This is a Test… This is Only a Bechdel Test…
The other night the wife and I were watching one of the many Buzzfeed channels on YouTube. A video came on, and one of the presenters mentioned the Bechdel Test. I looked at the wife – who is infinitely smarter than me – and asked, “What the hell is the Bechdel Test?”
With a reassuring smile, the wife informed me that this test looks at works of fiction that have at least two women talking to each other, and tests if they mention a man at some point in their exchange. In short, “the test is a blunt, basic measure of gender equality in a given film/show/book/etc.” [The Atlantic, Megan Garber, Aug 25, 2015]
She then went on to say, “Carol is a good example of a movie that would pass the test.” With that, my visually thinking brain began to scroll through the entire film, and – hey, wait – the two female leads talk about men and boys when they’re together a lot. What is that about?! I mean, this is a movie based on the quintessential lesbian novel. This is a book that broke barriers in the nineteen-fifties by being bold enough to suggest that two women could fall in love, not kill themselves or each other, and live happily ever after. Imagine that.
With this disappointing realization, I began running through several other lesbian movies in my head, and I’ll be damned if they didn’t fail the test too. Before I get into the nitty gritty details, I should qualify them by saying I know some variations of the Bechdel Test allow a work of fiction to pass if it has as few as one scene between two women that meets the criteria. I say to hell with that silliness. This is 2017, and the bar should be higher.
Disclaimer… and Stuff…
To be clear, I’m not man hating; so, calm down. I know there are points in a plot where you have to talk about the fellas, and I speak to that in my breakdown of Carol. I also appreciate that somewhere out there are probably bro bonding movies where men arbitrarily interject the mention of women into their banter. I get that the period in which a film is set can impact the frequency in which female protagonists may be compelled to talk about men, or use men as a conversation driver.
I also get that depending on the point of the piece, men may play a more central role in women’s lives. That’s why the test would be pointless when considering, for example, the likes of Sex and the City or any Nicholas Sparks’ book. I get all that. What I’m asking you to consider is does a scene between two women truly need the mention of men to be relevant or advance the plot? When you stop to think about it, you may be surprised by the answer.
Heads-up, I’ll be referencing scenes by their timestamps, and it goes without saying, there may be spoilers.
0:00:01 - The damn opening scene is from a man’s point-of-view. The camera follows Jack through the street, into a hotel, up to a bar, and then over to interrupt Carol and Therese. We find out near the end of the film what exactly he interrupted, and that just makes this scene all the more irritating.
0:10:20 – Relief. The film is slowly pulling itself back from the brink. Our two protagonists meet for the first time, and magic [insert the tinkling of bells… albeit little, awkward bells]. This scene passes the test as there is no mention of a man, a boyfriend, a husband… nothing. A quick note unrelated to the test… Carol completes an order form and hands it to Therese. She clearly includes her first and last name on the form, but in a later scene (0:19:51) Therese asks Carol her first name.
0:19:51 – The two women have lunch together for the first time, and the girl talk is rife with boys. First, Therese asks if Carol thought a male clerk sent her lost gloves back to her. Then, Therese pays Carol a compliment by telling her she likes her perfume. Carol could have simply thanked her, or told her what the perfume was, but since this scene fails the test miserably, Carol proceeds to tell Therese that it’s a perfume her husband Harge bought her. Therese, not to be out done, takes the opportunity to talk about her boyfriend, Richard (I use the term boyfriend in the loosest of interpretations). Then lunch is over. I can’t imagine either woman truly enjoyed the cream spinach and egg with dry martinis, but alas we are immediately transitioned to Carol and her best friend Abby’s exchange as they drive to a dinner party. We don’t wait too long for the inevitable man-mention before the scene is cut.
0:35:24 – This Christmas Eve scene is the first time the two women are truly alone together. It lasts for a whopping two minutes and twenty-three seconds before Carol’s husband comes to the house unexpectantly. I know, not technically a fail as the two women weren't talking about men, but gosh, I wanted that scene to last longer... there, I said it!
0:52:18 – This scene opens with Carol and Abby discussing Harge, and some recent legal maneuvering he’s had his lawyer do. I grant you, it would seem odd for Carol to meet with her best friend and not talk about what was going on with Carol’s divorce. So, this is a practical pass.
1:01:52 – Carol and Therese have struck out on their own, and are traveling west together. They are having lunch in a diner, and it doesn’t take long before Carol brings Therese’s “boyfriend” Richard into the mix.
