The Bechdel Test and White Feminism

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.

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Alison Bechdel. Source: Out Magazine.

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.

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Kamal Angelo Bolden as Chad Deity in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity in the Victory Gardens/Teatro Vista co-pro in Chicago, 2009. Photo: Chicago Theater Beat

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 DeityThe Year Zero, Mambo Mouth, and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 are not worth seeing.

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Mason Lee in the Off Broadway production of The Year Zero, 2010. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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.

magicmirrormeme

not how it works

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.

 

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6 thoughts on “The Bechdel Test and White Feminism

  1. Adrien-Alice says:

    A little tangential to yr deeper points about white feminism, but I recall reading that AB herself thinks that the “Bechdal test” is a laughably low bar. (Also her friend came up with it…) But that they were just so shocked that SO FEW MOVIES met it.

  2. franmcbain says:

    Gertrude, you are *so* close to judging work on its merits and ideas, yet you are still obsessed with the race and ideological conformity of the art work/artist.

    A question: If you had the power, would you censor every work of art that doesn’t meet your ideological criteria?

    • thedxman says:

      What a condescending comment. For some strange reason, franmcbain, you don’t consider that diversity, inclusion, protest, liberation are intrinsic components of the “merits” of a piece of art or culture. Before complaining about people “censoring” something, perhaps consider your own ideological biases. Art and media criticism are the very lifeblood of the creation of worthwhile artwork, to pretend otherwise is just a display of the crassest ignorance.

      =8)-DX

  3. thedxman says:

    Good article, hadn’t thought about it this way, but it’s definitely true that the Bechdel test wasn’t designed to measure theatre, and wasn’t even designed to be a strict benchmark of film quality, but rather to make a point about how male-centric and female-stereotyping modern cinema is.
    =8)-DX

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve expanded my own personal rule to be two named characters who are not all of the following: cis; het; white; male; and abled talk to each other about something other than someone who is cis; het; white; male; and abled.

    Even broadening it like that, very few movies etc make it over the bar

  5. Marianne says:

    Yes, and the “bechdel test” was actually just part of a scene in a comic, designed to make a point, not a personal standard that the author held, IIRC.
    Just found your blog – awesome!

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