
First, a quick definition of the Bechdel test, invented by amazing writer and comic artist Alison Bechdel, known for the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and her memoir Fun Home, which she turned into a Tony Award-winning musical. Just in case you weren’t already convinced she’s a genius (and I have been since the old DTWOF days), she was a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant.
The “Bechdel test” is a metric she created in 1985 in a DTWOF strip to evaluate female representation in films. In order to pass the Bechdel test, a film must have two female characters who have at least one conversation that is not about men. It sounds surprisingly basic, yet the vast preponderance of films cannot pass the Bechdel test.
The Bechdel test becomes tricky when applied to theatre. For example, it immediately eliminates all solo performance and all male/male and male/female two-handers, regardless of content.
And this is exactly my issue with the Bechdel test being used as a basic metric of acceptability in theatre– it ignores both content and context. It ignores intersectionality.
Let’s take two examples. The first play, written by a middle-aged white man, is about four wealthy white women discussing their problems and lives while at various brunches in upscale New York eateries. The main topics of conversation are their wealth and whether the sacrifices they made to obtain that wealth were worth it. The central narrative is one character revealing she has lost most of her money and must now live outside Manhattan. This play neatly passes the Bechdel test.
The second play, written and performed by four young Black men, is about their experiences growing up in Oakland. The main topics of conversation are police violence and racism. The central narrative is the loss of their friend, murdered by police while unarmed, driving home from work at a local elementary school, the same school where all five friends met. This play does not pass the Bechdel test.
If the goal of metrics like the Bechdel test are to hold artists accountable for the work we create, insisting on work that resists cultural marginalization and works for inclusion, the Bechdel test is not enough. It is not enough to fight for the inclusion of women and ONLY the inclusion of women. Insisting that a play about privileged white women is so deeply, intrinsically superior to a play about Black men that we can issue a test to “prove” it is counterproductive to every diversity goal we have. We’re issuing a test that by design marginalizes men of color.
We need work that passes the Bechdel test, and we need it badly. But we cannot use that test as a metric for the acceptability of all work.
We live in an intersectional world, and issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be addressed intersectionally. Yes,we must fight for the inclusion of women in our narratives, but we must also fight for the inclusion of other marginalized groups. When we refuse to do so– when we announce that all plays must pass the Bechdel test in order to be acceptable, as I have seen so many white women do– we fail. We become “white feminists,” content with centering ourselves while ignoring other marginalized groups.
To state that you will never see a play that does not pass the Bechdel test is to state that Crimes of the Heart, In the Boom Boom Room, and Five Women Wearing the Same Dress are intrinsically important and worthwhile, while Topdog/Underdog, The Mountaintop, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, The Year Zero, Mambo Mouth, and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 are not worth seeing.
The Bechdel test even fails at what it was purportedly designed to do. Many films steeped in misogyny pass. “Lesbian” pornography made for male consumption passes. Most Disney princess films pass. The Bechdel test, I have to believe, was never meant to be an iron-clad metric.
I don’t know Alison Bechdel, but I consider the Bechdel test excellent social commentary, not a call to action. It’s meant as criticism, to make a point about how few films have female characters with objectives of their own. It’s meant to point out how few films present women as human beings rather than as events in the lives of men.
We cannot use the Bechdel test as the sole metric for acceptability. The examination of our work and its resistance to, and participation in, systems of oppression is a complex process, not a three-point test.
Even issuing a test is a classic white gatekeeping maneuver. White liberals are always looking for clear-cut guidelines to make us instantly “not racist” or “not sexist,” and we excel at creating oversimplified litmus tests that prove we are the Most Woke and everyone else is Doing It Wrong.
You can’t fill out a form with your credentials (“voted for Obama,” “watched Jessica Jones,” “smiled hard at Black guy on the street”), mail it in with a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Women’s Studies department at Howard and then just wait for your NOT RACIST OR SEXIST certificate to roll in. There’s no “Woke White Person” checklist.