1:07:29 – This is one of the few “long-ish” scenes between the two women that passes. They are alone in a motel room, talking, drinking, and swapping perfume samples. Though, if we want to be sticklers about it, Carol does mention President McKinley near the end of the scene. Also, I should tell you there are a few odds-and-ends scenes up to this point that technically pass, but they are so depressingly short (think ten to thirty seconds) that they hardly seem worth mentioning.
1:14:15 – This is the much sought after sex scene. Incidentally, Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Rooney Mara (Therese) shot this scene their first day on set together; so, I imagine the awkwardness and shyness that plays so well on screen is not an act. Anyway, I am sad to report, dear reader, this scene of two women having sex for the first time together does not pass the test. Carol mentions her husband Harge. [boo]
1:36:28 – I was pleased to find this scene, and I will cling desperately to it, damnit. Carol and Abby are sitting in Carol’s house having tea and discussing the fuckery that is Carol’s life, and lo and behold no mention of men. Though on a slightly cynical note, if this scene doesn’t warrant a mention of the husband, given the women's topic of conversation, then why did any of the others?
1:44:43 – We return to that opening scene in the hotel. This time we are seeing it through Therese and Carol’s eyes, and Carol is confessing her love to Therese. But wait… there is that creepy old guy at the table next to them eye screwing Carol as she walks up; so, I don’t know… pass/fail. I’m tired and a little sad at this point. You decide.
1:50:56 – This is near the end of the film. Therese is at a party, and she has been making eyes at this other woman. Finally, the two ladies come together, and – shocking – they immediately start talking about Phil, the host. The other woman goes on to pay Therese a compliment, but can’t manage that without using a man as the conduit, “I can see why Phil speaks so highly of you.” Really? She couldn’t just pay Therese a compliment, and call it a night?
Now, I can appreciate that some of you may be thinking the mention of men in the various scenes was critical to the plot. In a few cases, maybe. The truth is, an argument could be made either way; so, it begs the question, if you could manage the forward progression of a lesbian film without so much man talk, then why not do that?
I am happy to report there are films with women as the primary protagonists that don’t lean so heavily on men when trying to give the ladies something to talk about. Here are a few that kinda-sorta pass the test: Kiss Me, Fire, and Fingersmith. This last one is a neat trick since it’s a period piece riddled with patriarchal tyranny. In the spirit of self-promotion, read my article about both Fingersmith the book, and the newest film adaptation of the piece, The Handmaiden.
All of this timestamping got me to wondering if my own books pass the Bechdel Test. For full disclosure, I don’t have the time to go back through all 1,800 plus Word pages I have written in the past four years; so, I did a quick skim of a few books, and here’s what I found:
Waking Forever – I had a look at a scene in Waking that is somewhat comparable to the spinach and martini scene in Carol. Rachel and Sara are having dinner together for the first time, and I am pleased to report, practically no boy talk. The closest I come in the 2,986 word scene – most of which is dialogue by the way – is two lines where Sara mentions she is an attorney at the same firm her father was a partner at. Oops… so close to a clean pass.
Ela: Forever – I expected this one to be full of boy talk. It’s a period-ish piece in which the protagonist doesn’t initially realize she’s a lesbian. So, like Carol, that may lend itself to slightly more man centric dialogue. Somehow, though, I managed to dodge the bullet. There is a meager spackling of male driven dialogue throughout the 68,000 word novella.
November’s End – Set in Baltimore at the turn of the century, this period piece doesn’t fare as well as Ela. Though not the offender Carol is, I am guilty of setting up a couple pivotal scenes between Nessa and Calina with mention of men. My biggest eye roll moment was when the two women are in bed, and Nessa talks about how she wishes men wouldn’t bother with her, because she can’t be bothered with them. Sadly, this is the lead in to the two women’s first kiss. Epic fail.
Hidden Elements – This contemporary, 116,000 word urban fantasy novel is pretty damn close to passing the Bechdel Test. Short of several snarky scenes between the main protagonist, Elise, and her mother Joan regarding the likelihood of Joan dating a dashing man twenty years her junior, the women in Hidden move through their dialogue without the aid of a fella. Neat!
After all of this, I come back to my original challenge to consider if a scene between two women truly needs the mention of men to be relevant or advance the plot. Anecdotally, I can say no.
Regardless of whether you agree, or you find the whole Bechdel Test a load of bunkum, I feel moderately confident that the next time you're reading a book, or watching a movie or television show, you might find yourself not just counting the number of women on screen or in the story, but mentally noting the depth of the conversations they are having.