I love the simplicity of the Bechdel test, a brilliant piece of illumination thrown over a murky cultural landscape. I was recently reminded of it by a piece in the papers – possibly, surprisingly enough, something like the Metro (the zeitgeist is shifting, folks).
It’s a beautiful checklist, three points only, named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Originally applied to films, it can also be applied to fiction.
Question 1: are there more than two named female characters (in the product in question)? Question 2: do those characters speak to each other? Question 3: about something other than a man?
Applying this test to creative enterprises is eye-opening, although the analogy I keep coming back to is when you buy a new vacuum cleaner and haul it over your manky carpets only to discover just how truly manky they are. Using housework imagery might really be letting the whole thing down. Perhaps instead we should think of it as a radiation-detector, a creative Geiger counter that reveals alarming levels of previously-undetected toxicity, as even things you really rate and enjoy DO NOT ALWAYS SUCCEED in passing this modest test with flying colours.
I’ve been applying it Top of the Lake, Jane Campion’s miniseries currently on BBC. I am generally a Jane Campion fan. Her work is luminous, subtle, witty, and nobody is ever going to ask her to direct the latest in the Die Hard franchise; and I think her work does OK with regard to this test, but let me repeat that: Jane Campion’s work does OK. And this is not an exercise in putting in the boot to an exemplar of one of the most endangered of species, successful female film directors, but merely pointing out how low the bar is set on this matter for those who would contribute to our mainstream culture, who must attract investors and supporters for their work and still try to do things differently.
One of the aspects I most enjoyed and embraced writing The Invisible Riot was the opportunity to write about women – Suffragettes – doing something together, that was not about their partners, families, romantic lives etc etc etc. Why do we so often need reminding that women do other things? Things about work, about science, or politics, or philosophy, or, well, take your pick really. Not that the alien super-race who unearth all our long-buried films and books in 3013 are likely to discover that about us.
The Bechdel test is a small way of helping to redress that imbalance, and we should all apply it as often and as liberally as possible, like sunblock in these heatwave times.