There’s no test.
Fighting for diversity and equity in theatre is a complex, multifaceted process that involves the stories we tell and how we tell them, including who tells those stories and who’s in our audiences, who are the decision-makers and gatekeepers, where the funding comes from, and so much more. As tempting as it is to get a definitive ruling on what is “resistance theatre” and what is “collaboration theatre,” that fact remains that each piece of theatre we make will have facets of resistance and facets of collaboration, and all we can do is commit to the process of examining our decisions in both the work we make and the work we consume as thoroughly and realistically as possible. It’s never going to be as simple as only going to shows with The Gold Star of Bechdel next to their titles. Fighting systems of oppression requires more of us, much more.
Commit to the process. Continue to love the Bechdel test for what it is– an eye-opening way to examine narrative that sometimes works and sometimes does not, but can be an effective tool when used correctly. It was one moment of genius in a long career of genius moments for Alison Bechdel, but cannot be– and was never meant to be– the sole, definitive arbiter of acceptable work.
My husband is a huge Rush fan, and has been since middle school, 35 years ago. For those of you who aren’t Rush fans, or aren’t intimately acquainted with one, it’s hard to describe the passionate devotion these fans have. As I learned more and more about this band, it became clear to me that this devotion doesn’t spring from the music alone. Although their music is exceptionally well-crafted (it’s tough to find a rock musician who doesn’t acknowledge Rush’s truly exceptional talent and skill), there are innumerable excellent musicians out there. What makes Rush stand out is their heart– the way this trio of hardworking men treat each other, the way they treat their fans, the way they treat their families, protecting them from public scrutiny. Their humility, sincerity, self-effacing humor, and quiet generosity stand out in an industry that often rewards arrogance, selfishness, and self-aggrandizement.
I’ve written before about “geniuses” behaving badly because we enable that kind of childish behavior, and Rush stands as a constant reminder that genius and assholicity don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Most drummers consider Neil Peart to be the greatest rock drummer of all time. For you fellow classical nerds out there, he’s like the Liszt of rock drumming– he’s written things only he can play, things other drummers have to find ways around. Yet he leads with humility and graciousness, not braggadocio, arrogance, and self-aggrandizement. All three are like this (the other two are Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson)– brilliantly skilled and startlingly humble, far more apt to make a self-effacing joke than brag about their accomplishments or gifts.
It is impressive.
So as my husband introduced me to Rush, I began to understand what he adored about them, why they were, after all these years, still so close to his heart, so close to the hearts of millions.
In 2012, my husband took our teenage son to his first Rush concert. It was the Clockwork Angels tour. It was huge for my husband, as you can imagine. At the tour he bought a hoodie that quickly became his favorite. He treasured it.
Then, in 2016, the Year of Everything Awful, my husband, on the way home from work, stopped to duck into a pub to say hello to a few fellow middle school teachers for just a moment. He couldn’t stay, but he thought he should at least make a quick appearance at the gathering. He was gone for less than ten minutes. In those ten minutes, in broad daylight on a busy suburban street at 4:30 in the afternoon, someone smashed his car window and grabbed his school bag (containing nothing but student paperwork) and his beloved Rush hoodie.
We have insurance, and the school bag had nothing in it that couldn’t be easily replaced. I sighed and went online immediately to the Rush website to replace the hoodie. It was nowhere to be found. I then checked every website and did every google search I could think of. I checked eBay. I was willing to pay double by this point. All I wanted was to replace this hoodie my husband loved so much. I had no luck.
My husband is a very humble man who hates to cause trouble, so I knew my next step would have to be behind his back. Believing that someone within the Rush organization must have some of these hoodies in a box in a warehouse somewhere and would be willing to sell one to me, I tracked down several people within the Rush organization I believed might be connected to merchandising, and told them our story, asking them if there was any way I could still purchase this hoodie. One of the people I contacted was a man named Brandon Schott.
Within a few days I had received an email from a woman named Pegi Cecconi. I did not know who she was and did not think to google her. Brandon Schott had forwarded the email to her, commenting that I seemed “sincere.” Pegi Cecconi, as it turns out, is the Vice President of SRO Management. Her .sig does not give her title, and I was too much of a Rush neophyte to understand how far up the chain she was until I told my husband, who promptly freaked out.
Pegi had forwarded our email to Showtech, the merchandisers, and personally asked them to help us.
Soon, a man named Alex Mahood contacted me. They didn’t have the Clockwork Angels hoodie, but they had one like it, and they would send it right over, free of charge. Soon, we received a box with this hoodie in it.
I had offered to purchase the hoodie in every email I sent them, yet they sent this to us as a gift.
They could have easily ignored my emails. They could have easily just said, “Sorry, sold out.” They could have turned to more important things– they all have far, far more important things to do. Yet they chose kindness and generosity.
It is impressive.
Rush has a song called “Closer to the Heart” that says we can create a better future for each other by approaching our work, whatever that work is, closer to the heart.
2017 is an uncertain year for people all over the world. People are feeling anxious, frightened, and helpless. They see open hatred increasing all around them. They fear for the future. There is only one way to respond to this: Everything we do from this point forward needs to be closer to the heart.
We must take care of each other more now than ever, and this experience gives me hope. I understand replacing a stolen hoodie isn’t equivalent to saving a life or fighting for justice, but the impulse comes from the same place. It’s the impulse to lead with love and to take care of those around us, and we must, now more than ever, take care of those around us.
Not every important action will be earth-shattering and felt by thousands. Sometimes working for a better world is one tiny, unseen act. Listening and believing instead of dismissing and arguing. Hearing the truth of someone’s lived experience with an open heart and mind instead of acting defensively and angrily. Holding space for grief and pain instead of policing the way that grief and pain is expressed. Taking a moment to understand that our experiences and beliefs are not “right” or universal. Taking a moment to understand that difference can be celebrated rather than feared. Taking a moment to see the humanity in each other.
Sometimes we take care of each other by standing against racism and homophobia, robber barons and oligarchs, zealotry and hatred. Injustice. Hunger. Greed. Selfishness. And sometimes we take care of each other in small, personal ways. They are all important.
Yes, 2017 is here, and many are frightened, but we are not helpless. Every day, you can lead with love and act closer to the heart. Every day you can work for justice. Every day you can recognize the humanity in others. Every day you can reach out your hand to help someone, in large ways and in small ways.
Maybe it’s silly for a single hoodie to give me hope. Maybe, maybe not. But I have hope in others. I have hope in you. Live 2017 closer to the heart.
Happy New Year.
(And thank you, thank you, thank you Brandon Schott, Pegi Cecconi, and Alex Mahood. <3)
Remember when Gamergate was happening? All those online attacks, threats, and harassment by the “alt right” pretending to be about “ethics in games journalism” but really just attacking, threatening, and harassing women and people of color for discussing the portrayal of women and people of color in video games? And everyone was like, “Oh; it’s just a minority of people doing that– just a fringe group” and “Well, some of them really do care about games journalism,” and “It’s just online harassment. Just ignore trolls!”?
Now people connected with the “alt right” are going to be in charge of the government. The man who was one of the unofficial heads of Gamergate, Milo Yiannopoulos, writes for Steve Bannon, at Breitbart “News.” Steve Bannon, Trump’s White House Chief Strategist, supported Yiannopoulos throughout the entire Gamergate debacle, and (just before his leave of absence to work for Trump) through the massive sexist and racist attack campaign Yiannopoulos led against Leslie Jones, the final straw that got Yiannopoulos kicked off Twitter because he finally attacked someone with enough fame and power to get people to pay attention.
Even those within Gamergate who insisted throughout that it was about “ethics in games journalism” still defined those ethics as keeping cultural criticism out of gaming. As video games became more and more complex, creating scripts and animation to rival major studio films, games criticism began to include the kinds of artistic considerations we within the arts are well used to. Critics began to consider the social context of games in addition to their basic functionality, sometimes critiquing games for their sexist portrayal of women, or for their lack of diversity. Even if it were about “ethics in games journalism,” Gamergate was defining “ethics” largely as “never talking about sexism or racism in games.” This is an important point, as there really are ethical considerations in games journalism, all of which Gamergate completely ignored in favor of sending death threats to a woman who creates videos about sexist tropes in games and an independent female developer who wrote a free game about her struggle with depression, among others. The “alt right” movement Gamergate considered personal attacks, harassment, and threats an appropriate response to arts criticism— led in part by Milo Yiannopoulos while he was supported and employed by Steve Bannon, soon to be one of the most powerful men in the world.
One of the most important things to note about Gamergate is how often they threw around the term “free speech” to defend attacks, threats, and harassment meant to silence discussion around sexism and racism in the video game industry. One popular talking point at the time was the fact that Anita Sarkeesian had turned off comments on her video series critiquing the portrayal of women in video games, Tropes vs. Women, both on YouTube and on her website, Feminist Frequency, when the attacks, threats, and harassment began, which was characterized as an attack on their “free speech.” This is important to note– they felt so entitled to attack, threaten, and harass this woman that they claimed it was a violation of their free speech when she refused to personally create a space on her website for them to do so.
One of the most important things we can do as citizens is connect the dots between events. Steve Bannon paid Milo Yiannopoulos while he led attacks, threats, and harassment against people advocating for feminism and diversity AND claimed it was a violation of free speech when special space was not created for these attacks to occur. When Yiannopoulos was booted from Twitter for violating their ToS in leading the sexist and racist attacks on Leslie Jones, the movement howled that Yiannopoulos’ “free speech” was being violated. Bannon paid Breitbart writer Jack Hadfield to write an article for Breitbart claiming Yiannopoulos was a “free speech martyr.”
While women and people of color are the canaries in the coal mine of shitty American trends– if bad things are coming down the pike, they’re going to hit us first– it’s also important to note that Gamergate was, at its core, a fight over arts criticism. While people are quick to dismiss art as “just a game” or “just a movie,” art is where we, as a culture, decide who we are, who we want to be, what we fear, what we value. Art is where culture is made. So it’s no surprise to me that this “alt-right” movement in part coalesced and gained popularity around two movements angry about the inclusion of women and people of color in art and arts journalism– Gamergate for video games, and Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies for SciFi/Fantasy.
Yet the response to these attacks and their alarming ideology at the time was a collective shrug of the shoulders. The most popular response was “just ignore the trolls.” This piece of advice could not have been more dangerously wrong.
We should have listened to women and people of color when they first began reporting these attacks. We should have responded robustly and clearly: No, this is wrong. Instead we shrugged our shoulders and told them, “Just ignore the trolls.”
We could have learned everything we needed to know about the “alt right” from Gamergate, and instead here we are, once again, telling each other to “ignore the trolls,” telling each other to discount Trump’s outrageous attacks on free speech when they’re on Twitter, as if they weren’t part of a larger world view that seeks to limit free speech (here, here, here, here, here), as if they weren’t coming from a man we’re about to put into the most powerful position in the world with Steve Bannon at his ear.
When Steve Bannon paid Milo Yiannopoulos to write articles that aided Gamergate and its horrific personal attacks against people who dared to openly discuss sexism and racism in the games industry, that should have been enough right there to make everyone terrified of handing Bannon any sort of political power. Now he’s about to have more political power– unaccountable political power, since he’s in an appointed, not elected, position– than nearly anyone else in the world, aiding a presumptive president elect who attacks free speech relentlessly. The “alt right” has openly fought against free speech for years. The question is, Have we learned anything from it? Or are we just going to keep saying “ignore the trolls”?